AUKUS should prompt a shake-up of Australia’s strategic mindset
23 Sep 2021|

The announcement of the AUKUS agreement is the most important development in Australian defence policy since the signing of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951 and will lead to a radical reshaping of our role in the Indo-Pacific region.

AUKUS elevates Australia’s geopolitical prominence and positions us alongside the United States and the United Kingdom to counterbalance and deter a rising and assertive China. Australia’s strategic policy debate must now be elevated to new levels and embrace a more forward-leaning regional posture. We can’t hide behind the sea–air gap any longer. As ASPI’s Peter Jennings noted in The Strategist, ‘Washington’s expectation is that Australia will not only look after its own security needs, but also play a leading role in stabilising the Pacific and Southeast Asia.’

That has all sorts of implications for Australian defence policy, including military strategy, force posture and force structure, and suggests a need to expand and intensify our defence diplomacy with key partners in the region.

Within the next 18 months, Australia will need a new defence white paper, or at the very least an AUKUS strategy document. It should be written in part with the goal of challenging orthodox thinking on defence policy in light of a rapidly deteriorating strategic environment. It must not perpetuate the strategic disconnect between our recognition of a dangerous challenge from China and a seemingly steady-as-she-goes approach to capability acquisition.

We can’t cruise on autopilot into an ever more perilous future, and AUKUS represents the first real shake-up to the status quo mindset apparent in the Defence Department’s approach to capability development. Our defence policy will need to be reshaped to emphasise the imperative for the Australian Defence Force to project power and presence well forward in an operational sense.

One debate that might emerge is whether it’s appropriate to consider freeing Australia from the shackles of ‘middle power’ status. Such a constraint is poorly defined in countless academic debates but is increasingly less relevant to Australia’s developing strategic circumstances.

The ADF’s growing military capabilities are driving Australia to a new level of political and strategic influence, and AUKUS will drive this transformation further and faster in coming years. We shouldn’t be constrained by yesterday’s thinking on our regional standing.

AUKUS isn’t just about Australia making the long-overdue decision in support of the Royal Australian Navy getting nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs), but it’s the subs that are the most prominent part of the new agreement. In deciding to end the conventional submarine program with France and seize the opportunity to acquire nuclear-powered boats, Australia is joining an elite club of nations.

The SSNs, whether based on the US Navy’s Virginia class or the Royal Navy’s Astute class, will give the RAN far greater strategic reach, speed and endurance, and a greater ability to respond to challenges than the Attack-class diesel–electric boats could ever have done. Both the US Navy and the Royal Navy are developing follow-on SSNs to the Virginia and Astute classes, with the US Navy SSN(X) and Royal Navy SSN(R) projects underway, so it’s possible that Australia could eventually transition to even more advanced boats in coming decades.

The challenges of acquiring SSNs, no matter what the design, are serious. This major capability project is about dramatically boosting Australia’s naval power and ensuring effective defence capabilities as soon as possible. It should not be seen as a jobs program. Local production can eventually be the goal, but it should not be a driving factor.

Planning for an in-service date in the mid-2030s makes little sense when the most serious challenges to Australia’s security will likely occur in the 2020s. Instead, Defence should consider acquiring the first few boats from an existing production line. And if it decides to go that route, it must avoid the temptation to ‘Australianise’ the boats by needlessly altering the design. Such a mistake would merely replicate the mess of the Attack-class project.

A second option to accelerate acquisition would be a leasing arrangement that allows Australian crews to operate an existing boat, potentially as part of a mixed crew with US and UK personnel. Training arrangements will need to be established quickly to ensure that the RAN, and the civilian defence workforce, can support the eventual introduction of SSNs into Australian service.

Meanwhile, the RAN will also be operating and extending the life of the Collins-class submarines. The Collins lack the speed and endurance of SSNs but have advantages in shallow-water operations in littoral regions where it’s more difficult for SSNs to go. Keeping the Collins in service, even alongside SSNs, for as long as possible, makes sense.

The extension of hosting arrangements for rotational deployments of US Navy submarines in Australia announced in last week’s AUSMIN statement will add to Australia’s ability to prepare to support future RAN SSNs. The US boats could certainly be hosted at HMAS Stirling in Fremantle, Western Australia, but Defence should also consider using the port of Brisbane as an east-coast submarine base for the US Navy, Royal Navy and RAN.

At the same time, the navy needs to see the acquisition of SSNs as an opportunity to accelerate its robotics, autonomous systems and artificial intelligence strategy in order to bring a range of autonomous capabilities, including large unmanned underwater vehicles such as Boeing’s Orca, into service sooner. Waiting until the late 2030s before acquiring such highly capable platforms, even as the US Navy and Royal Navy plan on deploying them in this decade, would be nonsensical when we face both strategic challenges and challenges in maintaining an effective undersea warfare capability during the transition to SSNs. If the RAN is to introduce UUVs, it should be in the next few years. Ultimately, large UUVs will likely replace the Collins and operate alongside, but independently of, Australia’s SSNs.

On the defence diplomacy front, we need to be talking seriously to Tokyo, Seoul, Jakarta and New Delhi about how AUKUS can support a more active Australian role in the region and ensure that our new defence capabilities make a positive contribution to our partners’ needs. The Quad and ASEAN need to be assured of AUKUS’s benefits and our commitment to working with them in the region. This won’t be simple or quick, given that the perception in many ASEAN capitals will be that AUKUS reinforces an Australian and American attitude that’s dismissive of ASEAN centrality and non-alignment.

Indonesia in particular has signalled its reluctance to embrace AUKUS as a positive development. Jakarta will have to work to balance the reality that Indonesia, like other ASEAN states, is increasingly threatened by an aggressive China. Australia will have to deal with the fact that, in choosing AUKUS, we must mend ties with ASEAN. And, somehow, we will also need to repair the damage to our relationship with France. The skills of the foreign minister and her department will be put to the test.