MIKE SCRAFTON. A critique of SEA1000 from the outside

Feb 7, 2020

When critiquing government’s strategic policy, the ‘things were better in my day’ syndrome needs to be avoided. That these decisions and the supporting background strategic analysis and assessments are always hidden from wider view by secrecy classifications and need-to-know protocols must be accepted as must the reality that pragmatic consideration will be given to other important matters like alliance and industry policy. Still, how did SEA1000 happen?

Capability development is considerably more difficult than twenty-five years ago, when there was no credible direct military threat to Australia. Before China emerged, Defence went through intellectual somersaults to justify funding; positing assaults from the archipelago to the North and employing rhetorical flourishes like ‘warning time’ and ‘capability gap’. These ploys all worked because Australia does need a capable Defence force and governments recognised their obligation to reassure Australians they were safe. Today they are redundant.

Today, great power war is a possibility. The impact on the security of Australians could be substantial. Conflict involving the US and China, or between Russia and Europe/NATO, would have devastating economic consequences for Australia and disrupt the global power balance in unpredictable ways. Although nothing is inevitable, defence planning is all about risk management. The higher stakes make the need to get strategic policy decisions right greater now.

The strategic risks, future uncertainty, and shaping the options for Australia give advisers an unenviable task. Advances in military technology are accelerating. In tandem acquisition lead times for technologically advanced platforms are increasing. Integrating advanced weapons and command and control systems are more challenging as is upgrading them constantly to remain ahead of countermeasures. Smarter, cheaper alternatives are also always appearing. Force developers are always gambling on the nature of future warfare, and the geostrategic and tactical environment the new capability will encounter.

The astronomical and creeping cost of the Future Submarines will squeeze other capabilities out of the investment program and impose further opportunity costs. How security is affected by foregone capabilities is important in Defence decisions. Defence policy advisers have an obligation to make clear the impacts of an acquisition on other capabilities and to expose the pros and cons of mature or nascent technologies that could perform the same functions more effectively or efficiently.

There is little equivalence between advising on strategic and defence policy today in comparison with the 1990s. Where there is alignment is in the duty placed on advisors to present all the options and all the arguments to government. Officials from other relevant departments need to review critically and evaluate to propositions for investment put forward by Defence. And therein lies the problem. Defence is a highly specialised domain.

The 2016 White Paper provided the public justification for SEA1000, such as it is. It was more a statement than an argument and one anchored firmly in today’s technology and geopolitics. There is no robust explanation offered of the selection of this option that might be expected when contemplating a project of this magnitude. The future submarines are expected to operate throughout the second half of the twenty-first century. Yet, the possibility of technological or geostrategic disruption or discontinuity is ignored. Why?

The White Paper states the twelve future submarines must be highly interoperable with the United States and provide surveillance and protection of Australia’s maritime approaches. They will be ‘an effective deterrent’, through their contribution to anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare operations, undertake intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); and support to special operations; giving Australia ‘the capacity to defend and further our interests from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans and from the areas to our north to the Southern Ocean’. Why submarines are the best option for these roles beyond 2050 is assumed to be self-evident.

The assumptions here are brave; interoperability with the US will remain the priority, there will be enough submarines available when needed, and advances in ISR technology and anti-submarine warfare won’t make submarines both obsolete and vulnerable. A seemingly unexamined $80 billion gamble.

The government also intends to have submarines forever. The White Paper says, ‘Australia will need to be planning the follow-on submarine well before the last new submarine enters service’. That statement needs to be digested slowly. This is not a strategic capability development. It’s a platform replacement policy. This is an important clue to how the SEA1000 decision was made.

Something that doesn’t seem to have changed is the replacement mentality in the ADF. This propensity once muted by the contestability within Defence where the military were the proposers of capability projects and knowledgeable civilian analysts the reviewers. As Hugh White has noted ‘the armed services inevitably have strong preferences’ that have ‘little or nothing to do with Australia’s strategic needs’. Their expertise with and preference for existing in-service capabilities such as submarines can distort strategic priorities. It can mean being stuck with dangerous obsolescence.

