Any discussion of defence procurement – or defence more generally – needs to be grounded in the context of whom or what we propose to defend against, and in what circumstances. Much of the context is visible right here:
China’s first aircraft carrier – a rebuilt Soviet Cold War era ship lacking radars and other combat systems – does not represent a military threat in itself. It does, however, show Chinese interest in naval aviation, and portends a world where the United States is not the only country operating aircraft carriers in the Pacific Ocean.
I’m not trying to be be alarmist here; the current rulers of China may be many things, but militarily reckless is not one of them. But for the first time since WWII, a country other than the United States is gaining the capability to operate fully-fledged aircraft carriers in the Pacific, and thus control areas of sea outside the range of its land-based combat aircraft.
Questions on Australia’s submarines, though our politicians are not going to offend China by saying so directly, should be viewed largely through the prism of what you think that development means to Australia.
I don’t think there’s any getting around the notion that if Australia’s security really is put at risk by China’s military rise, a fleet of nuclear-powered subs probably is among the most cost-effective responses to it, if the Yanks are really prepared to sell or lease us some at a reasonable price. It would give Australia the ability to throw a massive spanner in the works of any maritime operations, over a large fraction of the Pacific Ocean. It’s the cheapest way to implement the Hugh White sea denial approach.
If you don’t buy the China threat story, Australia’s submarines are really just very expensive training toys for a distant future where there might be a threat, by which time submarines with large human crews may be as obsolete as oar-powered warships. At a pinch, they might be used to interfere in Indonesia should there ever be a need. In which case, why not just buy some off-the-shelf European diesel subs and spend the 20 billion we save on something useful – or go the New Zealand option and ditch the subs entirely.