How did Australia get seduced by AUKUS?

Mar 6, 2024
Submarine of Australian Navy, concept. 3D rendering.

AUKUS. The most disastrous defence-policy mistake in our history: In a class of its own as an exemplar of bureaucratic incompetence.

In his recent edition of Australian Foreign Affairs, “Dead in the Water, the AUKUS Delusion”, Hugh White argues convincingly that Australia does not need nuclear submarines, and is seeking to acquire them under a plan that is almost certain to fail. In his scathing analysis, White pulls no punches. He describes the AUKUS decision as “…the most disastrous defence-policy mistake in our history – and one of the worst on record anywhere.” And: “…the sheer scale of AUKUS puts it in a class of its own as an exemplar of bureaucratic incompetence.”

However, he doesn’t leave the matter there. Being thorough in his work, Prof. White goes deeper into it by asking how Australia’s decision-making process could have resulted in such a deplorable situation. How did we reach this point?

The first flaw in the process that White identifies is the lack of any extensive analysis of the strategic, operational, technical and industrial questions surrounding the project. As far as he can see, no such analysis took place and the few people, who knew about AUKUS before it was announced, had had neither the time nor the expertise to undertake it. This meant that there was no ‘due diligence’ scrutiny and no-one available to offer properly informed, ‘frank and fearless’ advice.

Nevertheless and despite this lack of scrutiny, the decision was taken up enthusiastically by “ministers and officials inside the magic circle”. In searching for ways to explain why this happened, White suggests widespread misinterpretation of what armed forces do and what the reality of war might mean for Australia. Lacking the hard, practical understanding required, there is a tendency to avoid thinking deeply about war – instead resorting to discussion of ‘deterrence’. The focus is shifted from working out how to defeat a potential adversary’s attacks to trying to change that adversary’s mind.

According to White, the optimism attaching to the notion of deterrence puts hard analysis, about the kind of forces we need, into the shadows. What he believes has happened is the emergence of a belief that we only need to impress an adversary – and that, in AUKUS, this adversary will be impressed by our ambition alone, rather than by any actual forces, designed to meet operational needs in real time.

White argues that true deterrence lies in a clear military strategy, backed by forces that can execute it effectively. But “AUKUS”, he writes “is the antithesis of this.” He asks:“Why should we expect our adversaries – China, of course – to be deterred by the AUKUS plan to deploy a small fleet of nuclear-powered submarines decades from now?” He insists that the Chinese know that “…AUKUS does nothing to enhance Australia’s or America’s capacity to fight its forces and win, especially over the timeframes that matter to them,” and so will not be deterred at all.

White then offers another reason for decision-makers in the ‘magic circle’ falling for AUKUS. He suggests that the three nations involved each had other agendas in play.

For Britain he sees “imperial nostalgia and commercial opportunism”- the chance to indulge in the idea of being a world power all over again, making money out of the AUKUS deal at the same time.

Washington’s agenda is considered diplomatic and political, rather than military. According to White. “It aims to lend credibility to its faltering response to China’s challenge by locking in Australian support.” Underlying this is its fear that Australia might not back the USA in a war with China. White makes reference to US official, Kurt Campbell, who is reported to have said that AUKUS “gets Australia off the fence and locks it in for the next 40 years”. For White, America’s agenda lies in cementing Australia into its strategy towards China – committing us to go to war if it does. He writes, “The submarines were just the bait.”.

With regard to Australia, it is all about strengthening the strategic bond between us and the USA, because of our conviction that our security depends on America defeating China’s challenge and remaining the dominant power in Asia, i.e. upholding the ‘old order’.

As White puts it “This helps explain how AUKUS happened, and it also reveals how misguided it is.” He sees it as a deeply flawed approach to the strategic transformation underway in Asia, a policy that is doomed to fail. He goes on:

“Instead of trying to support America in preserving the old order, we should be doing all we can to help shape the new order that is already taking place…. That is why it is so important that we do not commit to go to war with America against China, as Washington will insist we do under AUKUS.”

Turning to local politics, White points out that AUKUS gave Morrison a way to wriggle out of the ill-conceived submarine deal with France, plus a high-profile defence initiative to take into the 2022 election campaign. He predicts that the divisions within Labor will deepen as the implications of AUKUS become clearer and doubts about it grow within the party and the community.

However, White anticipates that the Albanese government will push ahead with AUKUS – until one of the points of failure he has described brings it to a grinding halt. The scenario he considers most likely is a crunch in Washington. The Americans may prove unwilling to sell us Virginia-class submarines, because of their inability to expand their own production and because they have doubts about Australia’s commitment regarding war with China.

White hopes that the end of AUKUS that he predicts comes soon. However, he fears that it may already be too late to save Australia’s submarine capability. He ends with making numerous recommendations about better ways to conduct Australia’s defence.

If only the Prime Minister and Defence Minister would listen to them.

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