AUKUS exposes Australia’s incoherent defence policy

Feb 14, 2022
Scott Morrison nuclear submarine announcement uk us AUKUS
Scott Morrison, flanked by Boris Johnson and Joe Biden, announces the AUKUS agreement. (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Environmentally, the  submarine 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 AUKUS agreement announced by President Biden, and prime ministers Johnson and Morrison last September forecast ambitious plans to provide Australia with advanced US 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 surprising was the announcement that the US and UK are prepared to share with Australia the technology to acquire nuclear submarines.

The political consequences of such an acquisition are unsettling. Australia suddenly cancelled the joint venture with its Naval Group to build Shortfin Barracuda submarines in Australia. The Prime Minister has angered the French by lying to them about it.

We have alienated a number of Pacific Island states which believe our submarines will compromise the South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone.
Such an acquisition may also inadvertently encourage nuclear proliferation. Asian countries with nuclear power reactors such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan 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 thousands of years. Australia does not have the political will to identify permanent disposal sites for low-level medical nuclear waste, let alone the highly toxic spent fuel from submarine reactor cores.

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 US 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 US Navy to contain China. 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, technical and commercial control.

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 $US100 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 outperform it. Yet the RAAF has already taken delivery of 40, and is committed to take another 32. Will the RAAF get more powerful engines retrofitted midlife, 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 thousand 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 combat speed.

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

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 30 years before the boats are commissioned and operational, the regional political and strategic landscape may have changed beyond recognition.

By then, the US or Britain 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 Australian election in 2022. If so, the submarine project may come to nought. It would be in the interests of Australia’s capacity to exercise independent strategic judgement if it did.

Richard Broinowski AO was a former Australian diplomat in several Asian countries. He is now a writer and public affairs commentator.     

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