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Editors’ picks for 2023: ‘Understanding Australia’s submarine commitment’

Posted By on December 27, 2023 @ 06:00

Originally published on 9 February 2023.

In March, the government is expected to announce its plans to implement the ambitious proposal for an Australian force of nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) that is at the heart of the AUKUS agreement.

Any scheme for an Australian SSN force must meet several conditions if it is to be viable. The first is that it must include solutions to address the looming shortfall in Australia’s submarine capability that can’t be met in time by ab initio building the boats in Australia. It must then provide a practicable and cost-effective way ahead for long-term construction of SSNs that is effectively coordinated with one or both of our AUKUS partners. As is becoming increasingly clear, meeting the shorter-term capability requirement and developing a mature SSN construction line will require substantial efforts not only by Australia but also by at least the US and possibly the UK.

Australia’s commitment to SSNs has profound implications for the way in which the defence budget must be managed. The level of understanding of the full requirements for raising, training and sustaining an effective defence force has never been high in Australia, either within government or outside it. Apart from the frequency with which the full on-costs of major projects are deliberately underestimated to secure their political approval, there has long been a tendency to manage any pressure on the budget by reducing the funds allocated to sustainment, in particular, while allowing maintenance of defence facilities to be done on a shoestring. Both of these practices may well be happening now as the defence organisation struggles to find the money to meet the demands of a difficult international environment when the government has so many other priorities. Bad at the best of times, these tendencies are worse when there are serious prospects that Australian forces will be required at little notice to assert the national interest.

And if we have been poor at understanding the on-costs of our platforms, the irony is that we have been—and continue to be—even worse at estimating the true requirements for and the associated on-costs of people, whether in uniform or not, no matter whether they’re ‘poor bloody infantry’ or the most highly qualified engineers.

The point is that the operation of an SSN force and all that this involves, even after the submarines are in the water, for maintenance, base support, quality control and other technical governance will introduce a new factor—a commitment of human effort and of funds that is not only substantial but also non-reducible to an extent that even meeting the demands of air safety has provided no precedent in the Australian experience.

Concerns expressed over the potential intrusions into Australia’s ability to make sovereign decisions have been well meant, but have generally focused on the wrong target. It is not the operations of the submarines themselves that will be subject to any real loss of national autonomy in a mature system but the working of the governance regime for nuclear power. The US in particular will want to be satisfied that Australia fully meets whatever commitments it makes to nuclear-power standards and safety, and it will insist on inspection regimes which guarantee that. Such regimes will not only apply to the submarines, their power plants and their support infrastructure, but also include critical assessment of the management bureaucracy. It is not a subject much discussed, but it is difficult to avoid the impression that American concerns were a critical factor behind the reforms of the UK system that resulted in the setting up in 2016 of the UK Defence Nuclear Organisation as the focal point and sponsor of the UK’s defence nuclear enterprise.

All this requires not only that Australia commit itself consciously to the total bill for nuclear power but also that the implications for the defence effort as a whole be completely understood for what will be in practice an irrevocable and irreducible commitment.

Here, a fully thought-out SSN plan also needs to include a complete understanding of the opportunity costs involved and confirmation that SSNs are indeed the most effective capability that Australia can select to meet its strategic challenges.

That itself will call for a degree of sophistication which has rarely marked the national debate on defence policy, whether within government or outside it. The report of the defence strategic review to be presented to the government next month might help provide some of the answers, particularly for the shorter term and about the way the transition from conventional submarines to SSNs will be managed.

In some ways, we have been here before, though we made a mess of things each time. The grand ideas of AUKUS are in many ways no novelty to Australian strategic thinking. The problem is that the history of Australian defence policy is marked by a series of ambitious force structure plans that have failed to be fulfilled. As with the SSN project, the most important of these have been maritime focused, recognising Australia’s situation as an island continent that is dependent on the maintenance of supply flows and for which achieving a secure region is a much higher priority than defending actual territory. Either Australia has attempted to create a force of sufficient weight that it could make a substantial contribution to regional collective defence, as was the case in 1923 with the plan to create a force based on new cruisers and submarines, or there was an explicit effort to develop an independent capability for power projection, as was the case in 1947 with the creation of the Fleet Air Arm based on two aircraft carriers.

The 1923 example may have the louder resonance for the present day, given that’s when Australia’s plan to create a submarine flotilla emerged from an Imperial Conference. Six submarines were to be our contribution to the large submarine force permanently based in the Far East, serving as a standing deterrent and the ‘trip wire’ against any Japanese incursions into British possessions in Southeast Asia. But only two of the six boats ever materialised, and by 1931 they were given to the British because the Australian budget could no longer afford them.

However, for our SSN effort, if we don’t take care, there may be closer parallels with the 1947 carrier plan in what followed over the long term. The carrier program went ahead but was dogged from the outset by barely adequate funding and the difficulties of finding the additional resources to adapt to changing technology. For the next 33 years, the navy had the experience of trying to maintain a major capability, in this case fixed-wing seaborne aviation, when the nation was unwilling to provide the full funding for the capability actually required, whatever the rhetoric that accompanied the initial commitment. That the navy was able to achieve so much with its aircraft carriers and their air groups between 1949 and 1981 was remarkable, but there was a price. Not only did naval aviation itself struggle at times, but there can be no doubt that the remainder of our maritime forces suffered. The difference this century is that such ‘making do’ cannot be enough.

The lesson is obvious. If Australia is to embark on the SSN program, the bill in people, money and infrastructure must be understood and met from the first and in full.

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