Vale Gary Johnston

Founder and sponsor of the Submarines for Australia group

This article is intended as a tribute to Gary Johnston, who sadly died after a short illness on 10 March 2021.

Gary was the founder of the Submarines for Australia website and the generous sponsor of the associated research, submissions and reports published on the site. His enthusiasm and drive brought together an expert reference group that has supported this important work and developed a substantial intellectual challenge not only to the proposed procurement of the French designed Attack class conventionally-powered submarine but also other inordinately expensive and highly risky Defence acquisitions recently proposed by governments.  

While a concern about major naval acquisitions may seem to be a curious interest for a very successful businessman, there are a few good reasons why Gary took such an interest in this domain.

Having become wealthy through sheer hard work over 40 years, building up his chain of nearly 150 Jaycar electronics shops with around 1,000 employees, Gary paid a considerable amount of tax. Naturally enough, he resented it when that money was wasted. Also, as a successful investor who was fascinated by electronics from an early age, Gary had a deep understanding of technology and the major risks involved in bringing technical innovations to market. In other words, he could spot a shonky deal when he saw one.

He strongly believed, particularly in recent years, that the Department of Defence had presided over more than its fair share of shonky deals. It seemed outrageous that nobody ever seemed to be held accountable for a gross waste of taxpayers’ money and the ongoing need to send young service personnel into harm’s way on obsolescent platforms because of endless delays in delivering their replacements.

One particular acquisition that sparked Gary’s interest in the first place was Defence’s cunning plan to refit retired American Seasprite helicopter platforms, mothballed in the Mojave desert, with modern electronic systems. That project was eventually cancelled at a cost of $1,400 million in return for not one single helicopter being deployed in active service.

When the selection of the French submarine was announced, Gary was convinced it came from the same Defence playbook, but with exponentially higher costs and risks of failure. As Gary put it, the Defence department had decided to take a perfectly good nuclear-powered submarine, remove the reactor that provided the basis for the submarine’s superior capability and replace it with lead acid batteries and diesel engines as deployed in the RAN’s first submarine AE1 over a century ago. The crowning insult was that for this unicorn, whose design alone would need a decade or more to bed down, the French intended to charge us twice as much as the original, vastly superior, nuclear submarine would have cost.

Gary had a keen interest in military history and was a strong supporter of the Australian Defence Force. He understood that, following the retirement of the F-111 long-range strategic bomber in 2010, the RAN’s submarine force became the lone spear carrier for the ADF’s capacity to project significant military force beyond Australia’s EEZ to the north and west. He also came to understand, as many in Australia do not, that close cooperation between the RAN and U.S. Navy submarines in high intensity operations far from our bases made a very important contribution to the alliance and one that generated significant credit for Australia in the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence group. Particularly in a strategic environment that was becoming much more threatening, Australia’s future submarines would be a critical element in providing for our national security and they needed to incorporate the very best technology that Australia could afford.

In this context, Gary observed that the US, British and French navies only deploy nuclear-powered boats (SSNs), which have significant advantages over Australian conventional submarines both in terms of their operational effectiveness and survivability. He held the view, widely shared by experts we consulted both in Australia and overseas, that if Australia’s next generation of submarines was to continue to be deployed ‘up threat’ in an environment where detection technologies and the capability of the main adversary were advancing almost by the month, there were strong operational reasons why the RAN needed to embrace nuclear power for its submarine force.

The two great advantages enjoyed by a nuclear-powered submarine over a conventional boat are virtually limitless dived endurance and a much higher sustainable speed. One benefit of high speed, for example, is that it provides a force multiplier. It would allow the halving of an Australian submarine’s current near three-week transit time to its main area of operations, thereby enabling more submarines to be on station at any time – that is providing a greater concentration of force.

A second benefit of a SSN’s propulsive power is the one cited to us most frequently by former submariners, namely the ability to escape submerged at high speed if detected and thereby live to fight another day. Unlike a SSN, a conventional submarine needs to approach the surface periodically to ‘snort’ and recharge its batteries. This is when it is most vulnerable to detection – the probability of which is increasing constantly as more submarines are deployed to the Indo Pacific and greater numbers of sophisticated anti-submarine platforms enter service. Without being able to call on the sustained high speed available to a nuclear-powered boat, survivability then becomes a major concern.

In discussing submarines, Gary often spoke of his concern about sending young Australians in the ADF into harm’s way with inadequate equipment. In his Foreword to the Submarines for Australia report, launched at the National Press Club a year before he died, he wrote:

“In my view, one of the most shameful episodes in our military history occurred in 1941-42, when we sent brave young Australians, with predictable results, to fight the advanced Japanese Zero fighters in obsolete aircraft. Never again should the nation abrogate its duty of care towards its service men and women in this manner. We are a wealthy country and have a moral obligation to provide ADF personnel with the best possible military platforms when they are sent into harm’s way. I conclude, therefore, that if the government wants to continue undertaking submarine operations at the highest level of intensity, it should acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines, complemented by autonomous underwater vehicles.”

In recent times, Gary had begun to analyse other Defence acquisitions. He was becoming increasingly disturbed about the Hunter class frigates program, which already looks as if it might challenge the submarines in terms of its absurdly high cost and excessive risk. He liked to ask whose cunning plan it was to choose a developmental British platform, replace all the hardware with American missile systems never before integrated on a UK warship, overload the platform so it is the same size as a DDG-51 Arleigh Burke destroyer, but with only one-third of the missile capacity and half the helicopter hangar space? And then, as the crowning absurdity, dare to charge more than twice as much for it as the DDG-51?

In Australia, few wealthy individuals contribute in any significant way to research into specialist issues in the public policy arena. In launching the second Submarines for Australia report at the National Press Club in March 2020, Professor Hugh White drew attention to Gary’s philanthropy:

“Good public policy depends on good ideas, and they take time and effort and money to develop. Gary Johnston's willingness to support serious and sustained work on this crucial issue is one of the few examples in Australia of genuine, disinterested public policy philanthropy we have, and one of the finest.”

In his address at his funeral, David Gonski drew attention to Gary’s wide range of interests and generosity across a broad range of philanthropic causes. Who knew, for example, that Gary has a species of Koala – Litokoala Garyjohnstoni – named after him? Who knew that he had a Masters of Letters degree with a major in American literature?

Gary was a highly intelligent and well-read Australian larrikin, an expansive, larger than life character who made an indelible mark on the world and then, very sadly, was taken from us suddenly and before his time. Less than three weeks after a diagnosis of Mesothelioma (asbestos lung cancer), he was gone.

Vale, Gary Johnston. At your express wish, the work of the Submarines for Australia think tank will continue. But you will be sorely missed.

Jon Stanford

Submarines for Australia

11 April 2021