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Fed: Australia's spying ability relates to submarine capability

By Kim Christian
01 May 2009 5:59 PM

SYDNEY, May 1 AAP - Australia's ability to spy on its Asian neighbours relates directly to its submarine capability, former defence minister Kim Beazley says.

As China signals its concern over Australia's forthcoming defence build-up and North Korea continues to thumb its nose at the West, the Rudd government is confronted by the need for a new fleet of conventional submarines.

It will not only have to make a case for the economic benefits of the project during tough times, but also juggle trade relations and diplomacy with its northern neighbours after the release of the Defence white paper on Saturday.

Former Labor defence minister Kim Beazley and Brendan Nelson, a defence minister in the Howard government, say maintaining a world-class submarine force is pivotal to the Australia/US defence alliance.

Mr Beazley said the United States was heavily reliant on Australia's conventional submarines in Asia.

"Many of the NATO countries have conventional submarines, the Germans, the Danes they have them ... the Dutch they've got them," Mr Beazley told AAP earlier this year.

"So they tend to, around Europe rely on them and around Asia, rely on us."

He said the Collins class, which he oversaw as minister, was capable of going on missions as far north as North Korea.

"If you get an operation in close waters or waters close to the coast a conventional submarine will beat a nuke any time," he said.

"They're completely silent and they've got a capacity to render themselves completely silent which nukes can't quite do because nukes have to keep their powerplant running so they always emanate slightly more noise than a conventional submarine would.

"If they are in waters where speed doesn't count, which is sort of southeast Asian waterways, then a conventional submarine is a better bet."

The once trouble-plagued Collins Class boats, now considered world-class conventional submarines, would have to be completely replaced by 2025, he said.

"They relate pretty well to the sorts of demands that are put on them, but whether they'll do that come 2025 I think is problematic so they'll need new ones with new capabilities, probably aerial defence propulsion within them, that sort of thing," he said.

Dr Nelson said as part of the Australia/US alliance, both nations could draw on each other's resources.

"That's possible and in fact that does occur," he told AAP in March.

"The Collins has capabilities that are conferred by them being diesel electric, the envy of the US and other navies."

Dr Nelson said replacing the nation's "world-class" Collins submarines with about six to eight boats would give Australia continued world-class capability.

In a paper released earlier this month, Professor Hugh White, principal author of the 2000 Defence white paper, argued for a specialised force, including up to 18 submarines, that was able to deny an enemy access to Australia's sea approaches.

"I don't think China's rise poses a direct military threat to Australia," he said. "But I do think the way China's power is growing, including its military power, is going to change the way Asia works and therefore change the circumstance in which Australian defence policy has to be framed," he said.