The bubbles shone and the wine sparkled. The buzz from last week's International Maritime Exposition in Sydney was so loud, you could almost hear it in Canberra.
That's because everyone was attempting to navigate their way through managing to spend the massive allocation the government is providing for new vessels. There's plenty to celebrate - not least an open government chequebook, dedicated to keeping the shipbuilding industry open at almost any cost.
I shouldn't have bothered with the redundant qualifier...
That's not quite fair. An upper limit has been set, but it's in "constant dollars", so it won't shrink. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute says $60 billion allocated to submarines has now spiralled up to $79 billion, while another $35 billion will be needed for the future frigates ($5 billion more than originally announced).
With a budget like, that why wouldn't you treat yourself to the odd bit of indulgence...
Financial issues will, eventually, break the government's finely crafted plans to buy 21 vessels. But pause, turn your sonar on, and examine why the submarine project in particular represents such a terrible way to spend defence dollars. Look at what the submarine does so terrifically today; then work out if it will still be able to achieve the same effect in 2035 when the first commissioned boat sinks under the water.
The key is to understand what we're getting. A dozen subs is meant to buy deterrence but the expense is so huge it will completely unbalance the force. Crucially, there's absolutely no guarantee the vessels won't be technically irrelevant by the time they're built, put out of operation by fleets of smaller, remotely operated underwater vessels on "seek and destroy" missions.
Let's begin with the biggest problem: the laws of physics. They aren't going to change, and this limits the submarines. Technology, however, is advancing, and that advantages their threats.
In February 2003, the Collins class sub HMAS Dechaineux was diving at the deepest permissible depth. Suddenly, a seawater hose burst because of the intense pressure. Water sprayed into the lower engine room and began flooding the vessel. Within seconds it was unbalanced and going down. At such a depth, even if the leak could be staunched, the danger was that water could never be expelled. Dechaineux was within seconds of being unable to return to the surface. Working frantically, the crew stopped the seawater pulsing in. Just. But the cause of the fault was never found. Since then, the boats have never been allowed to return to such depths.
Operating underwater means living with death every moment. Water pressure increases by one atmosphere for every 10 metres you descend. Operate at 600 metres and the pressure on the thin plates keeping the bubble of air beneath the waves is 60 times that on the surface. The bigger the sub, the greater the pressure. That's a good reason to make it small and circular, but then you can't fit in the necessary equipment or achieve speed. The smaller the sub the less it can do. At some point designers make a trade-off between operational capability and underwater capacity. This lies at the heart of our current problems.
We want the impossible: a vessel that will do everything. It won't. We're hoping for a technical breakthrough. Other advances are arriving first.
One of the biggest limitations of the sub is its propulsion system. The Submarine Institute of Australia recently held a conference in Canberra including a significant contribution on the need to consider nuclear-powered vessels. These have the huge advantage of not needing to come up for air, exposing the submarines to observation and destruction.
Now the SIA is a group of very intelligent and nice officers and experts who sent me a marvellous Christmas card last year, so I'm certainly not going to impugn their professionalism. Their problem is they're not listening to the words they're hearing. Both sides of politics have utterly rejected the idea of getting a nuclear boat. It's not on, and no amount of so-called rational discussion is going to change that. Forget it, you're wasting time and effort, so don't go there. We are stuck with the limitations of battery power.
Naval Group (it's French, and pronounced navaal) is building the vessels and it's committed to (already) out-of-date heavy-metal batteries rather than lithium-ion. That, however, is just the beginning of the problems. To ensure they can run deep, the new submarines will only be able to fire weapons the size of the torpedo tubes. This ignores the wonderful development work companies like SAAB are doing on bigger, autonomous underwater vessels that can operate forward of the fleet providing the sort of wonderful capabilities we need.
Full of hope, we're still pretending the new submarine will be able to do all the things we want it to. It won't. Fleets of smaller, remote controlled underwater vessels will 'ping' and destroy the vulnerable boats the minute they enter the operational areas they need to work it. Critical elements of base infrastructure will be destroyed by missiles, leaving them beached like whales.
And the coup de grâce: Two weeks ago the Chinese claimed to have developed a laser capable of splitting blue and green: submarines can now be detected underwater. No wonder people are sculling champagne quickly - it might run out at any moment.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.