There’s a hole in the middle of the discussion about defence, AUKUS and nuclear submarines. And that hole is what will be done to deter conflict involving China between now and 2030. The good news is the hole can be filled and the Albanese government’s decisions on the Defence Strategic Review can do this.
The hole exists because, for all the frenetic effort and negotiation to find a way to get nuclear submarines for Australia, even the accelerated ‘optimal pathway’ announced by three national leaders is slow. For the next ten years, Australia will have no nuclear submarines, getting it’s first in 2033 if all goes to plan. And it’s not until the end of that decade that Australia is meant to have three Virginia class nuclear attack submarines.
Much of the public discussion – and criticism – of AUKUS has focussed on the contribution 8 more nuclear submarines can make towards shifting the military balance with China in the Indo Pacific.
But it’s been an oddly unanchored debate. Without wanting to be sucked into the gravitational vortex of the nuclear submarine debate, the AUKUS submarine program is all about the long-term China challenge. It contributes little beyond symbolism in the next decade. That’s because a mega project like nuclear submarines can’t be rushed even when political imperatives want it to be.
In the nearer term – the next 2, 3, 5 and ten years – other actions have to be taken that shift the military balance away from China and these other things have to be able to be truly fast tracked. The Defence Strategic Review has to be the vehicle for this, folding in the so-called “Pillar 2” of AUKUS that is meant to be about getting digital technologies like cyber, AI, quantum technologies and hypersonic missiles actually into the hands of the Australian, UK and US militaries soon.
Unfortunately, the backgrounding and leaks from the strategic review indicate the directions and decisions contained in it will take a well-travelled path: there will be a series of headline acquisitions of ‘production ready’ weapons and systems, largely from big US defence firms like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, and some changed numbers and direction for projects that are already underway.
So, we can expect faster purchases of the US HIMARS rocket artillery system for the Army, a fourth squadron of F35 fighters for the Air Force, a shift from the unarmed Offshore Patrol Vessels to missile-carrying corvettes for the Navy, and perhaps even a properly armed version of the troubled Hunter class frigates. The government may scale back the huge Army proposal to buy 450 heavy, armoured Infantry Fighting Vehicles, but still spend about $20 billion on them. We may even hear about assembly in Australia of some already planned missile types from the two big American companies who make most of Australia’s weapons – Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.
This is a familiar exercise in catalogue shopping, but it leaves one big thing unaddressed that will be critical to increasing Australia’s military power and helping deal with an aggressive China this decade and beyond. None of these purchases involves changing the Defence organisation’s mindset or way of operating. Without this, no matter how urgent the catalogue ordering is, we should expect the continued delayed, stately management of big, slow programs by Defence that contrasts heavily with the speed of technological change in the commercial and digital world. That slow management is also a disturbing contrast with the progress that Communist China has made in developing and fielding new capabilities – from missiles, to satellites, drones and cyber systems.
Richard Marles was far too kind to Defence and its management last year when he condemned the previous government’s ministers for delays in delivering Defence capabilities and projects. He ‘recognise(d) the dedicated work of ADF and Department of Defence staff, and our defence industry partners, on capability acquisition and sustainment’ and went on to diagnosis that ‘the problem under the former Government was that Defence Ministers failed to provide the leadership needed to effectively manage those risks’.
The truth is Defence is in love with complex, big projects and is proud of the time taken to make them happen. It’s business processes and the rules for getting decisions from ministers are all built for this type of activity. Only incremental improvement is possible given these foundations, as the decades of attempted defence reforms from the mid-1970s have shown.
But these processes and approaches are simply the wrong conceptual approach to dealing with rapid technology change and getting hold of low cost, high volume things like small armed and or surveillance drones, cheap but effective missiles and taking up the powerful technologies we all use every day (often without knowing it) in the digital realm.
The nuclear submarine program is the ultimate mega project – perhaps the first Australian ‘giga project’. It lets Defence go even further into this happy place of the complex, the slow and the very long term.
So, beyond the expected eye catching headlines about HIMARS rocket systems and missile-equipped Navy corvettes, the real work of the government’s strategic review is to create an entirely different and separate machine for getting hold of the small, the cheap and the many.
Success will require an entirely different agency outside of the control of any of the bureaucratic fiefdoms in Defence. This new agency, built on business processes taken from successful fast moving firms operating in the digital world, has to be at the heart of the strategic review.
That will make Defence management deeply unhappy, but it can let them administer the big, the complex and the slow moving. And leave it to industrialists and technologists working directly with military end users, taking approaches like we’ve seen from SpaceX, Starlink and our own DefendTex small drone manufacturer – and in Ukraine most days – to give the Australian military the edge it needs this decade and the next. Ironically, that will be the greatest contribution Australia can make to regional deterrence and to the AUKUS partnership.
This will only happen if Richard Marles insists on it, because left to itself Defence will reject ideas that shift from business as usual and behave in highly self-protective ways, as it has in censoring almost the entirety of an unclassified external review by David Peever of the Defence innovation system when forced to release it through FOI.
Less catalogue shopping, more urgent new ways of getting hold of technology is the real test for the strategic review. That’s the other shoe to drop now that we know about the nuclear subs.