Is our $368 billion splash suboptimal? I did a deep dive with a navy commander

Commodore (Ret) Peter Scott, CSC served in 10 submarines and became Director General Submarines in Navy Strategic Command, before retiring in 2017. His new book, I spoke to him on Friday morning.

Fitz: Commodore, we will get to this week’s staggering news on submarines shortly. But first let’s establish your impeccable pedigree to make expert comment.

Peter FitzSimons reporting for duty with Retired Commodore Peter Scott.

Commodore Scott: I spent 34 years in Navy serving in 10 submarines, conducting numerous special operations, and commanded two of them: and , before becoming Director General Submarines in Navy Strategic Command.

Fitz: It’s a very impressive title. What does it mean?

Commodore Scott: It means I was the senior submariner in Navy headquarters advising the Chief of Navy on strategic submarine policy and making resource decisions.

Fitz: And you’re now retired, apart from being in the reserve, so can speak without fear or favour, while not speaking remotely on behalf of the Navy. So, we can get to question. Commodore … $368 billion to be buying five American Virginia-class nuclear submarines in the short-term, before beginning to build eight AUKUS-class nuclear subs, with the first to be launched by 2042. Can it possibly be worth it?

Virginia-class submarines can travel more than 1000km in 24 hours.

US Defense

Commodore Scott: Yes. Every time Australia sends a submarine to sea it puts a deliberate question mark in the minds of the commanders of the region’s navies and in the minds of the political masters of our region. With a nuclear subs’ ability to operate over vast ranges and extended periods, they have the ability to throw a lethal punch when they need to – and this gives them credibility as a deterrent or as a combatant. It makes an immediate impact on the calculus of others. That’s where the real value of our submarines lies. It’s in the doubt that it creates in the minds of others.

Fitz: And yet, while basically, for the first eight decades after Federation, Australia had a strategy of “forward defence” – building armed forces that could project power to faraway places like Gallipoli, the Western Front and Tobruk – the Hawke government of the 1980s restructured it all so that the primary focus of Australian defence was to defend our own shores. The expenditure on these nuclear subs seems like a return to forward defence, of having a foreign policy of racking up frequent fighter points alongside Great Britain and the USA, fighting in wars beside them so that if we get into trouble we can cash in our points and they’ll come and fight with us. Is that a fair enough summation?

Commodore Scott: Firstly, our submarines have always operated at extended ranges from Australia, in strategically significant waters. So, there is no change there. And there are a couple of reasons why we’re working with the US and the Brits on this. They are strategic allies for us and they have similar national values. And they have the capabilities that we need. So there’s probably a pretty unique situation here, where we can combine not only the political intent, but also the industrial capability of three nations to really strengthen the undersea capabilities of all of us.

Fitz: But $368 billion! Were you shocked by that price tag?

Commodore Scott: I expected something of that order. We’re not buying a couple of new station wagons. We are taking Australia from a position where it is not a nuclear-power-capable nation to a position where it is a nuclear-power-capable nation. And the avenue for that vehicle, yes, is our submarine capability. It is a massive leap.

Fitz: And yet, former diplomat David Livingstone wrote in the this week that by the time our subs are ready to go they’ll already be obsolete, that Unmanned Underwater Vehicles will take over, and other very sophisticated weaponry will be able to blow crewed subs of the water.

Commodore Scott: When I joined submarines 35 years ago, Peter, I was told that the oceans were going to become transparent and so submarines would be obsolete. The fundamental fact is that remaining undetected beneath the surface of the ocean continues to be far easier than remaining undetected on the surface of the ocean or above it. So yes, all of those areas are being advanced. Absolutely. China is working very hard on technologies like that. And I expect they will be deploying them into, you know, the South East Asian region. So, is it becoming harder? Yes. Does that mean that the relative value of the capabilities is diminished? I don’t think so. Not relative to anything else that you can do in the oceans.

Fitz: But if, Commodore, we’re now pressing the button on $368 billion worth of expenditure on crewed submarines, including some being ready in 2042, surely, prima facie, that’s a bit odd when, as you acknowledge, un-crewed submarines are coming down the line fairly fast?

Commodore Scott: It would be about the effective combined use of those capabilities. So, I know from being out at sea and deployed on operations, that being on location, to see and hear and understand what’s happening around you has its own tremendous inherent value that you cannot replace with uncrewed craft.

