In a very competitive field Defence stands out as the policy area most plagued by misinformation and plain nonsense in public debate. Once all that is cleared away big cost savings become clear.
The new submarine contract is causing most excitement at the moment.
Everyone is thrilled that the submarines are going to be built in Adelaide and the steel requirement could save the Australian steel industry. The Government is soon to award the contract to one of three bidders, so tension is building.
Except all that is complete nonsense. The Government is soon to award a contract worth less than $100 million for a three-year design phase. At the end of that period the design will be assessed and a decision made on what happens next. The designer could move to the construction phase, or the process could be junked and a new process commenced, or it could be decided to simply upgrade the Collins class subs and put the new submarine project on hold for a few more years.
The steel for the submarine hulls will not be produced or rolled in Australia. BHP produced the steel for the Collins with great difficulty and at a cost of penalties for early failures. Now BHP no longer makes steel in Australia and the requirements for the new sub hulls are much more complex. There is absolutely no way existing Australian steel makers can produce such a product. Someone should tell Christopher Pyne that Whyalla does not roll any steel plate, let alone of the quality needed for submarines.
The new submarines, if they proceed, will not be built in Australia. They will be assembled in Adelaide from parts made elsewhere in the world. The design team may be forced to live in Adelaide but they will be calling on their home-nation expertise. (By the way, given that we no longer make white goods, no longer build anything for the oil and gas industries and will soon stop making cars what is supposed to be the base market for the steel industry we are again looking to prop up?)
The Collins is now operating well and has a lot of life left in the hulls because they have not been doing much very deep diving, which is the main cause of stress. All the advanced capabilities promised by the bidders for the new sub could be retrofitted into the Collins as required. This would also save us from having a ridiculously large conventional submarine, which has been specified by a navy in the habit of demanding that each new class of ship be larger than the one it replaces. (There is no compelling reason for this automatic size increase of surface ships other than comfort in storms and, most importantly, the higher rank of the officer in charge of the vessel.)
Extending the life of the Collins class would make sense strategically and save billions. It would also allow time for battery technology to finish its next big step.
Meanwhile, the Army is still wedded to large artillery and the biggest tanks they can get, so that's what they are given. It's considered rude to ask where they could conceivably use this kit.
Australia is also waiting for new fighter jets, to be delivered eventually at truly vast expense. The actual performance of these aircraft is a matter of conjecture. But more important is the question of why you need a pilot at all. The technology is now so amazing that performance has to be downscaled if a pilot is included in the aircraft. Humans simply can't remain conscious in such an aircraft performing at its real limits. Adding a pilot also costs more money.
The advance of drones and missiles makes manned fighters of limited use in a real war. Certainly not worth the many billions we will end up paying for them. But the Air Force is run by ex fighter pilots who probably realize that drones can be operated by the navy and army in sea and land environments, removing the justification for a separate air service. Fortunes could be saved in the longer term.
Drones, or remotely operated vehicles, are the future for all the services. They can be tiny or huge, armed or not, and launched from submarines or a soldiers hand. Australia should be creating a serious drone industry to provide for our special needs, usually involving long distances. But where is the fun in that when officers could be going on assessment and purchasing tours of the US or Europe. Defence is always happy to give billions for the development of other people's industries (as with the fighter aircraft) while joining the economists' chorus about the evils of developing Australian industry.
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