Marles the drunken sailor: Rex Patrick on Defence Minister’s haste to defence spending waste

by Rex Patrick | Mar 22, 2023 | Government, Latest Posts

News yesterday that our Collins Class submarines will get fitted with Tomahawks reveals a serious lack of understanding about the tactical use of land attack missiles on submarines. Exposing the blithe war enthusiasts of the Murdoch press, former submariner Rex Patrick explains why Tomahawks on a Collins is a dumb idea.

Richard Marles is behaving like a drunken sailor as he spends your money. Drunken sailors, most of whom are happy souls, buy things like several rounds for everyone in the bar, pink Hawaiian t-shirts for themselves and their families, or tattoos of the name of the girl they met the night before. Upon sobering up they realise that what they had purchased was a hole in their wallets.

And that’s what Mr Marles will discover in time. The Tomahawk missiles he’s purportedly buying for our Collins Class submarines, as reported in The Australian yesterday, are not a good match.

Let me explain why.

Submarines and Tomahawk Missiles

Just after noon on 19 January 1991, during operation “Desert Storm”, USS Louisville became the first submarine to launch a land attack missile in anger, when she fired eight missiles at targets in Iraq. She did this operating from the Red Sea. Shortly afterwards, USS Pittsburgh became the second submarine to launch Tomahawks when she fired four more missiles from the Mediterranean Sea.

Submarines have subsequently fired land attack missiles in a number of other operations.

USS Miami fired some into Iraq In 1998 at the start of “Desert Fox” (the 4 day bombing operation undertaken in response to Iraq’s failure to comply with UN Security Council resolutions). USS Albuquerque, USS Miami and HMS Splendid fired some into Kosovo a year later as part of “Allied Force” during the Balkan war. HMS Trafalgar and HMSTriumph fired them into Afghanistan. In 2001 as part of operation “Enduring Freedom,” and in 2003, 12 US Navy submarines and the Royal Navy submarines HMS Splendid and HMS Turbulent attacked land targets in Iraq as part of “Iraqi Freedom”.

Finally, in March 2011 guided missile submarines USS Florida, and nuclear attack submarines USS Providence, USS Scranton and HMS Triumph fired some into Libya as part of operation “Odyssey Dawn”.

The role of land attack from submarines is clearly established.

Dumb Ways to Buy: Defence “shambles” unveiled – former submariner and senator Rex Patrick

Why land-strikes from submarines?

A submarine’s endurance, autonomy and relative impunity to detection allow pre-strike positioning to occur several weeks or months prior to the commencement of hostilities. This can occur without the “presence” of a force that might otherwise negatively influence diplomatic efforts to resolve an issue. The submarine can also conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance until such time as the land strike capability is needed. The submarine can be discreetly withdrawn if offensive action is not required.

The submarine also allows a land strike capability to be deployed into an area of operation where there is a lack of sea or air control, with the aim of attacking enemy defences to make the area safer for other more vulnerable units to enter. This includes ships with larger missile magazines and aircraft who can return the next day to launch more missiles.

Finally, when the strike order is given, having an undetected submarine very close to shore provides an advantage when striking the most sensitive of military targets or executing the most time critical attacks. Launch surprise maximises targeting effectiveness and minimises the chance of the weapons being intercepted. Close-to-shore submarines can also reach targets that are further inland.

Collins submarines’ limitations

Almost all submarines fitted with Tomahawks have nuclear propulsion, The Spanish S-80 submarines are the exception.

That’s because conventional submarines have their limitations.

Their first conventional submarine limitation relates to their inability to arrive early on scene in distant theatres in situations where conflict arises unexpectedly. Many of the advantages associated with using a submarine for land attack stem from positioning them before and using them during the opening stages of a campaign. Once initial salvoes have been fired and targets critical to gaining sea and air control have been eliminated, the benefits of using a submarine for the task evaporate.

The second Collins limitation is the payload capacity. Collins submarines only can carry 22 weapons. This will necessarily mean that a mix of weapons and mission packages will be carried; torpedoes, anti-ship missiles, mines and tomahawk land strike weapons. Not many tomahawks will be carried by Collins.

In the context of war with China, Paul Keating’s “throwing toothpicks at a mountain” quote is relevant.

The US Navy has modified four of its ballistic missile submarines, USS Ohio, Michigan, Florida and Georgia to carry up to 154 land attack missiles each, all of which can be launched over a period of 6 minutes. That’s not toothpicks.

The final limitation is the fact that when a submarine fires a tomahawk, or a series of them, they make a long white smoke trail, or a series of long white smoke trails, that lead back to the submarine. That’s when it really pays to have a nuclear reactor to provide the necessary thrust to quickly clear the operational datum.

Missile launch from submarine

Hmmm, where’s the submarine? (Source: US Navy)

Defence of Australia or like a tattoo?

There’s hardly a case to argue that our Collins class submarine’s need land attack cruise missiles to help defend Australia.

They would only be acquired to assist in a conflict with China, where we’re acting as part of a coalition. But even then, the issues associated with conventional submarines armed with Tomahawks are highly challenging and make the choice highly questionable.

So is Richard Marles behaving like a drunken sailor? Yes. But with some difference. Mr Marles seems loose with the money, but can’t really bring himself to look back on his commitment to spend.

I just want a Ferrari, sorry, a nuclear submarine, no matter the cost

Rex Patrick is a former Senator for South Australia and earlier a submariner in the armed forces. Best known as an anti-corruption and transparency crusader -

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