Politics Analysis

Australia’s submarine deal is a disaster and we know who to blame

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

The current AUKUS submarine contract reflects a profoundly tragic lost opportunity, as Alan Austin reports.

UNDERNEATH former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s devastating invective are sound history and compelling logic. China poses no military threat to Australia, or to any other SEATO or ASEAN nation. Those who see menace in periodic trade tiffs and cyber surveillance are “so dumb”.

The AUKUS submarine deal – set to cost $360-plus billion in coming decades – was the worst decision made by an Australian Labor Government in the Labor Party’s history. The mainstream media is failing Australia badly with its constant misreporting of regional affairs in general and of China in particular.

Grilled by hostile and defensive journalists at the National Press Club last Wednesday, Paul Keating hammered home all these points, withstanding every intellectual argument and personal attack hurled his way. As colleague Belinda Jones summarised deftly here, the veteran Asia analyst returned fire in his accustomed searing style.

The latest submarine deal

The AUKUS agreement, announced by Defence Minister Richard Marles last Tuesday, has three key elements:

  1. Continuing rotations of UK and U.S. submarines visiting Australia will guarantee an immediate defence shield. U.S. submarines will start arriving this year, with UK submarines visiting from 2026 onwards.
  2. Three U.S. Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines will be delivered to Australia sometime in the 2030s.
  3. Australia and the UK will now plan production of the SSN-AUKUS series, a conventionally-armed nuclear-powered submarine, based on a UK design. The UK will deliver its first vessel in the late 2030s. Australia will complete its first home-built submarine in the early 2040s.

Several elements of this saga have not yet been adequately analysed. They deserve comment.

Culpability for this costly fiasco

The underlying reality that the media has largely ignored is that the Albanese Government had virtually no option other than the present deeply flawed course, through no fault of its own.

The time to decide on the replacement for the current Collins-class submarines was 2014. The time to start building them was 2018. Construction will now begin around 2028 — ten years too late. This is purely the result of Coalition incompetence and dereliction of its duty to defend Australia.

The dismal Abbott Coalition Government actually did sign a contract with Japan in 2014 to buy several Soryu-class diesel-electric submarines. The next failed regime, Malcolm Turnbull’s, abandoned that contract and signed another in 2015 to buy 12 Barracuda-class nuclear attack submarines from France.

The corrupt Morrison Government welched on that deal in 2021, costing Australia its international reputation as an honourable trading partner, compromising Australia’s medium-term security and losing taxpayers more than five billion borrowed dollars with nothing to show for it.

Magnificent opportunity lost

When replacing the Collins-class subs became necessary, Australia had the chance to reimagine its status in the world of naval shipbuilding and become a leading exporter.

It could have designed and built a submarine smaller, faster, stealthier, requiring fewer crew, better able to withstand shock loads from underwater explosions, and cheaper to build and operate than its rivals. This could have been achieved with a scaled-down version of one of the best submarines ever constructed — Australia’s Collins class built in the 1990s.

This “daughter-of-Collins”, as Paul Keating dubbed it, offered multiple benefits. It would have provided Australia with vessels fit perfectly for purpose, it would have retained technology and jobs in Australia, it would have generated substantial export income and built a springboard for expansion into other high-priced military and civilian manufacturing.

That opportunity is gone forever.

New overall defence blueprint required

Australia now has effectively outsourced control of its naval forces and other defence decisions to the United States and Britain. This changes everything. If, as now seems inevitable, Australia’s huge new attack submarines will be deployed by the Americans in deep seas far from Australia instead of patrolling shallow coastal waters, then the requirements for other vessels have changed.

The 2016 Defence White Paper foreshadowed three Hobart-class air warfare destroyers and nine new frigates supported by new replenishment vessels. It also envisaged more offshore patrol vessels and a greatly expanded fleet of manned and unmanned aircraft.

Much of this will no longer be affordable. A new White Paper is needed urgently.

Possible chink in the AUKUS armour

Both Republican frontrunners as candidates for U.S. president in the 2024 Election have expressed views on foreign affairs, disturbing many observers, including close allies. Both Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump are using talking points on the current conflict in Ukraine, on NATO and on Russia which are very close to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s. In the event that either becomes president, NATO is likely to break apart, which will have implications for all U.S. alliances.

There is thus a chance, if an outside one, that AUKUS will be up for review sometime after 2025.

Looking to the future

Australia squandered its excellent chance to design and build strategic submarines for export. Australia’s overall military procurement suffered badly throughout the Coalition years, as did other major industries including car manufacturing.

The best Australia can now hope for is that the current Labor Government will retain as much sovereignty as possible, maximise Australia’s stake in the submarine manufacturing process and continue to repair regional relationships, particularly with China.

The principal takeaway from this fiasco must be that the cabal of vested interests and elected politicians who parade themselves as the Liberal Party and the National Party must never be allowed to run Australia’s Federal Government again. The costs and the risks are just too high.

Alan Austin is an Independent Australia columnist and freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @alanaustin001.

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