Defending Australia; Nuclear Submarines & French Anger

(CNN) Biden and UK to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines in new pushback on China, and America’s deal with UK and Australia leaves France bruised and Europe in the cold on China.

The defense of Australia is difficult. To understand why, consult the map. The Nine Dotted Line dips south to the north shore of Borneo, 1500 miles from Australia. The entire southern demarcation of the Line consists of states that are members of the Non-Aligned Movement, formed in the 1950’s in rejection of the Cold War power blocs.

For the purpose of military alliance, these states placed themselves out-of-bounds. Member countries in conflict areas, Africa, and Austronesia,  exploited the craving of the superpowers to break the mold, extracting arms and expensive aid programs.  Both superpowers spent heavily and received nothing in return. India, the world’s largest democracy, which supposedly implies simpatico interests, has remained tantalizingly immune to the U.S. touch.  The other nonaligned states that form the southern border of the Line are culturally remote compared to India, offering even less promise.

On the west, the line is bordered by Vietnam. Though a mixed economy, government is still vested in the Communist Party of Vietnam. Nonaligned, it is an economic vassal of China. To the north is mainland China.

The eastern boundary, the Philippines, is the crux of the problem. Formerly a staunch U.S. ally, the drift began with the closing of the Subic Bay naval base in 1992. In 2017, Duterte announced intent to withdraw from the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. He rescinded withdrawal, with renewed threats to withdraw made in 2/21. Duterte is deeply anti-American, unforgiving of the U.S. role in the colonial past. Even  China’s annexation  of bits of offshore territory  hasn’t dented his perspective. China tempts with the lure of alleviation of domestic poverty. In effect the Philippines is a non-aligned, hopeful vassal.

The Nine-Dotted-Line is an almost closed region, bounded by non-aligned vassals, vulnerable to area denial. Although Mike Pompeo put on some high mileage in this area, he was unable to recruit a single non-aligned state, for bases, even to base a few spy planes: (Reuters) Exclusive: Indonesia rejected U.S. request to host spy planes – officials.

The U.S. has three widely dispersed allies capable of limited force projection. Japan, South Korea, and Australia, separated by immense distances from the U.S.,  present a severe logistical challenge. Yet the water  offers potential strategic equalization not possible for land conflict. It was formerly the uncontested domain of the aircraft carrier. In years to come, survival of surface combatants will be increasingly in peril.

This is why the number of commissioned submarines has high budget priority. The chief weakness of the submarine is reduced situational awareness,  alleviated by space and airborne assets. The chief asset is stealth, though there are caveats. The Brits recently claimed tracking of a Virginia class sub, the most silent U.S. boat. At what speed, I might ask?

Contrary to recent press, nuclear submarines are not the most silent. Nuclear propulsion involves steam, which makes noise. Arduous noise isolation results in a very quiet sub. But the utmost in silence is provided by some types of AIP, (air-independent propulsion), which relies on a variety of chemical reactions that do not require atmospheric air.

  • The oldest and most limited form of AIP is the electric motor, powered by batteries recharged by diesel engines in surface operation.
  • The French system has a burner, with stored oxygen to make steam. This choice allowed design of  the Barracuda class with a propulsion core that could be swapped for nuclear. This form of AIP is not quieter than nuclear. Exhaust gas bubbles may compromise stealth.
  • The German Type 212 submarines, which have electric motors powered by fuel cells, are the most quiet submarines in the world, no tell-tale exhaust, deadly in ambush.

The major, deal-breaking problem with AIP is speed. These subs are not fast enough to keep up with a surface fleet. All U.S. surface naval combatants, excepting landing ships/helicopter carriers, are capable of 30+ knots = 35 mph. The AIP Barracuda offered to Australia is rated at 20 knots. It may have a higher sprint speed that burns an unsustainable amount of fuel. And exhaust gas bubbles ruin stealth.

(Politico) Why Australia wanted out of its French submarine deal gives reasons besides the inferiority of the weapon, yet France blames the U.S. in an emotional display.  The CNN articles, written in political style, obscure the essential differences of the U.S. and French viewpoints. To the French, there is no threat; weapon systems are foreign exchange. With historic burden of responsibility, we paid attention to:

Xi exhorts preparation for war. This is not the China we used to know and love. When a world leader spoke in this tone, it got our serious attention.  It served as a reminder of the U.S. role of principal defender of the free world. We prepare to defend.

The former European colonial powers remember the loss of empires as painful lessons not to be repeated as engagement for lost causes. The small populations of the EU countries limit their roles to auxiliaries in other than small conflicts. France has been exemplary in 19 interventions in Francophone states of Africa.

Small interventions against primitive opponents are not the ultimate tests of weapon systems, in which only the best prevail. As a weapon system, the AIP Barracuda is of middle rank.  Sufficing for coastal defence, it is inadequate as a fleet submarine, incapable of operation in concert with surface forces.

From the perspective of France, an important business deal has been disrupted. U.S. engagement has another, more pure motive.

We Defend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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