Collins Class Mark II? Subs yes, but why Adelaide?

STONE the Crows, we’re in strife if Chinese Intel read the budget papers, particularly the bit announcing the mothballing of “some” Abrams armour. [i]

Whatever will we do if a PLA armoured corps appears overnight on the Darling Downs?

Surrender. Because if they ever arrived, without us knowing, the war would be over before it started. And if we were aware they were on the way, but could not stop them, it would be because we lacked the aircraft and submarines.

The budget decision to take tanks out of the line, like the commitment to build submarines in Adelaide, says a lot about the way defence decisions are made. Why Adelaide and why armour at all?

The budget decision to delay the first two tranches of F35 Joint Strike Fighters is a different issue. It saves money but is based on manufacturing delays in delivery. As David Watt puts it, it is a “straightforward recognition of reality with obvious benefits to the budget bottom line”.[ii]

The Crows are convinced that we need a new multi-purpose fighter and it seems the F-35 is the best we can do.[iii] However, why we bought the Abrams, and the context created to decide which sub will replace the Collins class, is less easily explained.

The original Abrams deal involved us buying 59 refurbished US M1A1 battle tanks for $549million. [iv] But to do what?

The Abrams is kit from another age, when armoured battles against the Soviets on the north German plain or the Iranians or Iraqis were real possibilities. The former risk ended when the evil empire abolished itself. And the Abrams encountered no effective opposition in Gulf Wars I and II. [v]

The Crows have always wondered what tanks do that helicopters can’t. When we bought the Abrams, its advocates avoided the obsolescence argument by suggesting that Australian armour proved its worth in WWII jungle fighting and Vietnam. They added that heavy armour protects infantry in urban warfare and intimidates irregular opponents – “a column of Abrams tanks rolling down the main street of a battered South Pacific capital city would prove very persuasive in most circumstances.” [vi]

Good-oh, except the first example is long gone and unlikely to return and the second advocates over-kill. It did not take armour to impress island brigands that it is unwise to annoy Australia.

This is not to deny that, in the best of all possible operational theatres, armour is worth having, if only to keep quiet generals who believe real armies have tanks.

But did we need them more than other kit we didn’t buy instead, or only purchased in reduced numbers?

It’s a question to consider as the ADF works out how to cope with last Tuesday’s budget cuts while contemplating the two largest acquisitions in its history – replacements for the Collins class of submarines and the joint strike fighter.

Unlike the optional Abrams, the functions both future fighters and submarines will fill are fundamental to national defence.

The Abrams was bought to serve in an expeditionary force or for amazingly expensive gendarmerie operations, but the subs and aircraft are essential to defend continental Australia. Bemoaning budget cuts is all very well – the discussion that matters is how we can, or not, fulfil the functions they are meant for with what we can afford.

And that means more than just arguing over whether delivery dates can be stretched and purchases reduced on the one hand or demanding the government spend whatever it takes to give the service chiefs everything they say is essential. [vii]

Because planners have a long tradition of buying the wrong kit.

The Crows are well out of date on scholarship of the fall of France in 1940 but the last time they looked there was general agreement that the French had ample armour but their tanks were built and deployed to support infantry. It was doctrine not numbers or quality that gave the Germans an unanswerable advantage.[viii]

Similarly, while the British had been building aircraft furiously for five years by 1939, many of them just weren’t much good. The RAF built 2,200 Fairey Battles, all but obsolete when it entered production in 1936, on the general assumption it was better to build any tactical bomber than no bomber at all.[ix]

Which is the risk we run with the Collins replacement. Unlike the Abrams, there is an essential and universally understood role for the new subs. As the 2009 White Paper puts it:

Our future strategic circumstances necessitate a substantially expanded submarine fleet of 12 boats in order to sustain a force at sea large enough in a crisis or conflict to be able to defend our approaches … a larger submarine force would significantly increase the military planning challenges faced by any adversaries, and increase the size and capabilities of the force they would have to be prepared to commit to attack us directly, or coerce, intimidate or otherwise employ military power against us. [x]

Good-oh, but what boat do we need to do it? The various arguments were well canvassed in a debate on the op-ed pages of The Australian in January 2012.[xi]

The Crows don’t have a clue but they do wonder whether service and national politics will end up shaping the decision rather than where we can create the best boat for the least loot. And this is where we have our Fairey Battle moment.

The government allocated $214mn in the budget to decide on a design of the next submarine. [xii] But whichever is adopted it must be “assembled”, as the Prime Minister puts it, in Adelaide. Even if the decision is to go for “an entirely new developmental submarine,” which sort of sounds like it involves more than using an Allen Key to create the Ikea class, Adelaide is the go. [xiii]

As local MP and Labor minister Mark Butler says, “next stage of subs project is great for local jobs.” [xiv]

Which does not sound much of a reason to go for a design that Adelaide has, or can, acquire the capacity to build. And constructing the Collins is hardly a badge of honour.

Buying Abrams tanks we can put up on blocks is one thing, but when the national defence, and $40bn, are involved there is no room for decisions that are not entirely transparent.[xv]


[i] Defence Portfolio Budget Statements 2012-2013, 38 @  While DoD is silent on the number as far as the Crows could find, head of army Lt General David Morrison wrote on May 10 some 15 Abrams are being mothballed recovered on May 12.

[ii] David Watt, “Joint Strike Fighter,” Parliament of Australia, Parliamentary Library, Budget Review 2012-13 @ recovered on May 12

[iii] Stone the Crows 85, August 1 2011 @ recovered on May 12

[iv] Geoffrey Barker, “Budget must cover the some of all fears,” The Australian Financial Review, October 5 2008

[v] FAS Military Analysis Network, “M1Abrams main battle tank,” @ recovered on May 12

[vi] Geoffrey Barker, “Army decision just right,” The Australian Financial Review, August 28 2006

[vii] Greg Sheridan, “Our forces reduced to impotence,” The Australian, May 12

[viii] Alistair Horne, To lose a battle (1969). Julian Jackson, The fall of France (2003) makes the same case by focusing on French doctrinal apathy and defeatism

[ix] Royal Air Force, “Fairey Battle,”  @ recovered on May 12

[x] Australian Government, Department of Defence, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific century: Force 2030 (2009) 64 @ recovered on May 12

[xi] Henry Ergas, “Collins sham points to enemy within,” The Australian, January 13, Ross Babbage, “We’ll be sunk if we don’t choose the best submarine,” The Australian, January 17, Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin-Smith, “We need submarines not subservience to the US,” The Australian, January 19, Steve Ludlam, “We should build on our 30-year submarine expertise,” The Australian, January 26

[xii] Stephen Smith, “Budget 2012-13 Defence capability, @ recovered on May 12

[xiii] Prime Minister, “Next stage of future submarine project announced,” May 3 @ recovered on May 12

[xiv] Mark Butler, “Next stage of future subs project is great for local jobs,” @ recovered on May 12

[xv] Ben Packham, “Labor launches $40bn submarine project,” The Australian, May 3