Opportunities foregone in AUKUS submarine decision

Mar 16, 2023

Rex Patrick’s analysis of the government’s AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine decision (Michael West Media 14 March 2023) illustrates the one-sidedness of this insane deal. Patrick also sets out a rational and cost-effective alternative to the expensive and inappropriate nuclear subs which serves to highlight some of the significant opportunities lost by the wasteful and ill-considered over-spend.

There will be no “AUKUS” submarines for Australia until the mid-2030s, when three second-hand US Virginia Class subs start arriving. In the meantime, Australia will pay the US $3 billion to upgrade its US shipyards to speed up lagging Virginia Class submarine production. Newly constructed subs will progressively join the US fleet, displacing some older vessels for purchase second-hand by Australia. This alone represents atrocious business negotiation.

From 2027, five UK/US subs will begin rotating through the Stirling Naval Base in Western Australia. This will aid training Australian sailors and shore workers, but is primarily providing an Indian Ocean base for US/UK nuclear-powered subs. To accommodate these non-Australian subs, the government will spend $8 billion over the next ten years to upgrade Stirling. This is augmenting/subsidising another base for the US on Australian soil. There is no financial contribution from the US or UK – more poor negotiation.

Apart from these blatantly one-sided aspects of the AUKUS deal, we have not been provided with a detailed breakdown (let alone technical justification) of the huge total project cost of $268 billion to $368 billion over 30 years. Eight newly-designed “SSN AUKUS Class” submarines will be built in the UK and/or South Australia – but the UK gets the first few in the late 2040s and Australia receives no NEW submarines until the early 2050s.

Could we achieve a better outcome with all this money – assuming we want to spend it on military capability? The sensible approach would be for the findings of the Defence Strategic Review to be considered BEFORE committing to the vast costs of nuclear-powered submarines. But no, let’s make sure we get those subs on order before any rational thought can intervene!

Rex Patrick offers an eminently sensible alternative defence acquisition strategy. It includes 20 off-the-shelf Air Independent Propulsion submarines for the Navy at a cost of $30 billion. These have comparable operational performance to nuclear-powered subs, are a fraction of the cost and can be in service much sooner. They are compatible with the 50+ similar conventional submarines already operated by our ASEAN neighbours.

This alternative strategy also includes another $12 billion for Navy helicopters, mine-hunter drones, autonomous underwater vehicles, guided weapons and surveillance systems. The Air Force could purchase surveillance/communications satellites, transport planes, surveillance and tanker aircraft, drones, hypersonic weapons and other munitions. The Army gets $6 billion for helicopters, anti-tank, anti-aircraft and other guided weapons. All this would be much more effective support for the actual “defence” of Australia.

The strategy also allocates about $60 billion to build national fuel storage (in Australia – NOT in the US as at present!), strengthen local industry and build up the national shipping fleet as well as improving electronic warfare and cyber warfare.

After ALL this, there would still be $66 billion left over to start repaying national debt. Of course, $368 billion (or a significant proportion of it) could also be spent on much-needed non-defence initiatives – affordable housing, free childcare, expanded pre-school facilities, fixing the TAFE system, managing renewable energy transition, climate change, natural disaster protection, high-speed rail, sustaining waterways and coastal environments, supporting university research, raising pensions and other social support allowances and (to use a Chinese phrase) lifting people out of poverty – especially children.

The significant opportunities lost by the wasteful over-spend on nuclear-powered AUKUS submarines does the Australian government no credit. The security and sovereignty of Australia are compromised and the well-being of Australian society suffers.

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