All over bar the shouting: the inevitability of a submarine farce

Mar 1, 2023

The AUKUS submarine fetish has colonised the minds of the Labor ministers and ejected practical commonsense.

It’s too late now. There’s nought to be done but to stand by and witness Australia’s slide into vassalage. The near unanimity of the political class over AUKUS has obviated the need for a mature public debate. Australia’s AUKUS submarine farce has been scripted. The Austral-Americans have won.

As ‘sovereign’ becomes the adjective de jour for the government and ‘sovereignty’ the favourite noun of Albanese and Marles, Allan Behm has highlighted that the agency to make decisions is actually the issue. Nations never have absolute discretion. With regard to the AUKUS submarines, it is absurd for ministers to declare confidence concerning how future governments may or not be constrained. Australian command and control of a RAN nuclear-powered submarine, as stressed by Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead, is a given. But the statement that Australia “will have sovereign capability” is without meaningful content. Who sits in the submarine driver’s seat is irrelevant to having an independent strategic policy.

The degree of freedom a future government can exercise over the deployment and mission of the submarines is unforeseeable. In a crisis environment there will be an expectation of reciprocity for the generous American Trojan horse gift of nuclear-propulsion technology. It is silly to deny this. The greater the integration with the US military and the deeper the reliance on America for communications and intelligence support for submarine operations, the narrower would be the scope for genuine independent action.

It is just not possible to anticipate the level of pressure, or coercion, to which a future government could be subjected. Nor can anyone give guarantees that over the coming decades subsequent governments would not progressively surrender further control over Australian military assets. Even if today’s parliamentary leadership were sincere in their protestations of acting independently of the Americans, these submarines will not show up until the second half-of-the-century, if ever. At least ten parliaments will have been sworn in before a government could possibly be confronted with an operational decision concerning the AUKUS submarines. The operational life of the submarines could span the terms of another four or more subsequent governments. Declarations about future sovereignty and independence are without weight in this debate.

But this is the nub of the AUKUS folly. To give some perspective, thirty years ago CERN made the World Wide Web protocol and code publicly available royalty free. The consequences were transformative and unknowable at the time, and were particularly revolutionary for military capability. Looking forward that far now, how can anyone presume to be able to predict confidently where the accelerating and massive investment and innovation in artificial intelligence, rocketry, sensors, and robotics, will take warfare? Future war is likely to be characterised increasingly by a variety of more effective, agile, and lethal missiles launched from inexpensive and unmanned autonomous platforms. The political class appears unable to comprehend the prospect of another major transformation in warfare by 2050. The AUKUS submarines are peak planned obsolescence.

Yet, the Labor government is planning to invest massively in a national defence industry base to manufacture manned submarines. An industrial base that supposedly could construct all or part of Australia’s submarines, and relieve the US and UK of the shortfalls in their own submarine production capacity. This is going to be an expensive and technically complex, and a predictably unsuccessful, undertaking.

Realistically, Australia will not build submarines competitively for other nations. The whole complicated enterprise would therefore stand or fall on Australian government funding, and would be hostage to the continued operation of compatible submarines by the UK and US for the next five or six decades. This presents a serious future risk and a huge gamble.

The biggest risk that the Labor government is ignoring is the United States. If America’s maniacal crusade to save its declining hegemony results in a war before 2050, all submarine discussion is rendered moot. The current orientation and objectives of America’s foreign and strategic policy are not fixed, and as early as 2024 a new world view might be directing both the Whitehouse and the Congress. There are disruptive and unpredictable domestic forces at work in the United States whose capture of government could produce radical foreign policy changes.

Moreover, the geopolitical situation will not remain constant. It maybe difficult to imagine a rapprochement between China and America, even thirty years hence, or a precipitous decline in European power and influence. But it is not hard to contemplate a more aggressive and powerful Hindu India throwing its strategic weight around, or Indonesia emerging as a major strategic player in Asia, or Africa becoming more disconnected from Europe and America, or a number of other geopolitical shifts and surprises that would upset the thin strategic arguments heard so far from the government in support of these AUKUS submarines.

The unclassified versions of the Defence Strategic Review and the Optimal Path for the submarines will be released in due course. Not for discussion but as writ. Whatever they say, there is no controlling for the risks above.

That’s all bye-the-bye though. Albanese and Marles clearly won’t be denied their submarines. The former government’s policy has now been internalised by the Labor government. All the signs point to there being no prospect of a sudden upwelling of responsible, considered, and prudent policymaking. Many observers won’t take any joy from watching this AUKUS travesty unfold towards its unfortunate end.

But it’s too late now.

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