The Naval Opportunity Necessitated By RAN Stupidity
by David Archibald
10 February 2022
When the Soviet Union fell apart, the new Russian state couldn’t afford to maintain the naval fleet they had inherited. The Russian Navy decided to keep as many of the submarines as they could and scrap most of the surface ships. You get more bang for the buck out of submarines than you do with surface ships, so submarines are important.
For some time now Australia has chosen poorly with respect to submarines. In replacing the Oberon class, in 1986 we chose the Swedish offering instead of the German one and ended up with the problematic Collins class. This was the result of a corrupt RAN officer, Rear Admiral Michael Hudson, tipping the results in favour of the Swedish submarine. He was offered a job by Saab soon after retirement but had to decline it because of the outcry.
The next choice was made in 2014 by then Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who opted for the Japanese Soryu class. Uncharacteristically for Mr Abbott, this was both a wise choice and the best possible choice. That good work was undone by the perfidious Malcolm Turnbull and suddenly we were promised French vapourware. The French farce ground on before being abandoned last year. We now have an indefinite feeling towards nuclear-powered submarines, a proposal far more formless than the French one.
The solution to the submarine problem is to go back to the Soryu class; except so many years have passed that the Japanese have progressed to their next submarine class, the Taigei class with lithium batteries. We have run out of time to build them in Adelaide. If we take them off the Japanese production lines, we might get one per year. There is plenty of other work in Australia for welders, particularly in building coal-to-liquids plants to make us self-sufficient in diesel and jet fuel.
Unveiling of new Taigei submarine in 2020
To increase the range of the Japanese submarines, we should build a fueling station in Exmouth Gulf so that our submarines can top up on their way north. That would be a far cheaper solution than having larger submarines that can carry more fuel. If there is space on the British Astute class production line or the US Virginia class production lines for Australian submarines, we should take what we are offered. Plenty of other navies are capable of operating two or more classes of submarines, so should we also be capable of doing that.
It would also help if we retired most of the Canberra-based ranks of our submarine command; they are the root cause of most of the problems of the last 30 years.
Australia also continues to make unforced errors in surface fleet acquisition. Past experience has shown that we should choose a mature design that was in the water and in service and minimize changes to it. That would reduce the risk that we would end up with a dud. So of course, in procuring a new fleet of frigates, we chose an immature design, the UK Type 26, and started making alterations to it — adding 2,000 tonnes to an 8,000 tonne design. Modelling of the new Australianised ship shows that it will be a dud. It seems that our naval leadership has a stubborn inability to learn.
The solution to our self-inflicted frigate problem is to choose the design the US Navy chose for their new frigates, which is their Constellation class based on the French-Italian FREMM design. Even so it doesn’t matter so much with surface ships. Their biggest threat is from aerial attack by subsonic and supersonic cruise missiles. The former could be defeated using belt-fed systems such as the Phalanx; with the Soviet development of supersonic cruise missiles, they had to be shot down a couple of kilometres from the vessel or otherwise the debris could still do substantial damage. This is done in the RAN by the Evolved Sea Sparrow missile (ESSM). But only a certain number are kept in vertical launch tubes per ship. When those are gone, the ship is defenceless. Reloading the vertical launch tubes requires returning to port. The ESSMs are just as expensive as the antiship cruise missiles they are fired against.
The situation on our naval ships is a bit like Israel’s choice in defeating Hamas rockets. Each Iron Dome missile costs at least US$50,000 and one each is required to shoot down missiles costing a few hundred dollars. So Israel has decided to switch to shooting down Hamas missiles with lasers. The US Navy has made progress with adapting lasers for naval use but they can’t be relied on yet.
The US Navy found that in attacking a ship with five antiship cruise missiles simultaneously, at least one would get through the defence screen, so damage will start even before the ESSM magazine is empty.
The situation the RAN has got us into is having clapped out submarines and a minuscule surface fleet. But this being the third decade of the 21st century, we don’t need surface ships to sink enemy ships. The most cost-effective way to sink Chicom shipping is to use air-launched cruise missiles, and they don’t have to be launched from military-grade aircraft. There are now 140 passenger and cargo planes parked up at Alice Springs Airport, awaiting a new life. Most of them could be adapted to launch cruise missiles. They are Australia’s bomber fleet in waiting.
Boeing in 1980 had the idea of converting 747s to carry 72 cruise missiles on rotary racks and launch them from a port on the starboard side of the aircraft:
That load of 72 missiles compares to the 90 vertical launch cells on the Arleigh Burke class destroyers. The Arleigh Burke class is priced at US$1.8 billion per ship. Once it has fired off its 90 missiles it has to return to port to reload with the whole round trip possibly taking a month. A converted airliner could conduct a sortie per day and have an effective firing rate that is more than 30 times the rate of the destroyer — for a fraction of the capital and operating costs, and manned by a crew press-ganged from the airline industry.
Having chosen the most cost-effective weapon system for delivering anti-ship cruise missiles begs the next question: which cruise missile will they fire? A couple of years ago the Federal Government came to the belated realisation that missiles are the main consumable on the modern battlefield. Australia doesn’t produce missiles of any sort and it would be far better if we did. A number of corporate entities have been created to get some of the government money on offer, such as Australian Missile Corporation. But the Department of Defence has the cart before the horse. It should first determine the battlefield requirement and then seek out the designs that fill those niches.
Four Asian countries threatened by the Chicoms make their own cruise missiles: India, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. We should make at least three of their designs under licence for different mission profiles. The sooner all this starts, the better.
David Archibald is the author of American Gripen: The Solution to the F-35 Nightmare