But that alone doesn’t make this decision explicable. Over the decades since the Tange Review the continuous evolution of the Defence Organisation has seen the relativities between the Secretary and the CDF change in favour of the latter. A positive development for the effectiveness of the ADF, a clear chain of command is essential, but a setback for good policymaking. This shift in power has been enhanced by government’s increasing reliance on the ADF as the War on Terror has stretched out.

The actual decision process around the submarines decision is invisible. From outside it appears that in this age of obsession with national security the position of CDF has additionally accrued immense weight in Cabinet considerations. Open ADF support for the government’s alliance policies has become important. Governments seem to be entranced by and overly respectful toward the military. No-one wants to be weak on national security.

The prudential critique of major capability development focussing on the military tasks, current and future potential threats, and encompassing the risks and opportunity costs—once normal in such decisions—is not evident here. To the external observer it seems the Navy wanted more submarines, the CDF proposed the plan, and government acquiesced.

Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.

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5 thoughts on “MIKE SCRAFTON. A critique of SEA1000 from the outside

  1. “Capability development is considerably more difficult than twenty-five years ago … Defence went through intellectual somersaults to justify funding”

    It’s still the same. Instead of saying the obvious and logical thing – “lack of a threat means we cannot justify this level of spending” – threats had to be invented to justify the spending. And still are being invented.

    This is how we end up in our Great and Powerful Friend Du Jour’s imperial expeditions on the other side of the world – expeditions that have wasted our blood and treasure while adding not one jot to the wellbeing or security of Australians. It’s our military history since the Boer War.

    The top priority being placed on “interoperability with the US” tells me these subs are intended to be used for the same useless and deadly makework for our servicemen and women.

  2. In this and his previous post on 4 February, ‘Future Submarines and Future War’, Mike Scrafton is joining an increasing number of professionals who are raising concerns on the Turnbull government’s ill-conceived submarine decision.

    While Australia’s economic well-being is inextricably linked to China it does not follow that we accept foreign interference in Australian politics, our educational systems, industrial and agricultural bases. Ipso facto, securing the country’s commodity exports and uninterrupted importation of petroleum products from Southeast Asia and the Middle East, requires an evolving and effective Australian Defence Force. Spending an estimated $220 billion on an experimental submarine design and build cannot be the answer.

    Frederick the Great, the model commander all capable leaders, from Napoleon to Bismarck, from Rommel to Montgomery strove to emulate, articulated succinctly. ‘He who defends everything defends nothing’. Thus before the ADF prepares for the unlikely event of war with our major trading partner the government must stop wasting money on unrealistic programs and reinforce the country’s defence capabilities pragmatically.
    Good judgement dictates to first revisit precisely what purpose the RAN’s new squadron of submarines is to have and then procure affordable and effective, evolving, underwater warfare capabilities. Our relationship with the People’s Republic of China must be managed carefully, sensibly, and strategically, in other words, diplomatically with a capable – fit for purpose – Australian Defence Force as the backstay.

  3. Thank you Mike.
    I believe your conclusion is the proper one: “…the Navy wanted more submarines,
    the CDF proposed the plan, and government acquiesced.”
    The invisibility of the decision process (to which you rightly draw attention) was specifically designed to mask this.
    There has been another reason put forward for this balls-up, and it was by John Menadue (23/01/2019) in an article entitled: “We are paying an enormous price to keep Christopher Pyne in Parliament.”
    I regard his comment as relevant now as it was then:
    “Apart from the massive level of protection and the $50b plus budgetary cost, the Coalition has yet to adequately explain how our security will be improved by building these conventional submarines to operate against Chinese nuclear submarines in the South China Sea. Even the US has reservations about our inserting twelve conventional submarines in the South China Sea. Projecting ourselves into that area against China is likely to make us less secure.”

  4. Apart from all the political, strategic and technological uncertainties 30-70 years from now, if China can build a couple of thousand or so bed hospitals in 10 days why do we need to order submarines now for the whole of the second half of the 21st century? Why don’t we just wait until 2049 and decide what we need then?

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