Australian news, and some related international items

The US shooting down a Chinese spy balloon is a risk for Australia’s tired submarine fleet

Michael West Media, by Rex Patrick | Feb 6, 2023 |

For many Australians watching the events over the past week, where the United States Air Force tracked a Chinese balloon overflying US territory and then shot it down, might seem to be of indirect significance to our security. Former senator and submariner, Rex Patrick suggests that it is of direct significance to Australia, increasing the risk we might be drawn into war in South East Asia.

Over the weekend the US Air Force shot down a Chinese balloon. The United States have said that the balloon was carrying out intelligence gathering. The Chinese Government has said it wasn’t. They claim it was just a wandering weather balloon. That’s important for reasons I’ll come back to, but I first need to provide some background – not about balloons, but about another surveillance platform.

What submarines do

Submarines can perform a whole range of different tasks in time of war……………………….

In preparing for war they train, they engage in tactical development and they conduct intelligence gathering. It is the latter which is their most important and challenging tasks………………….

Balloons and ballast tanks

…. Imagine a South Korean, Japanese or Australian submarine operating very close to (or perhaps inside) China’s territorial waters conducting intelligence gathering. China might now be inclined to treat that submarine the same way the United States treated a balloon purported to be conducting intelligence collection.

If detected, even if just outside of their territorial waters, the Chinese will just say they were inside their waters when, or in the minutes before, they were engaged. We’ll say, just as the US has for the balloon, that we weren’t spying and they’ll say we were.

And getting detected in our newest Australian submarine, the 20 year old HMAS Rankin, is far more likely than is the case for South Korea’s newest submarine, the 1 year old ROKS Dosan Ahn Changho, or Japan’s newest submarine, the 1 year old Tōryū.

The stakes are greater for us because Australian governments of various political flavours have left us with ageing Collins Class submarines to carry out this most serious and complex of peace time tasks.

One option would be to eventually withdraw our ageing Collins class submarines from surveillance operations anywhere close to Chinese waters, but that’s unlikely. Our Navy and our government will be anxious to continue to do all they can to assist the United States Navy in the Northern Pacific, in the Sea of Japan and the South China Sea.  

Alliances are not just pieces of paper, they are dynamic relationships in which there’s a strong obligation to contribute and share risk.

The China risk

The risks are likely to increase in the years ahead, as China continues to ramp up military tensions in an effort to coerce Taiwan into some form of political subordination to Beijing.

The possibility that China will choose a vessel of a US ally to make an example of cannot be dismissed.

And that risk will be disproportionately carried by our Navy as it operates a submarine force with decreasing relative capability across the next two decades or longer.  Thanks to government spending $170bn pursuing a distant nuclear-powered capability, our submariners will be at greater risk in less capable vessels than our so-called ‘great and powerful’ friend.

For a long time, we’ve been able to see Defence procurement failures and kick ourselves on account of cost to the taxpayer. Now, as the balloon goes up in the South China Sea, the lack of capability may well cost us many lives.

It’s not just about a war before the arrival of new submarines in 2040, its all the peace time intelligence operations between now and then.


February 9, 2023 - Posted by | AUSTRALIA - NATIONAL, weapons and war

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