The world has changed—and defence planning must too
10 Feb 2022|

For the moment, Defence Minister Peter Dutton has decided to stick with the troubled Hunter-class frigate program. With his usual candour, he told The Australian last week: ‘We looked very carefully at this project and we’ve decided that we will proceed with it. The relationship with the United Kingdom is incredibly important. BAE is a very important partner with us.’

Workable strategy is always about the art of the possible. The Hunter class will still be around after the election. The challenge for the Department of Defence will be to see how it can fix a connected set of problems reportedly making the ship’s design overweight, top-heavy, underpowered, slower than planned and too lightly armed relative to Chinese vessels.

Compare this with the mal­igned and cancelled Attack-class submarine project. Documents recently released under freedom of information legislation show that in August last year Defence submarine program head Greg Sammut judged the project was ‘affordable and acceptable, and compliant with contractual terms and conditions’.

The conclusion was that ‘substantial progress’ had been made with the manufacturer, Naval Group, ‘and there are no extreme program strategic risks’.

Defence Department secretary Greg Moriarty responded, ‘I will ensure that the good progress to date is part of the advice we take to government, and you will have that message repeated in the 2+2 with France and in other engage­ments.’

Just over a fortnight later, the Attack submarine was cancelled when the AUKUS security pact was announced, offering Australia a pathway to submarine nuclear propulsion in partnership with the US and Britain. Australia’s relationship with France and Naval Group’s partnership were clearly not important enough to save the Attack-class subs. Has the Hunter-class frigate survived because BAE Systems is also the builder of Britain’s Astute-class nuclear-powered submarines?

The reality is that AUKUS puts to the torch every aspect of current defence planning. Nuclear propulsion is only part of the picture. A major step-up in cooperation is promised in four technology areas that could reshape the global balance of power: quantum com­puting, artificial intelligence, hypersonic vehicles and undersea technology.

If AUKUS delivers, Australia will become a leading provider of security in the Indo-Pacific. If AUKUS fails, we will have damaged our most important alliance relationship with the US, which has underpinned our security since the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942. Success is far from assured.

The US Navy and Department of Energy, which control nuclear propulsion, will rightly make the most stringent demands of Australia to ensure we are developing the capability to safely operate the technology.

US President Joe Biden has the authority to compel his officials ‘to seek an optimal pathway to deliver this capability’ for Australia, but he has no capacity to force an outcome. Delivering success through AUKUS will come down to our ability to persuade a sceptical part of the US national security system unused to dealing with Australia that we are, in fact, worth the risk to their control of the technology.

A failure will be a significant failure also for Biden, further diminishing his struggling administration, reinforcing a national mindset about the unreliability of allies and the need to place ‘America first’.

Whichever party wins government in the coming federal election, setting the foundations for AUKUS success will be the most significant development in Australia’s security since the signing of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951.

In effect, this means we need a complete rethink of defence policy. Spending about 2% of GDP on defence delivers a small force with modest military capabilities. It emphatically does not produce navy infrastructure geared around nuclear propulsion or plans for domestic missile manufacturing, hypersonic weapons and the rest.

During the next half-decade or so we will need to double defence spending to deliver on what is apparently bipartisan support for AUKUS. This will produce a defence force dramatically different from the one we have now and the ‘future force’ designed in the most recent defence white paper in 2016. The government should approach this challenge initially by resisting the temptation to produce another defence white paper. The last one was written mostly in 2015. A strategic update in 2020 made the right judgement call about the rapid deterioration of regional security.

The gap in thinking is about Defence’s equipment plans. Blueprints for large but undergunned surface ships, heavy armoured vehicles and exquisite but expensive manned combat aircraft all start to look dangerously outmoded.

The risk in asking Defence to produce a new white paper is that the organisation will diligently make the case for keeping current plans on track. I have been associated with a few white papers: seldom are opportunities taken to propose genuinely new and different military capabilities. Typically, white papers validate the status quo, replacing like with like.

In fact, the last time the Australian Defence Force’s force structure was given a thorough independent assessment was in Paul Dibb’s 1986 Review of Australia’s defence capabilities, 36 years ago. The six white papers that followed offered cautious expressions of incrementalism. Arguably the biggest jump in military capability was Kevin Rudd’s plan in 2009 to expand the submarine fleet from six to 12 boats. Now we are unlikely to have more than six subs well into the 2040s.

An independent assessment of the ADF’s structure would hold open the possibility of grafting AUKUS’s technology agenda onto Defence thinking, and hopefully lift priority for uncrewed autonomous vehicles, ships and aircraft that will come to dominate modern military forces.

A second critical task should be to bury the Dickensian idea of ‘sovereign capabilities’ being built in slow-motion in South Australia. There is a reason the air force is the most technologically advanced service—no one thinks we should build combat aircraft in Australia.

AUKUS holds out a much more promising industry pathway, which is to focus on high-tech component production, systems integration and maintenance as we do for the F-35. The more we can shape a shared defence technology future with the AUKUS countries and Japan, the stronger Australia will be.

Finally, Defence has a need, and the need is for speed. Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin are not waiting to see if we can resolve the Hunter-class frigate’s weight problems. The ADF needs to be strengthened quickly, but Defence has shown it can’t deliver that outcome. Something must be done to light a fire of urgency under our strategic thinking.