Politics Analysis

Submarine fiasco the latest in a long list of Coalition military failures

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Cartoon by Mark David/@mdavidcartoons

Modern history shows Australia’s Coalition is incapable of effective defence planning and military hardware procurement, writes Alan Austin.

THE LATEST FAILED attempt to upgrade Australia’s submarines – which has wasted multiple billions of borrowed dollars and eight years – follows a string of Coalition disasters.

Failure at the top

Australian governments have traditionally appointed defence ministers with a view to having them serve over the long term. Jim Killen was Malcolm Fraser’s Defence Minister for more than six years. Kim Beazley served for five years and four months and Robert Ray for five years and 11 months, both in the Hawke-Keating years. Stephen Smith had held the portfolio for three years when the Rudd-Gillard Government lost office in 2013.

In contrast, the current Coalition has had six defence ministers in eight years, serving an average of one year and four months. It has had seven ministers for defence industry. None of them had the required experience or capability to manage the portfolio.

F-111 tactical strike aircraft

In 1963, the Menzies Government contracted to buy F-111 fighter jets. Due to continual bungles – technical, contractual and political – the aircraft were not delivered until 1973. Thereafter, the Liberal Party’s folly became even clearer.

The F-111s cost vastly more than originally quoted, were highly prone to fuel leaks and other mechanical failure and caused serious morale problems among military personnel. They were abandoned in 2010, ten years before their scheduled retirement.

Although Australia engaged in conflicts in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and East Timor over that period,      F-111s were never deployed in combat.

Super hornets

In late 2007, the incoming Rudd Labor government conducted a full review of military requirements. In March 2008, it proceeded with the previous Government’s proposal to acquire 24 U.S.-made F/A-18F Super hornet strike aircraft.

One was assembled rapidly in 2009 so Australian pilots could start training. The first batch was delivered to Australia in March 2010. By December 2010, 15 had been delivered and the F/A-18F squadron was operational.

The RAAF still operates the 24 Super Hornets, having successfully deployed them in Iraq in 2014 and in exercises elsewhere. A competent government can procure military hardware on time.

Taipan helicopters grounded

In June this year, all Australia’s Howard-era MRH90 Taipan helicopters were grounded due to delays in getting spare parts from Europe. The Army has now been forced to extend the life of 20 Bob Hawke-era Black Hawk helicopters until the end of 2022 or beyond.

The Guardian reported that Defence is spending $37 million to rent private helicopters while the Taipans are grounded. It also quotes critics claiming the Coalition’s purchase of the Taipans has been “a farce from go to whoa”.

Hunter class frigates

The Rudd Government’s 2009 Defence White Paper foreshadowed:

'... a fleet of eight new Future Frigates, to replace and upgrade the ANZAC-class vessels.'

As with almost every other sound project Labor initiated, the Coalition has botched this badly. The delivery date for the first frigate has been pushed back to December 2031 and brawling over costs, design, capability and Australian content continues.

Independent Senator Rex Patrick, a former submariner, has condemned Coalition incompetence:

“Every time the project team is asked a question, the situation worsens in some way. It’s either a cost increase, a schedule slippage or some Australian industry player missing out on a work opportunity.”


Collins class submarines

The Hawke Government commissioned six Collins Class submarines in 1987 and ensured Australia participated in the project at every stage. Construction began in Adelaide in 1990 in collaboration with a Swedish shipbuilder and continued until 2003. Early technical problems were gradually overcome. The six subs will now remain in service until the mid-2040s, subject, of course, to when the Coalition loses office.

This demonstrates Australia can build its own vessels – when it has a government with vision and competence.

Contract with France for attack class submarines

The Coalition has mismanaged replacing the Collins Class subs from the outset. In 2016, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull signed a contract to buy 12 French shortfin barracudas. The deal ensured billions of euros per year would flow from Australia to France for the next 50 years, at least.

France’s obligations under the contract were ill-defined. The French, who could not believe their luck, labelled it “le contrat du siècle", the deal of the century.

It was. Only once every 100 years does a customer come along as incompetent as Australia’s Coalition.

Finally, last week, after wasting an estimated 3.5 billion dollars – all of it borrowed – Australia welched on the deal. The Morrison Government, if it stays in office, will now repeat the costly process, this time with an American or British shipbuilder.

Other projects lagging badly

Senior Defence officials told the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit last week that receiving the second block of 186 Boxer combat reconnaissance vehicles from Europe will be delayed by another year.

That follows a seven-month delay with the first 25 Boxer vehicles earlier this year. Defence officials also told the hearing that serious delays were affecting the $3.6 billion project to acquire 12 new Arafura Class patrol vessels to replace existing Armidale Class boats. 

Audit Office confirms Coalition failures

Australian National Audit Office was critical of the Government’s defence exports strategy. Among the multiple deficiencies, it found Defence:

‘... has not established effective arrangements for measuring the achievement of defined objectives.’

And that:

‘Formal reporting on implementation progress to the Minister and Defence senior leaders has been limited.’

These all concern Australia’s safety and security, not just the billions in treasure currently being squandered mindlessly. It is urgent that the rabble trying to run the country are replaced with a competent crew at the earliest opportunity.

Alan Austin’s defamation matter is nearly over. You can read the latest update here and support the crowd-funding hereAlan Austin is an Independent Australia columnist and freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @alanaustin001.

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