Home Australia Australia’s Submarines: More Magical Thinking

Australia’s Submarines: More Magical Thinking


sub near chine

By James O’Neill*

The announcement last week that the Australian government had decided to spend more than $50 billion on purchasing a fleet of submarines added yet another surreal element to what passes for Australia’s foreign policy in the 21st century.

Very few relevant details of the contract have been released.  That at least some of the construction will occur in South and Western Australia owes more to the government’s political imperatives in those States than it does to economic sense.  Some opinion suggests that the final cost of each submarine may be as much as one third extra because of the decision to divide construction between France and as many as three widely separated geographical locations in Australia.  The Defence Minister Marise Payne has tacitly admitted as much.

The French media have treated the decision as a triumph for France, but the jubilation seems misplaced if in fact all that the French are providing is the design and the technology, both of which already exists in French submarines.  Quite where their financial bonanza lies is therefore unclear, unless of course a significant part of the construction will take place in France.  That is a detail unlikely to be released this side of the likely July election.

But there are more serious issues that need to be addressed than Coalition seat-saving initiatives that the local media have tended to focus upon.

The first question is, what is the military point of this vast expenditure?  The government’s carefully orchestrated announcement extolling job creation or preservation, technology, local industrial development etc., avoided any discussion about what the point of the purchase was.

The same benefits for example, could be achieved with alternative infrastructure expenditure, for example in health, education and technological investments without the follies attendant upon the submarine policy.

The clue to the government’s thinking in this matter (to use a generous adjective) is found in the recent Defence White Paper 2016, itself a mishmash of poorly thought through polices. (1)  The White Paper clearly implied that the “threat” we need to protect ourselves from is China.

That cannot be said too loudly and clearly of course, when the same China is also the main source of Australia’s prosperity over the past four decades.  And despite doing its best to annoy the Chinese, including ill-considered forays into the South China Sea arguments (2) and the recent refusal to allow a land purchase deal by Chinese interests to proceed, Australia clearly hopes that China will continue to be a major source of wealth generation for Australia.

The first submarine delivery will not occur before 2030.  If the Australian military planners believe that the geopolitical world in general and the Asian component in particular will not be radically different in 2030 than what it is now, they are in serious need of a strategic rethink.

How will Australia counter this presumed threat?  Some of the more fanciful mainstream media writers seem to think that in the event of an outbreak of hostilities, (for which they offer no plausible scenario) one of these Australian submarines will sail undetected into the South China Sea and fire off some missiles at the Chinese mainland.

Even if such a fantastical scenario were remotely plausible, with or without our most dangerous ally, do the military planners seriously believe that the Chinese will not respond?  When they respond, as they most assuredly will, it will not be with a repeat of Japan’s quixotic foray into Sydney Harbour in World War 2.  The response will come in the form of hypersonic ICBMs with multiple independently targeted warheads.

The recently tested Chinese Dongfeng-41 ICBM has a range of 12,000km, which it covers in less than 30 minutes.  Each missile carries between 6 and 10 nuclear warheads.  That is more than enough to eliminate Pine Gap, HMAS Stirling, and all the mainland capital cities.  Australia’s participation in such a foolhardy war exercise would be over in less than an hour.

If attacking China is such a suicidal option, what are the alternative uses for these expensive pieces of hardware?  It is difficult to conceive of a single point that does not collapse under the weight of its own absurdities and inherent contradictions.

What is really missing from the government’s policy announcements and the media commentary thereon, is a serious consideration of real policy alternatives.  That does not preclude making proper provision for Australia’s defence.  The debate should be about the most appropriate form and policy objectives of such a defence strategy.

But making such provision would include recognition that one is least likely to be attacked by one’s friends than by one’s enemies.  Australia has no real enemies in our region, although our arrogant and ham-fisted treatment of our neighbours, from tiny East Timor to super power China is the antithesis of Dale Carnegie’s sage advice about winning friends and influencing people.

A rational Australian defence and foreign policy would also be one that divested itself from involvement in the endless, self-serving, and devastating wars of others, particularly when no national interest of Australia is at stake.  Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria are only some of the more recent examples.

To formulate such policies however, would require a rejection of the old certainties that places Anglo-American ideologies front and centre of our strategic thinking.  It would also require an acknowledgment of the fundamental realignments taking place in Eurasia.

Australia has a fundamental choice to make.

