It’s time to return fire against AUKUS naysayers

Richard Marles at HMAS Stirling, 16 March 2023

Written by

Peter Jennings

The AUKUS pathway for Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines is barely 10 days old. Already it is clear that the biggest threat to the plan is not the opposition, which is embracing bipartisan support, or China’s absurd attempts to distract from its own military behaviour by saying AUKUS threatens regional security.

Labor’s biggest challenge comes from within: it’s the attacks on AUKUS from Paul Keating, Bob Carr, at least one Labor backbencher and former Labor staff.

This critique of AUKUS includes sweeping but generally poorly informed dismissals of submarine technology, Australian defence policy, the reliability of the US and the supposed invincibility of China.

If there is one lesson Anthony Albanese should take from the disastrous French submarine contract, it is that governments have no chance of delivering projects they can’t explain. AUKUS will have to be sold in the square of public opinion every day until the boats arrive.
You can be certain the anti-AUKUS elements will grow louder and probably better organised. Progressive politics loves a cause, and what could be a more galvanising mix than a plan combining nuclear propulsion, the US, the British, defence industry and a chance to indulge benign and defeatist views of communist China?

Well done to the Prime Minister, Defence Minister Richard Marles and Foreign Minister Penny Wong for dismissing the angry and out-of-date views of Keating. Now the need is to make the detailed case for AUKUS, explaining the military technology, the value of the alliance and why we need to deter China’s aggression

One Labor tradition worth repeating is using parliament to make detailed ministerial policy statements. AUKUS is surely worth a six-monthly prime ministerial statement that enables members and senators to put their views on the public record.

Marles has already made a parliamentary statement on how Australia will keep sovereign control of submarine operations. That helped Marles counter silly arguments that US nuclear engineers will veto Australian commanding officers.

Now the government must set out its position on many of the anti-AUKUS arguments already picking up steam. One probably skewers red herrings rather than torpedoes them, but here are four poor quality anti-AUKUS arguments in need of immediate broadsides.

First it’s claimed that future technology will make the oceans transparent, rendering submarines obsolescent. I have seen one claim by business columnist Robert Gottliebsen that “the US is developing an ability to locate submarines from the air using a giant radar mounted in a pod”. This can pick up a submarine’s undersea wakes and “the Chinese have a similar system which may be more advanced”.

I can assure readers that no such giant pod exists, making the deep oceans transparent to aircraft or even satellites. Quantum computing may make progress in surface detection of wakes that are hundreds of metres deep. But we are decades from that point, if it is ever reached.

It is true that submarine hunting technology will improve, but submarines also will get quieter and faster, decoys more numerous, and weapons will have longer ranges.

China, Russia, the US and dozens of other countries are not investing billions of dollars into submarines knowing that radars in pods will make them worthless. The anti-AUKUS argument is false. One would hope our navy might easily refute such undergraduate debating points. Don’t hold your breath. The government will have to drag that out of Defence, an organisation that does not accept it has to explain its business.

A second anti-AUKUS claim is that we simply will not be able crew nuclear-powered boats. A Virginia-class sub has a crew of about 135 compared with 42 for a Collins-class boat. The future AUKUS subs may be closer to 100 personnel.
Note that on Defence’s planning we will not have eight AUKUS subs in the water until the early 2060s. We have 38 years to find less than 1000 personnel, almost all not yet born.

Crew numbers will not be a showstopper. If the task seems too hard, consider that some have argued a better approach would be to build and operate 50 Collins-class conventional subs. That would require a notional total crew of 2100.
Of course 50 Collins-class boats would need at least two more navy bases than we currently have. The idea that Australian security will be maintained by swarms of crewed 1980s technology diesel submarines, operating one presumes south of the Indonesian archipelago (they will not survive farther north) is absurd.

Third, we have the claim that operating two different nuclear-powered submarines at the same time – when the Virginia-class subs hand over to the AUKUS design – crosses a threshold of complexity for Australia that will be just too difficult to manage.
Why should that be so? The boat’s weapons and sensors will be the same, the nuclear reactors will be similar, as will the training and maintenance systems.

The Australian air force, with fewer than 14,500 people, operates more than a dozen types of aircraft from the F-35 to the Super Hornet, Growler electronic warfare aircraft, along with early warning and control, maritime patrol, refuelling, heavy and tactical transport aircraft. But the navy, it’s asserted, cannot run two types of submarines because subs are “complex”. In fact for a small force the Australian Defence Force man­ages complexity remarkably well, with high levels of safety and (important for a defence force) with absolute lethality.

A fourth anti-AUKUS claim is that the project represents a stealthy shift from a “defence of Australia” strategy to a “forward defence” concept – meaning, as former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Peter Varghese put it in The Australian Financial Review, that “some day we may have to fight in a battle a long way from Australia and as part of a US-led coalition”.

A defence of Australia strategy would not be improved by selecting military equipment reducing our ability to support a coalition-led war. Our participation in a future conflict will be determined by the grit of our political leadership, not the equipment Defence uses.
It’s past time for the government to have a fresh conversation with the Australian people about defence strategy. The defence of Australia concept developed in the ’80s focused on how to deal with a so-called low-level threat from Indonesia. That time is long past. Now, the risk to regional peace is China. In this new reality Australia cannot defend itself by preparing only for what might happen south of the Indonesian archipelago.

What does the defence of Australia mean in the 2020s? It’s time the government developed its thinking on that point. To pretend this has nothing to do with China, as the anti-AUKUS critics seem to suggest, would be naive and extremely dangerous.

This article was originally published in the Australian on 23 March 2023.