AUKUS, nuclear submarines and the tyranny of default thinking
11 Oct 2021|

Now that the initial euphoria over the announcement of the AUKUS agreement and Australia’s decision to acquire nuclear submarines has passed, it’s time to unpack some of the deeper meaning. The mandated 18 months of consultation will take place, and there’s the possibility of a new defence white paper.

Frankly, I wouldn’t expect much from either.

The consultation will result in recommendations, undoubtedly of a technical and political nature, about industrial policy, South Australian appeasement and Royal Australian Navy submariner recruitment and training. The estimated cost of the eight boats might even be revealed. As for a new white paper, why bother? The important decisions have already been made.

A defence white paper is meant to be a strategic-level document that provides a vision for the nation’s security policy and underpins the armed forces’ acquisition of equipment and concept of warfighting. But the government has already announced its intentions. It has terminated the French submarine contract and declared its plan to acquire nuclear-powered boats with the assistance of the United States and the United Kingdom. This means that the government has finalised the strategic decision-making that a white paper is meant to elucidate. In other words, it’s game over for strategic decision-making within Defence. A new white paper would serve only to justify the choices already made.

So let’s examine these choices. Clearly the government has decided to further strengthen Australia’s relationship with the US. There’s nothing new or exciting about that. It is Australia’s default setting. By embracing AUKUS, the government also signals its continued faith in the strength of the Anglosphere.

In seeking AUKUS, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has made a more explicit act of fealty to the alliance with the US than even Harold Holt’s Vietnam-era ‘All the way with LBJ.’ He has made a bet on the ability and willingness of the US to protect Australia from China. As bets go, this one is all in.

As any gambler knows, however, there is no sure thing, and this deal is particularly suss. The first problem is pretty straightforward. Australia won’t receive its nuclear submarines until the late 2030s, if not the 2040s. Even a US admiral thinks it’ll be decades. This means Australia will have a capability gap that by the government’s own reasoning cannot be met by a conventional submarine, even a life-extended Collins class.

Then there’s the issue of the unknown cost. At present, the best guess is that the eight submarines will cost more than the 12 French Attack-class boats. Nuclear submarines are larger and more complex than conventional ones and will require the building of new infrastructure in Adelaide. A sum of around $100 billion doesn’t seem unreasonable. At that price the submarines will consume a large part of the defence budget and the opportunity cost will be the lack of funds for other, perhaps more useful, capabilities.

The more troubling part of the gamble is its infatuation with the Anglosphere. The heyday of one of its members was so long ago that you have to be an octogenarian to remember it. The other, the US, experienced a violent insurrection against a legitimately elected government just nine months ago and is so riven by partisanship that a civil war isn’t beyond imagination.

The government’s bet gives the impression that it thinks cultural ties trump interest. Culture is important, but in international relations it’s interest that matters. Unfortunately, despite the enthusiastic friendship and shared language within the Anglosphere, Australia resides in a part of the world that is a low priority for the US. Europe, the Middle East and North Asia matter much more to America than the Southwest Pacific. When the US committed troops to the region in World War II, it wasn’t because America cared about Australia; it was solely because Australia offered a launching point to the Philippines and then to Japan. When empires decline, the peripheries are the first to be cast off.

Morrison has wagered far too much. Throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, a series of Australian leaders followed the lead of John Howard and made the nation’s flag the most important contribution to the US-led coalition. Other countries did the same. The military capabilities on offer were always of lesser significance. Of course, a war in our region will require a greater commitment than just the flag, but, as former head of the Office of National Assessments Allan Gyngell says, in AUKUS Australia has ceded ‘quite a high degree … of Australian sovereignty’.

Australia’s ability to operate nuclear submarines is likely to be dependent on US agreement, which in turn will lead to deeper integration into the US military. ABC journalist Laura Tingle has come to a similar conclusion, writing that the government has effectively contracted out its national security and defence policy. It’s hard to disagree. In the US, as discussed in Foreign Affairs, academic Caitlin Talmadge suggests that the US got the better end of the deal. She’s right; it is not often a state surrenders its sovereignty for the sake of a future promise.

In accepting AUKUS, Australia has again looked to the past without showing any interest in thinking hard on other options. The loss in automatically defaulting to one’s comfort zone is that it closes off other options before they’re even considered. Analysis before decision-making could have avoided this and provided more assurance that the government is working towards an achievable and beneficial strategic end. In my paper Planning to not lose, published by the Australian Army, I outlined a strategic policy to safeguard Australia based on a defensive posture that exploits new technologies and develops closer ties with our neighbours without any sacrifice of our sovereignty.

Perhaps it’s time for Australia to broaden its security horizons through divergent thinking rather than cruising to the default mode.