The demands of AUKUS
24 Mar 2023|

Last week’s announcement of the ‘optimal pathway’ for Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines has provoked further commentary on AUKUS. The breadth of the arguments illustrates how once stable strategic certainties have become fractured and contestable.

There’s debate over the defence-of-Australia doctrine versus the demands of a profoundly changed strategic landscape, over choices between the US and China, over the Anglosphere versus the region, over an offensive versus defensive posture, and over the superiority of US submarines versus the future of submarines given technological advances. And, of course, there is the issue of cost, itself hardly reflective of peacetime spending, and of opportunity cost: the project places a huge bet on a single future capability in fast-changing strategic environment.

So far, AUKUS has been portrayed as a defence program. Former prime minister Paul Keating, for all his dated thinking and vituperative spray against friend and foe, does have a point about the apparent silence of the other arms of government.

But AUKUS is hardly in the same category as the typical defence programs, such as the Australian Army’s land-combat vehicles. AUKUS’s first pillar entails a new capability, with which Australia has no prior depth of experience; pillar two comprises technologies that are almost entirely civilian derived.

Both pillars are Herculean. Both have core elements that are the defence organisation’s alone to manage—the design and translation of capability into an operational fighting force.

We should not underestimate the distortionary effects the AUKUS submarine program may have on Australia’s defence organisation. Realising it will require imagination and discipline, plus skill sets not currently found in the Defence Department or the Australian Defence Force.

Defence has to combine training, logistics, sustainment, operational planning, doctrine and command into a coherent whole over the lifetime of the capabilities it acquires. Bringing all those elements together, even within a reasonable timeframe, will exert a huge gravitational pull within the defence organisation.

Defence suffers from capacity constraints—internally, with getting people onboard and ready (aside from security clearances, it takes time to train staff and build teams); and externally, in industry, especially given its heavy reliance on overseas smarts and capability.

The scale of the effort, at the pace needed, will see people and resources pulled away from other activities inside Defence. It is already shallow in key areas, especially technical disciplines, and we can expect increasing thinness of talent, delays in other projects and exposure of vulnerabilities.

There’s the risk, too, of distortion on force structure and readiness. Currently, Australia has a small but proficient, balanced military, comprising air, land and sea assets, that aspires to operate—with the help of friends—a small, but capable, nuclear-powered submarine force. We’d probably want to avoid an ADF comprising primarily a submarine fleet with some ancillary air capability and a few marines.

Readiness is ever a contest between managing activities underway, preparing for immediate events and planning for the longer term. That tension was evident during the Iraq and Afghanistan operations, when Defence was thinking about its long-term capability plan and ministers and field commanders wanted kit and support for soldiers in real time. The AUKUS submarine program will pull Defence’s attention out 10 to 20 years, reinforcing readiness for a 2040 timeframe, for example, rather than, say, 2026.

Of course, prospective distortion works both ways. Leaving the submarine program, and its budget, inside Defence will force it to compete within its own walls for attention, support and resources. It may be best, as former defence minister Kim Beazley has suggested, to ‘carve them out of the general defence vote and run them transparently separately’.

The same, I’d suggest, applies to the advanced technologies under pillar two. To realise AUKUS in its fullest sense, its base needs broadening. Success will not be a matter of simply strengthening the pillars to bear the need of the moment and the weight of long-term expectation.

That’s chiefly because AUKUS is a national endeavour of government, not just a military program. Its benefits, especially the technology programs, need to be realised by the broader Australian community and economy, not just by Defence and the ADF.

And that will need more than what the National Reconstruction Fund may offer. For example, without a civilian nuclear industry, it’s hard to see how to sustain a supply of nuclear scientists and technicians, let alone develop the breadth of expertise dealing in the risks nuclear power entails.

Nuclear physics is a demanding field. It faces competition for prospective students from quantum computation, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, medicine and other technology-focused disciplines. Those fields are likely to be seen as offering more scope and opportunity than a career in a more socially confining, military-centred bureaucracy. The heavy censoring of the defence innovation review doesn’t inspire confidence in Defence’s accountability or openness to new ideas.

AUKUS will require a major uplift not simply in the navy, but across the defence organisation and government—including in strategic analysis, program design and delivery, technical competence, and disciplines that are hard to find in Australia such as statecraft, complex project management and technical product management.

Much of the means of AUKUS needs to be in civilian organisations. It’s not simply strategic expertise that’s of concern, but a need for discipline in program governance and improved civilian capability.

Moreover, we cannot address the strategic challenges, and opportunities, of the 2020s and 2030s, many of which are technological in nature, with a fundamentally extractive economy and institutions still tethered to the 1990s.

Despite the vociferous coverage, AUKUS remains underdebated—not because we don’t really need those submarines and the pillar two goodies, but because its realisation will demand a revolution in much of our society and economy.