The Morrison Administration Changes Course on Attack Submarines: Some Concluding Thoughts, September 2021

By Robbin Laird

The Morrison Administration made a strategic decision to change course with regard to their procurement of new attack submarines. That decision was in line with ADF thinking with regard to the need for the force to have longer range strike capability to deal with the changing threats in the Indo-Pacific region.

This decision has sent ripple effects into the Australian alliance structure, ripple effects which need to be worked through in the coming months.

The first ripple effect is with regard to President XI and his Administration.

Is he really the leader of life?  His performance over the past three years leaves much to be desired from a Chinese national interest point of view, as well as the Chinese Communist point of view and the two are clearly not the same.

What he done is significantly worsened the Chinese situation. By unleashing the global pandemic, inadvertently or not, and doing whatever the opposite of full transparency is, he has highlighted that his regime is one of information war, not responsible global engagement.

The impacts of his regime’s behavior towards the liberal democratic states over the past few years has been to work to undermine those states and their values. It has been about conducting political warfare against them. This coupled with the decisive effect which the pandemic has unleashed has significantly disrupted the kind of globalization which has benefited the growth of Chinese economic power and political influence.

In part to cover their failures, the Chinese regime engages in a very active policy of information warfare to drive wedges where possible within and among the liberal democratic states And is statesmanship is not generated in the next few months by the leaders of these liberal democracies, then the Chinese will clearly have enhanced possibilities for success in this part of their global policy.

In Australia, the recognition of political warfare against Australia has become firmly grasped. This plus the pandemic has led to a significant focus on how to build reliable and secure supply chains for the island continent.

The second ripple effect is with regard to the United Kingdom and its evolving role with Australia and the “five eyes” countries.

Global Britain is a reach at best.  The role of the Royal Navy is significant but generated in large part due to its relationship to the U.S. Navy. And the newest British nuclear attack submarine has been built with very significant U.S. manufacturing assistance as well.

As a RAND report published in 2011 highlighted:

“In 2003, the MOD solicited the help of General Dynamics Electric Boat through a foreign military sales agreement with the United States. Approximately 100 experienced Electric Boat designers and managers about a dozen of them on-site at the Barrow shipyard and the rest back in the United States—began to interact with BAE Systems and help with the design effort.

“The Electric Boat designers helped set up the design tool and processes at the prime contractor and started to develop the detailed drawings necessary for construction through a secure data link between Barrow and Groton.

“Electric Boat also began to transfer production knowledge to the shipyard. It passed along modular construction techniques that it had developed for the Ohio and Virginia classes, including the advanced outfitting of the submarine rings using a vertical method rather than the traditional horizontal process.

“It helped develop an integrated master plan through a separate contract with the MOD’s integrated project team, which further developed the earned value management system being used to track program progress. Eventually, an Electric Boat employee was assigned as the Astute Project Director with BAE Systems at the Barrow shipyard responsible for all aspects of delivery.

“Through the interactions with Electric Boat, the growing expertise of the prime contractor, and the increased involvement of MOD, the design portion of the Astute program started to make progress.”

The template shaped for Astute between the UK and the U.S. Navy is clearly a solid starting point for any Australian-build process going forward. Perhaps without it, no deal would have been reached.

The third ripple effect is with regard to the evolving ADF working relationship with the United States military as well as with other core allies in the region.

In effect, the U.S. Navy, Japan and Australia are working through new ways to deliver ASW or USW capabilities. This means that Japan along with Australia are key players in how the U.S. Navy reworks with its allies an Indo-Pacific approach to ASW or USW in an advanced kill web or team sport approach.

When Ed Timperlake and I visited Norfolk earlier this year, we had a chance to talk with the 2nd sub group commander who described the evolving approach quite well. This is clearly an approach being shaped in the Indo-Pac region as well.

We went back discussions with the Rear Admiral then in charge of the Maritime Patrol Reconnaissance Aircraft and then linked that with what Rear Admiral Jim Waters, Commander Submarine Group Two (SUBGRU2) told us.

As Rear Admiral Garvin, then the MPRA commander, put it last year; “In effect, we are shaping kill web “matesmanship.” Our policy frameworks simply need to catch up with our technologies. Our allies understand the fundamental nature of their region better than we do. If you have properly maintained these important working relationships, both interpersonal and technological, then you will have access to the cultural knowledge and human geography that might otherwise would not be available to you.

“We clearly have closer relationships with some allies than with others, which shapes policy and data sharing. However, the technology is now out there which can allow us, within the right policy framework, to provide data at appropriate security levels much more rapidly than in the past. Those partnerships need to be nurtured and exercised now to help shape our interactive webs into a truly effective strike force over the extended battlespace.”

“Rear Admiral Waters certainly reinforced this point, as in the Atlantic, we have a number of key partners who work ASW and anti-surface warfare as a core competence for their national navies, and their domain knowledge is a key part of the equation in shaping enhanced warfighting capabilities and re-enforcing deterrence. “Because of the complexity of the underwater domain, it is necessarily a team sport. There are people that would love to say, “It’s the submarines. And they do ASW and that’s what they do.”

“And certainly, it’s a major mission for the submarine force. But the threat is so complex, and the environment is so challenging, that you can’t rely on one particular platform to do this mission. We as a navy have evolved a very robust structure of training and assessing and preparing and innovating.

