The lost decade
Australia should buy or lease a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines to replace the calamitous Collins Class boats nearing the end of their working lives’. So wrote Greg Sheridan in the Australian just over ten years ago, in July 2011, in response to the then-Gillard government’s announcement of an inquiry into our submarine fleet and why very often only one out of six of them was available.
Sheridan’s view was based on all the obvious arguments – nuclear-powered submarines’ vastly superior speed, range and stealth capabilities; the fact that they wouldn’t be much more expensive than conventional submarines; and the fact that their acquisition would make us a more useful ally to the US. He was convinced that while the US hadn’t exported its Virginia Class nuclear submarines to anyone, they would probably agree to this in the case of Australia. Sheridan strongly advocated that we buy them off the shelf and not manufacture them in Australia – which would turn into another mess, like the Collins saga.
One of Sheridan’s readers who was persuaded by his arguments was then opposition leader Tony Abbott, who directed that the nuclear-powered option be properly considered if the Coalition won office. The Liberal-National defence policy released during the September 2013 election certainly didn’t rule out the nuclear option. But it did appear to rule out the ‘off the shelf’ option – ‘work on the replacement of the current submarine fleet will centre around the South Australian shipyards’.
After the 2013 Coalition victory, defence department officials opposed the nuclear-powered submarines option on the grounds that, without a domestic nuclear industry, Australia wouldn’t have the capacity to operate or maintain them. Why an option that was ruled out as impossible in 2013 has suddenly become official policy is an unresolved mystery. The changing advice plus our third change of mind on submarine options in six years raises questions about our competence in matters of defence acquisition and in managing international relations – we’ve let our seemingly ever-shifting approach to submarine tenders sour relations with two important partners, Japan and now France.
Abbott said in June 2017, a year after the Turnbull government announced its choice of the French tender to build 12 diesel-powered submarines, that his ‘biggest regret’ from his time in office was not challenging more robustly Australia’s nuclear ‘no-go’ mindset. Noting that no contract had yet been signed, he presciently said ‘Australia has not made a formal decision against acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, so much as studiously avoided even asking the question. But now that the competitive evaluation process has established that there’s no conventional submarine to be had any time soon, this is a debate we should no longer avoid, especially as the strategic balance is shifting even faster now than last year’s defence white paper anticipated. I’m not saying that we must go nuclear but surely we should at least consider the option before the opportunity is lost for another several decades’. Had his words been heeded, we could have avoided much grief with France.
In reversing Turnbull’s decision, Scott Morrison has clearly made the correct decision for Australia’s future security. The sensible Peter Dutton has clearly played a central role in this. Most importantly, the announcement underlines the fact that Australia won’t be bullied by China and that our allies will stand by us shoulder-to-shoulder. But it’s a great pity the Coalition has taken so long to come to this decision. And the timetable for the new submarines’ delivery clearly needs to be accelerated.
France is no stranger to abrupt U-turns on defence issues – its departure from Nato’s military command in 1966 is an obvious example. But it nevertheless has good reason to feel aggrieved over Australia’s handling of the issue. If it had less than 24 hours’ notice of the decision, as reported by the media, that is appalling. There’s a good likelihood Paris will retaliate by complicating progress towards an Australia-EU free trade deal. But, just as relations with Japan eventually returned to normal, after a suitable interval, the prospect of selling more Renaults and camembert to Australia, together with the absence of more than lukewarm support from its EU partners over the affair, should result in French anger abating.
The timing of the new AUKUS partnership is interesting. For the Biden administration, it moves the focus from its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan to the challenge of responding to an increasingly belligerent China. For Boris Johnson it signals the return of a post-Brexit Global Britain, at least partially reversing its 1960s east-of-Suez military drawdown.
Australia’s submarines announcement has strained all three countries’ relations with France, the EU and China. EU and Chinese hopes that the Biden administration would be a more co-operative partner after the Trump administration have been dashed, for the moment at least. Chinese retaliation could include throwing a spanner in the works of the project closest to Boris Johnson’s heart, the November COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow.
An as-yet unanswered question is whether AUKUS will amount to anything more than the US and the UK sharing nuclear technology with Australia. The US and Australia are of course aready alliance partners. But despite the intimate intelligence relationship with the UK and our long history of military co-operation, it is surprising that our only formal alliance relationship with them to date is the Five-Power mutual defence arrangement that also includes Singapore, Malaysia and NZ. Britain’s armed forces have undergone significant reductions in recent years, but the UK nevertheless remains one of the world’s few powers capable of global force projection. If AUKUS means a substantive enhancement of UK-Australia military relations, and an increased British security role in the Asia-Pacific region, that will be welcome news.
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Mark Higgie was Tony Abbott’s defence advisor 2010-2013 @markhiggie1
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