ACT News


Our subs are being hung out to dry

ONE OF our submarines had an embarrassing incident this week when, while at periscope depth in exercises with our allies, a hose burst in an engine room, causing a local flood, resulting in a quick surfacing, no doubt some additional mockery from our comrades in arms, and probably some wet uniforms.

The Navy's statement about the incident issued after what it described as ''some sensationalist reporting'' might almost have given the impression that nothing disturbing occurred at all: ''Standard pre-planned procedures were immediately executed and the situation was dealt with quickly. The submarine surfaced as a part of this normal response.''

I am no great specialist in submarines, though a great fan of Das Boot, but I do hope that our trouble-prone Collins Class submarines do not automatically surface when a hose bursts. If Das Boot is any guide, this happens all the time, particularly when one is at maximum danger from the enemy.

If what our Navy meant was that it always played safety first when it was not in actual wartime conditions, I expect that is a good thing, even if it can also be a good thing, from time to time, to practise getting wet. If, however, standard procedures require surfacing whenever there's a local flood, I fear for the lives of our sailors if an incident occurs, even in peacetime, while they are lying close off the Chinese coast monitoring radio communications, or practising lying doggo, in station, on the floor about five miles out of the port of Jakarta.

The incident may offset a legend which I have heard much repeated, but never with chapter and verse able to be actually checked. In this account, during an exercise decades ago, an Australian Oberon-class submarine is said to have closely tracked a US fleet for hundreds of kilometres without being detected, finally triumphantly surfacing near an aircraft carrier.

Great story if it is true, and I do not necessarily disbelieve it, but it is of a one with a number of fabulous, but very similar, martial myths, or embroidered incidents. These by no means always involve pricking the pride of foreign admirals, or swabs, or even ships. Indeed, I remember actually being a witness to something similar myself in a night army cadet exercise at Singleton army base in the mid-1970s. Several regular army officers with hurricane lamps and torches plumped their bums on a log at the top of a hill while we, starting about a kilometre away, were supposed to individually sneak up on them until some movement or noise we made caused the torch to be pointed directly at us. A good number got to within 50 metres, some as close as 20.


When the exercise was deemed over, we were paraded and it was discovered that one lad, a boy from well west of Bourke who was eccentric even by my school's standards, was missing. It was some time before he was discovered asleep inside the hollow log on which the regular officers had been sitting.

But there have been many incidents, over the years, rather like that, even I suspect for submariners. How I wish that we could give them submarines technically up to the task we ask of them, or to the danger to which we could expose them.

Yet it is worth remembering as urgers and rent seekers insist that Australia lies naked and defenceless before its limitless military enemies, whoever they might be, that more money is being sought to repeat many of the same mistakes, by people, including admirals, public servants and politicians, who show no sign of having learnt much from the mistakes they made with the Collins. It is fairly well known that at any one time only about one, sometimes two, of our six such subs are capable of being put to sea. Which is just as well given that we could not crew the rest anyway. Alas, the Trade Practices Act does not seem to apply to the Australian Submarines Corporation, which even now boasts on its website that ''the Collins Class submarines are widely regarded as the best conventional submarines in the world''.

Our Defence Department, which is widely regarded as one of the worst managers of procurements anywhere in the world, apart from the British, American, Canadian and French Defence Departments, is busily telling an eager part of the sooler doomsayer commentariat that Australia has never been so exposed to danger, so defenceless, and so little a contributor to the cause of world peace. Because of decisions taken in recent times, one or two have said, with more seeming certainty than some climate change doomsayers, that we will have ''nothing'' to defend ourselves with in 2027.

Moreover, Richard Armitage, a great American sooler and urger of vast defence expenditure by everyone, is said to have recently chided Australia publicly for not pulling our weight. Our prime minister in waiting, Tony Abbott, is said to be ''deeply concerned'' about the impact of recent, trifling, defence cuts on our national security. These cuts, if they are actually made (most are simply accountancy tricks, deferred expenditures or cancellation of wish-list items) are supposed to save about $4 billion over about four years, about equivalent in relative expenditure terms to telling the National Library to cancel its subscription to Estonian magazines.

One might not think, from reading about this, that even with these swingeing cuts Australia was spending, each year, more than Israel. Last I looked, Israel was actually surrounded by clear and present enemies.

Australian expenditure on defence exceeds by a considerable amount the combined expenditure of all of the nations within 4000 kilometres of any part of the Australia coast. Most of these neighbours are, in any event, our friends and allies. Not only that but our defence capital advantage, not least through our access to the American military satellite system and ability to see and read all of their communications, is at least $100 billion up on all of their existing defence capital combined.

Four nations - China, India, Japan and the Koreas (whether as one or two) - outspend us considerably. Indeed, they do so by so much that there is no point in trying to match them alone, without allies.

Mercifully, it is difficult to imagine having any one as an enemy without having the other three - and, probably, various other great and powerful friends - on our side. And not because we are such splendid chaps, and chapesses, or because we stood beside them in Syria, and Egypt, and France, and the Dutch East Indies, and Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, but because they would recognise that such an adventure impinged directly on their own national interests.

I face the future with all of the fortitude I can muster, inclined to think we should give China the maintenance contract on submarine hoses. Or give the ASC, those who made das boot, the boot.