Fitz: Meanwhile, Paul Keating has basically said this is the worst decision since forever, that it is a disgrace and that the Albanese government should get nicked. He is a former prime minister who always had a great strategic vision for Australia in Asia, and for Australia being independent. What do you make of his criticism?

Commodore Scott: I disagree. I think it gives us the capability that we need for the defence of the nation into the future. I think the pathway that has been described of how we’re going to get there is clear. I think it’s achievable. And I think that the acquisition of a nuclear submarine capability for the Australian Navy matches our strategic demand.

Fitz: In your new book, , you write about how excited you were to first hear that the Morrison government had torn up the agreement with the French, and were joining the US and the UK in a new alliance to “acquire at least eight nuclear-powered submarines through an enhanced trilateral security partnership, named AUKUS…”

Fitz: Well, we’ve now had two governments who’ve taken that view, because the Morrison government first led us down this path, and that has been followed by the Albanese government. Just how dangerous are the waters that Australia is sailing in, to have two successive governments take such radical action?

Commodore Scott: Well, over the last 20 years the navies of India, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Japan, Korea and, importantly, China, have all modernised and expanded their submarine fleets, and that is all since we stopped building Collins Class subs. So, every major regional Navy in the Indo-Pacific has modernised or expanded their submarine fleet in the last 20 years, while we have not. If there’s an undersea arms race in the Indo-Pacific, we are not leading it. And moving in this direction on the nuclear-powered submarines is what will bring us back on to something like a level pegging with some of those navies.

Fitz: But what of regional danger? You will note that the this week has run a series which has attracted a lot of comments, saying that war with China is possible within three years. What do you make of that?

Commodore Scott: I think it’s probably a fair and reasonable assessment. As to where nuclear submarines come in, I do not pretend to know where the threats to our national security might come from in the next 10 or 20 or 30 years. But I do believe that a nation equipped with a nuclear-powered submarine capability in that time, will be better placed to face whatever threats do come down the line. So in the next five years, it might be China and Taiwan. Maybe we’ll get involved, maybe we won’t. But five years after that, what will the threat to our national security be? Where will it come from? I don’t know. But I do see investment in this capability as a sage investment in our future national security and, therefore, prosperity.

Fitz: Let me give you a burst of what the satirist Mark Humphries put on ABC on Thursday evening, pretending to be a Navy Commodore like you: “One thing you can be sure of, when Australia says we’re going to build some submarines, we it … except for the 12 submarines we proposed building in the 2009 Defence White Paper … and the Japanese submarines we planned to buy back in 2014 … and the French submarines we agreed to buy back in 2016. We are basically Julia Roberts in if all the grooms were submarine contracts … but this time we mean it.” Harsh but fair?

Commodore Scott: That’s a really good question. The political rhetoric over the last 20 years on submarines has run pretty bloody hollow because there’s been no shortage of announcements and decisions, but they haven’t been followed by a single [extra] submarine for the Navy. Follow-through on this decision is absolutely critical. But as a decision on its own, and you know, particularly as a trilateral decision, it’s got a lot of strength and a lot of weight. It says: “We value our sovereignty, we value our independence, and this is how much we’re willing to invest to make sure that we can protect it.” Personally and professionally, that absence of action on all those decisions has just ground me down over the last 20 years. But what’s different now is the strategic environment. I think Australians can see not only the opportunities that China provides, but also the threat that it might pose.

Fitz: In sum?

Commodore Scott: Every time a submarine goes to sea, it causes a shift in the calculus of regional political and military leaders. Nuclear subs have the stealth, range, endurance and the potency to operate as a deterrent or as an exceedingly capable, offensive platform. And they can shape the geostrategic environment of our region.

Fitz: But Commodore, did I mention? $368 billion?! Jesus wept!

Commodore Scott: “Yep, it’s a lot of money.”

Fitz: But in your view, worth it?

Commodore Scott: Every cent!

Quote of the week

“If anyone in this theatre commits an act of violence at any point during the show, you will be awarded the Oscar for Best Actor and permitted to give a 19-minute long speech … If anything unpredictable or violent happens during this ceremony, just do what you did last year: nothing.” – Jimmy Kimmel

Joke of the week

A poodle and a collie are walking together when the poodle suddenly unloads on his friend. “My life is a mess,” he says. “My owner is mean, my girlfriend ran away with a Schnauzer, and I’m as jittery as a cat.”

“Why don’t you go see a psychiatrist?” suggests the collie.

“I can’t,” says the poodle. “I’m not allowed on the couch.”

Twitter: @Peter_Fitz

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