Twelve steps towards delivering a successful defence program
AUKUS launch in San Diego 13 March 2023

AUKUS launch in San Diego 13 March 2023

Written by

Peter Jennings

Given the world’s tough economic outlook and the eroding geo-strategic situation, Anthony Albanese may not have a more positive day in office than he had last Monday in San Diego, California, at the announcement of the AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine pathway.

Now comes the hard part: to deliver not one but the two most complicated defence acquisition projects in Australia’s history – accepting three to five Virginia-class attack submarines (SSNs) into service, and then the “SSN-AUKUS, a new conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarine, based on a UK design, incorporating cutting edge Australian, UK and US technologies”.

By far the best part of AUKUS is that it spreads risk between three countries. This is not just Australia’s submarine project to fail. The Biden administration is every bit as invested in expanding its two sub construction yards to meet its growing need for subs as well as Australia.
Britain, too, must deliver success for its navy and find ways to keep its defence industry viable.

As for Australia, frankly, our sub-building aspirations were sunk without AUKUS. There is no future pretending to be a front-rank defence force with conventionally powered subs.

It’s strange that it has taken so long for three such close strategic partners to realise that sharing design and construction risk should produce more reliable outcomes.

What Albanese mustn’t do now is close the defence ledger thinking “job done”. Prime ministers tend to do that once big decisions are made. They move on to the next problem, leaving it to the implementers to deliver their magisterial visions.

To do that would be a mistake. There is no more important task for Albanese’s prime ministership than to make sure the AUKUS project starts fortified for success.

Here I suggest a dozen things government must do deliver AUKUS. Failure to take these steps runs the risk, as we saw with the unfortunate French submarine project, that a tentative start over a half-decade can kill even the noblest defence equipment project.

First, AUKUS needs to be kept believably bipartisan because one absolute certainty is that a multi-decade project will need the steward­ship of successive govern­ments. While most Australians see the value of bipartisanship, it runs against the instincts of our political tribes.
Even Albanese’s press statements on Tuesday couldn’t resist highlighting the previous government’s so-called defence “decade of inaction and mismanagement”. Really? That’s the government that delivered AUKUS, identified the interim Virginia-class option and saved Labor the opprobrium of ending the French arrangement.

Genuine bipartisanship will come hard. A start would be for government and opposition to agree to a formal six-monthly discussion on AUKUS progress. Note I suggest a discussion, not just a briefing, because a sensible government should be open to good ideas even from its political opponents.

Both sides of politics know they will swap benches several times over the life of the project. In the interests of national security, surely they can agree to share success rather than fight over mutual failure.

Second, parliament needs to change. A special House of Representatives and Senate joint AUKUS implementation committee should be created. A key task is to turn some MPs into defence specialists, working with their US and British counterparts. This committee should still grill Defence and the proposed submarine construction entity in a tough way, but it needs to be better informed than current parliamentary committees and understand its purpose is to deliver the best subs, not just aim for “gotcha” media moments from hearings.

Third – and this is vital – government must explain to the Australian public that the driver behind AUKUS is an aggressive Beijing wanting to dominate the Indo-Pacific. People who deny this point are being deliberately obtuse or are compromised by business ties to China.
The government owes Australians an honest conversation about China. The immense taxpayer-funded cost of the subs can’t be justified by fudged references to uncertainty or a “lack of transparency”.

The fourth task is for Defence to rethink its own approach to public engagement. The Australian Defence Force hides behind a positive but dated image, tied more closely to World War I than future conflict.

Defence needs to redefine its modern image. To do that it has to explain its business to the Australian public, not hide behind ministers and stay tight-lipped in parliamentary hearings.

Initiative five: Albanese needs to draw the state and territory leaders into a discussion about AUKUS and national security. The age of premiers leading trade delegations to Beijing must end.

To Albanese’s credit he is planning to hold a national cabinet meeting on AUKUS. At that meeting the states should be encouraged to close their lobbying shops that spruik for defence business. Those groups have done profound damage to the defence industry through the years.
Next, point six, industry needs a seat at the table. Apart (I presume) from the major sub builders in the US and Britain, industry has not been part of the AUKUS planning but it will deliver the equipment.

The Prime Minister should form a private sector advisory committee on AUKUS delivery, putting the weight on Australian companies, including small and mid-sized entities, to bring the innovation and smarts needed for new defence technology.

Left to its own devices, Defence will try to dominate industry. The department mistakenly thinks it can pick the technology winners. More will be delivered if industry is given the scope to innovate itself. Business will need the Prime Minister’s encouragement for that.

Settling the location of the navy’s new east coast base is my seventh key initiative. Media reports hint that Port Kembla in NSW is the prospective location. It has close access to deepwater diving locations in the Pacific and is just south of Sydney, which should be a major recruitment and retention incentive.

The key point here for government is to make a decision, not to take so much time that pro and anti-base lobbying efforts build momentum. Current Port Kembla facilities are constrained, but the money focused on AUKUS should allow for major new development. A nuclear port safety regime needs to be defined and that will be helped by selecting the best site soon.

Point eight, the government needs to end a silly debate about sovereignty. Let’s be clear: by giving access to sensitive technology and by handing over operating Virginia-class subs, the US is making its own sovereign compromises.

Albanese is right to stress that the decision to go to war is the prerogative of the Australian government alone. Everything else, from how and where we fight to what we fight with, is shaped by trusted partnerships with our allies and close partners.

If Australia demands total sovereign control over our security we will end up looking undefended like New Zealand or friendless like North Korea. Debates over sovereignty are a rhetorical distraction.

What matters is building genuinely trusted partnerships, which Australia does well and which Beijing can’t do.

Point nine: Albanese should keep open the possibility that after the three to five Virginia-class subs comes more of that design, not a new Anglo-Australian boat. We have not yet had a clear explanation of why there are now two nuclear propulsion programs: an existing boat we can access this decade and a future design in the 2040s.

The obvious question is: why not more Virginias? Let’s not close off either possibility.

Ten: the focus on subs has let slip attention to the so-called pillar two AUKUS technology of hypersonic vehicles, artificial intelligence and the rest. The subs priority is important, but we can’t turn the ADF into a one-trick pony. That means developing fieldable weapons from the AUKUS pillar two menu.

My two final priorities are about the ADF more broadly and Australia’s diplomatic service. We will see soon what the Defence Strategic Review brings next month addressing a desperate need to modernise much of the ADF. The rest of Defence needs to be brought up to the size and scale of the submarine endeavour, nor can our national security be delivered just by nuclear-powered subs. AUKUS should force a step-up function for the rest of Defence.

Australian diplomacy also needs to scale up to represent our bigger role in regional and global security. In cost terms the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade hardly amounts to a decent torpedo salvo. The reality is we need more diplomats, ones who will charmingly represent the firmer expression of our national interest symbolised by AUKUS.

This article was originally published by the Australian on 18 March 2023