Politics Analysis

Australia's defence program is dead in the water

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Australia's defence program has been mired by inferior military equipment and unwavering loyalty to the United States, writes Richard Broinowski.

THE AUKUS AGREEMENT announced by President Joe Biden and Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison in September 2021 forecast ambitious plans to provide Australia with advanced U.S. and UK defence equipment.

The package includes hardware such as sophisticated tanks and missiles, as well as advanced technology on cyber warfare, artificial intelligence and quantum analysis. Most astonishing was the announcement that the U.S. and UK are prepared to share with Australia the technology to acquire nuclear submarines.

The political consequences of such an acquisition are unsettling. The Prime Minister has already angered the French by misleading them. Without warning, Australia cancelled the joint venture with its Naval Group to build Shortfin Barracuda submarines in Australia.

We have alienated a number of Pacific Island states who consider nuclear-powered submarines will compromise the South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone.

We have encouraged wider proliferation among neighbouring countries with nuclear power reactors such as South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, who will want their own nuclear-powered boats.

And despite Morrison’s denials that Australia wants nuclear weapons, neighbours may see Australia’s acquisition of the submarines as leading inevitably to us getting such weapons, encouraging them to do the same. Further afield, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt may seek to acquire their own nuclear powered and armed submarines.

Environmentally, the acquisition could be a disaster. Where in Australia are the submarines to be based? Could their home ports become contaminated? Where do we dispose of their reactors at the end-of-service life? The British or Americans will probably say that we must dispose of reactor cores ourselves. These will contain highly-enriched, bomb-grade uranium (U-235) and plutonium (Pu-239) that will remain highly toxic for tens of thousands of years.

After enormous political difficulty, Australia is only now on the verge of identifying a possible permanent storage site for low-level nuclear waste, at Napandee Station near Kimba on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. Getting agreement to dispose of high-level waste anywhere in the country is probably well beyond the collective political will.

Then there is Australia’s loss of strategic independence. British nuclear propulsion technology is virtually the same as American. Westinghouse sold its pressurised water reactor (PWR) technology, which powers U.S. submarines, to Rolls Royce, which powers British boats. Whichever country we choose as a partner, even if we choose both, it is highly likely that the United States will dictate the roles of Australian submarines.

Instead of providing area denial around Australia to potential invading forces, for which conventionally-powered submarines are appropriate, our submarines will likely be at the beck and call of the U.S. to help destroy China’s second-strike capability. In such a case, Australian facilities such as Pine Gap will become Chinese nuclear targets, if they are not already.   

When Australia receives such assets remains left vague. But if shortcomings with existing defence programs are any guide, we may be waiting a long time, entailing much more expense than we bargained for.

In an article published in the spring 2010 edition of Security Challenges, Fred Bennett, Chief of Capital Procurement in the Defence Department in the 1980s, lists what he calls the seven deadly risks that confound efficient defence procurement. They are novelty, uncertainty, complexity, interdependence, resource limitations, political constraints and what he calls ’creative destruction’ — the fierce and unrelenting struggle among weapons companies for legal, financial and commercial control in free enterprise societies.

Some or all of these factors played a part in cost overruns, schedule delays and performance failures that have dogged previous defence procurement projects. The following are among the more egregious examples.

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter sold to the RAAF is admitted to be a failure by USAF experts. Designed to be a low-cost, lightweight, high-performance stealth fighter, it is none of these things. At an eye-watering U.S.$100 million (AU$140 million) per copy, the plane has limited range, low air-to-air combat survivability and extraordinarily high running costs. Fifth-generation Chinese and Russian fighters out-perform it.

Yet the RAAF has already taken delivery of 40 and is committed to taking another 32. Will the RAAF get more powerful engines retrofitted mid-life, as Lockheed Martin is reported to be planning? If so, at what cost?   

Nine UK-designed Hunter-class frigates to be built by BAE Systems at Adelaide’s Osborne Shipyard at a cost of $6 billion have been found at audit to have substantial design faults. Worst seems to be that by increasing their weight from eight to 10,000 tonnes with extra equipment, their engines will be underpowered, compromising performance, particularly the capacity to run radar at full power while driving the ships at maximum speed.

The ADF’s entire fleet of 47 European-designed MRH-90 Taipan helicopters, assembled in Australia and brought into service in 2017, is being retired because of numerous faults. Retirement is a decade earlier than expected. They will be replaced by the latest versions of American Black Hawks.

Upgrade of the Jindalee over-the-horizon radar program (JORN) has reportedly failed to meet engineering milestones, is years behind schedule and is over budget.

If these projects have been frustrated by Bennett’s deadly risks, how much greater will be problems associated with nuclear-propelled submarines? With an estimated production time of 20-30 years before the boats are commissioned and operational, the regional political and strategic landscape may have changed beyond recognition.

By then, future American (or British) governments may have ditched the project. Optimists might hope that future Australian governments will have done the same.  

Canberra may have broken the grip of Sinophobic analysts in Canberra. The Chinese “threat” may have disappeared, or morphed into a strategic understanding.

In the shorter term, cynics may see the ramping up of the Chinese threat and the AUKUS agreement as ephemeral, as laying the groundwork for a khaki Election in 2022. If so, the submarine project may simply disappear after the elections. It would be in the interests of Australia’s capacity to exercise independent strategic judgement if it did do so. 

Richard Broinowski AO is a writer and public commentator. He has published six books. A seventh, on the wisdom of Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, will appear this year.

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