Australia’s defence conversation must be about more than submarines
28 Oct 2021|

Most of Defence’s grilling in Senate estimates yesterday was about plans and issues around getting eight nuclear submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. There was forensic questioning about who said what to whom about the cancellation of the French contract and about advice given to Prime Minister Scott Morrison on the timetable for the first nuclear submarine. We heard that the goal is to get at least one before 2040, and to ‘move things left if possible’ to get more than one by then.

Great slabs of questioning focused on workforce and immediate job losses and on whether Defence would have a ‘capability gap’ because the current Collins-class submarines might be retired or ineffective before the nuclear boats turn up in any numbers.

Watching the exchange between shadow foreign minister Penny Wong and Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead, head of the Nuclear-Powered Submarine Task Force, you got the feeling that there’d be a national cheer if a nuclear submarine was scheduled to arrive in December 2038 instead of January 2039, with congratulatory phone calls from the Pope, the Queen—and maybe the Dalai Lama. A further round of calls could come when the subs, not just their schedule, actually appear.

I get that the initiative to partner with the US and UK on nuclear submarines through AUKUS is a hugely important one for the security of our nation and for the wider Indo-Pacific. And I understand that submarines are powerful weapons that make potential adversaries think twice.

But we risk continuing a national obsession—seeing submarines as the one ‘magical animal’ defining the Australian Defence Force and our national security. That obsession has arguably done more harm than good over the 12 years since the 2009 defence white paper called for Australia to have not six Collins submarines, but 12 new ones. We’ve turned pursuing the perfect at the expense of the good into an art form.

It’s important to work out how we get nuclear submarines into service safely and without delay. But prioritising acceleration of the fiendishly complicated set of activities to create everything we need to help build and then crew, operate and sustain these nuclear-powered weapons because we want to rapidly increase the ADF’s offensive power would be a mistake. It may simply result in a troubled and delayed program. We are replete with examples where Australia’s (and other) defence organisations have done just that.

Nuclear submarines will be a very potent deterrent weapon—if the plan for delivering them prioritises effective capability over secure jobs for people interested in working on and in them. We also need to stick to the plan once we have it and sustain public and political support for it.

The national conversation we should be having, though, is bigger and different to this, and it starts by putting the submarine obsession into perspective.

There are many ways to make Australia a harder military problem for potential adversaries and many of these also help Australia contribute to deterring a conflict in the Indo-Pacific, notably one begun by an aggressive China. Submarines are one contribution to that effort.

The priority for political debate and pressure on the government and Defence to deliver fast needs to move from the submarine program to everything else that the ADF can be equipped with over the next 1, 3, 5 and 10 years. This was raised by Liberal Senator and former general Jim Molan at the Senate estimates hearing in a brief but insightful exchange with Defence leaders. Molan asked what effects submarines delivered that other capabilities couldn’t. The answer from Chief of Navy Michael Noonan was that the only one was ‘persistence’. The secretary, Greg Moriarty, and Chief of the ADF Angus Campbell also suggested that other capabilities could deliver those effects.

But the focus shifted straight back to the magical obsession with submarines. This matters, because it flavours a national debate in ways that imply that on any given day, Australia is at the mercy of its enemies if some number of submarines—more than the current six—are not about to embark on patrols. Regardless of what else we, let alone our allies and partners, have and are doing. And AUKUS, the Quad and the Five Eyes partnerships tell us we have engaged and powerful partners.

What might more of this valuable national debate time be spent on if we can lift our attention for a moment from submarines, submariners and shipyard workers old and new?

How might we spend some of the $44.6 billion annual defence budget to make the ADF more capable and powerful?

The conversation we should have is about how other systems can provide the military effects we need in the short- to medium-term faster, more affordably and with less risk than SSNs. It should be about unmanned undersea systems (uncrewed submarines) which already exist in both the UK and US and which we can make here well before 2026. About investing in more Boeing’s Loyal Wingman unmanned aircraft and larger, longer-range versions of them than manned F-35 fighters. We should do what Greg Mapson, former commander of the navy’s unloved mine countermeasures arm, suggested recently: acquire large numbers of sea mines and work out how to deploy them in places that worry potential adversaries using existing ADF ships, planes and submarines—and the unmanned subs we should be getting in the water.

And at least some quality time should be spent examining and testing Defence plans to make some of the advanced missiles the ADF has and is buying—including long range strike missiles.

We might all benefit from hearing how Defence can adopt NASA’s incredibly successful approach to partnerships with space start-ups like those that rapidly turned into Blue Origin and Space X. NASA’s open mindedness to doing things differently to the well-worn development and acquisition manual has resulted in a new, faster, cheaper business model for satellites, space vehicles and their launch and resupply.

The particularly important missing part of this conversation is an overriding interest in holding government officials (military and civilian), ministers, corporate leaders and project managers to account for plans and investment that have key delivery dates, and doing so while they are still in their jobs.

And we need to hold them to account after empowering them with resources and allowing them to take some risks and escape the interminable processes and layers we have inflicted upon ourselves with just about any important public or private undertaking.

This isn’t about ‘captain’s calls’ or eliminating paper trails. It’s about how we can shift from engineering-era acquisition, development and approval processes, and contractual relationships to processes designed around the much faster digital design and production processes we see with SpaceX and NASA—or Atlassian or DefendTex. In timeframes that don’t start with skilling up our grandchildren.

Government and commercial partners in Israel would be able to help us here too because timely improvements to Israeli defence capability are important to them and they are good at doing practical things to achieve them.

This different national conversation will test the bipartisanship we know Australia needs on national security. It’ll also demonstrate whether we all really understand the security environment we are living in. Unlike hypothetical discussions about 2039 and 2040, it’ll ensure that at least some of the intense debates we’re having are about what we’re doing that helps us in the here and now.