Are we to be part of this exciting new Eurasian based world manifest in the New Silk Roads developments and to benefit therefrom, or do we slide into the irrelevant periphery that Halford Mackinder forecast more than a century ago? (3) The time available for making such a choice is rapidly running out.

The submarine decision demonstrates very clearly our thinking is still mired in a world that is passing and all the magical thinking inherent in the government’s statements does not detract from that central reality.

*Barrister at Law.  He may be contacted at joneill@qldbar.asn.au


  1. The Defence White Paper: A Missed Opportunity. independentaustralia.net  10 March 2016
  1. What is Really Happening in the South China Sea journal-neo.org 26 April 2016
  1. Halford Mackinder The Geographical Pivot of History. Address to the Royal Society of London, 1904.


Adapted photo: Freeworldmaps & eandt.theiet.org


  1. what the point of the purchase was.
    Exactly! The recent announcement also of a 385mil purchase of American bombs, would be another question- Questions that MSM never ask!!
    Who do you vote for in the upcoming Elections – None of them!

      • Ned, I went to Youtube and found that the word ‘dog’ gets views.
        Here is one that was uploaded less than 48 hours ago and has received 350,000 hits (and it doesn’t even have a dog in it, but it has a fantastic salesman). My little video on Damian Bugg has had only 150 hits in 2 weeks. I need to join the Dog Party!!!

        • Mary? You have a new video about Damien Bugg? How did I miss that??? How is that circulated, if at all?

          I’ll get you to 152, post haste. 153 if we’re lucky!

  2. we bought lee balloons and called them collins class submarines. Now we are buying Lead frogs and will call them submarines.Inatime of war they will CROAK.

  3. I have not studied the cost overruns, but common sense would tell us there be a big joke here.

    I do remember a “scandal” of the Pentagon paying airplane manufacturers $700 per ashtray. That was in the days when we
    smoked on planes.

  4. Speaking of Military Magic – I am reminded of the construction (sic) of the most extraordinary JSFs (Joint Strike Fighters). This is a MUST read / listen …


    It begins as follows …

    “Sarah Dingle: Hi, I’m Sarah Dingle. And have I got a deal for you, Australia.

    I’m going to sell you a plane which can do things you can’t even fully describe. In fact, no one can, because it’s just an untested idea on paper. 14 years later, and you still don’t have a plane, but the price tag has more than doubled. And in fact the cost could keep rising. At the end of the day, you’ll pay whatever I ask.”

    and sounds more and more like a Monty Python skit the further it goes …

    “Sarah Dingle: So how many of those 58 approved for purchase in 2014 are currently in production?
    Christopher Bogdan: [whispering] I would tell you that there’s probably somewhere between 0 and 16.
    Chris Deeble: Yeah, it’d be somewhere between zero and 16 as General Bogdan’s comment, and again we do track them down the production line but again, I can’t give you a definitive answer, you know, on exactly where they are.
    Sarah Dingle: Thank you Air Vice Marshal. So you don’t know how many of those 58 aircraft are currently in production?
    Christopher Bogdan: [whispering] No more than 16…
    Chris Deeble: No more than 16 aircraft.
    Sarah Dingle: But you’re not sure how many?
    Christopher Bogdan: [Whispering]
    Chris Deeble: We will get you the answer specifically about that. We’ll take that on notice.
    Sarah Dingle: So the answer is somewhere between zero and 16. Either none, or some.
    At the end of the press conference, Air Vice Marshal Deeble said eight might be beginning production soon.”

  5. What are Syrians doing in Europe ? Syrians should be living in Syria. We have absolutely no reason to be bombing in the middle east. But we are , and the tragedy is that we the people have no influence on the policies implemented by the law above order (that is disorder and chaos). Our votes mean nothing. I am 57, in all elections bar one, voting has been with pencils. When I voted with a pen was told it was informal vote. wtf…… that is our reality in your face, yet through debt at interest , we finance their constant wars of destruction. Gandhi gained independence for India by non compliance. We are stronger than they think we are because we are the 99%.

    • Why are Syrians in Europe?
      Because prior to the 911 offficial government conspiracy charade and after commencemnt of mass killing in Afghanistan, Syria was second on the criminal NEOCON’s murder list:

      The list of targets included also by the Howard government and subsequent dupes supported by Australias’ baying MSMs and shock jocks.
      Can’t wait for them to get underway against their planned 7th target………………..be a breeze!

C'mon Leave a Reply, Debate and Add to the Discussion