“We’re really good at carrier-centric integration. But our ability to integrate a non-carrier-centric force, like a theater undersea warfare task force, needs to be enhanced. And that was what Black Widow ( a 2020 USW exercise in the Atlantic) represented. We operated as a fleet or a task force to deliver the desired combat effect.”

The final ripple effect which I will discuss in this article is with regard to Europe and its place in the world, and evolving perceptions within Europe with regard to strategic reality.

To some extent, the reactions among some European commentators remind me of my time in Europe in the 1980s during the Euro-Missile crisis.  The Soviet Union was deploying new intermediate range nuclear missiles clearly designed against theater targets which enhanced their capability to decouple Western Europe from the United States. The Reagan Administration generated a two track approach – of negotiation to get rid of those missiles while deploying new missiles in Europe targeting Soviet military targets.

During the 1980s, European critics considered this an unwarranted nuclear escalation by the United States. Authoritarian powers are very good at ratcheting up threats and then characterizing any response of the liberal democracies to those threats as “escalation.”

And the Communist leadership of China has certainly done this with regard to the Australian decision, despite the fact that a nuclear attack submarine force is really a defensive move, clearly protecting Australia from the buildup of Chinese military power and after the Chinese directly threatened Australia with long range strikes.

That is not surprising, but the logic is clear: if you respond to our intimidation you are escalating the crisis.  The problem is that a number of European commentators have echoed this calling this a new cold war in the Indo-Pacific region, far from them, and criticizing the Australians for making such a move.

And at the same time, recent public opinion polling in Europe clearly indicates that for most Europeans, the conflict between China and Australia or between China and the United States is not really about them.

As Eszter Zalan wrote in the EUObserver:  “Most Europeans think that there is a new Cold War unfolding between  the US and its rivals, Russia and China – but do not think their own  country is involved, a new polling-backed report by the European Council  on Foreign Relations (ECFR) has found.

“The report, published on Wednesday (22 September) and based on  polling 12 EU countries, also shows that Europeans consider EU  institutions to be more likely than their own governments to be in a  Cold War with China and Russia alongside Washington.

“The report warns that it could also be explained with a  growing gulf between European public opinion and the US, as well as  between national approaches and the more hawkish position of the EU’s  political leadership in Brussels.

“If this new polling has captured a lasting trend, it reveals that  European public is not ready to see the growing tensions with China and  Russia as a new Cold war,” Ivan Krastev, co-author of the report, and  chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies said.

“So far, it is only European institutions rather than European  publics that are ready to see the world of tomorrow as a growing system  of competition between democracy and authoritarianism,” he added.”

President Macron certainly has been a European leader who gets the challenge. The way the Australian deal and the U.S. and UK leaders handled the deal did him no favors.

This is why in my view, I think it behooves leaders in the three states to sort through how to better handle the situation and find ways to do better than the Boris Johnson approach. This is best summed up by the PM himself: “it was time for “some of our dearest friends” to “prenez un grip”.

It is also important to do so for another significant reason, namely India and its way ahead with regard to submarines within its overall strategic approach to its defense.

Remember that other aspiring club, “the Quad.” Well the Biden Administration did no favors to India by leaving behind billions of dollars of equipment which the Taliban can share with the strategic partner Pakistan. This point certainly has not been missed by the Indians.

The Quad might change to a Pentagon as the French and the Indians could reshape the Indian submarine force either with an application of a longer range conventionally powered submarine leveraging the work with Australia or more dramatically work a nuclear submarine deal with India.

The Indian government recently put out a tender for additional submarines, but given the impact of the Australian submarine decision, perhaps a real Pentagon in the Indo-Pacific can be worked under water, so to speak. 

The French could displace the Russians in this regard. Given Russia’s de facto alliance with China, such a shift might great strategic sense of India. Russia no longer can claim to be able to support Indian autonomy when it is becoming a close partner with China in trying to make the world safe for the authoritarian powers.

In short, the Australian strategic decision on attack submarines is an inflection point at which global dynamics might move in very different directions. It does not cause global change but it clearly is an accelerator to change in terms of the competition between the liberal democracies and the 21st century authoritarian states.

But these events added to other recent events should put to rest the persistent forecasters of 2030 and the appropriate force structure for 2030 or 2040 in the defense of the interests of the liberal democracies.

In 2019, how many people projected a global pandemic and its crushing impact on globalization.

In 2021, how many anticipated the Biden Administration Blitzkrieg withdrawal “strategy” and its unfolding impact on allies and adversaries alike, not the least of which its impact on the United States and its military.

In July 2021, how many were forecasting an Australian nuclear attack submarine decision in September of this year.

All of this should lead to modesty with regard our confidence in accurately projecting the future of conflict in the region or of the optimal force design to deliver the desired crisis management and combat effects.

The featured photo is of Boris Johnson during his most recent visit to Washington. And the source for the photo is as following:à-paris-de-se-ressaisir/ar-AAOHJo8

This is the fourth and final piece in my four part series with regard to the initial decision by the Australian government to transition to a nuclear attack submarine and jettison the French co-designed conventional attack submarine.

For the first three articles, see the following:

The Australian Submarine Decision and Shaping a Way Ahead for the ADF

The Australian Strategic Decision: Moving from Conventional to Nuclear Attack Submarines