The AUKUS minefield laid by the Coalition

Jun 14, 2022
Cardboard sign protesting AUKUS
Given Labor’s historical opposition to nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, the government’s decision to ignore the ALP was calculated. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The previous government’s legacies in defence policy to the incoming Labor government from the nine years they were in power reveal a profound disregard for probity and democratic politics. They are also riven with dishonesty, a manifesto detailing the surrender of national sovereignty, and ultimately a threat to Australia’s peace and security.

In a recent two-part series by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Political and International Editor, Peter Hartcher, the genesis, and subsequent diplomatic consequences of the AUKUS agreement which, inter alia, brought forth the LNC government’s decision to terminate the contract to procure 12 French diesel-electric Attack Class submarines in favour of at least 8 British or US nuclear powered boats (SSNs), are laid out.

As informative as Hartcher’s investigation is, it helps to accompany his account with another report along the same, but not identical lines, by Ewen Levick, which identifies a pattern of persistent malfeasance.

Secrecy and subterfuge were apparent from contemporary accounts but the deeper details of these tactics prompt two conclusions.

First, the ADF’s capabilities are hostage to faction-fighting and, for want of a better term, pure bastardry within the Defence Department. [It might even be the case that Hartcher’s and Levick’s reports – published within days of each other – were facilitated by this].

The second is that what was afoot was treachery – in the first instance domestically, and secondly, against a friend and ally, France.

The latter attracted most of the contemporaneous comment: France charged the Morrison government with extensive and systematic deceit; the Australian government parried this accusation with a defence that, if the world was ravaged by charity, might be described as being economical with the truth in its conversations with the French.

But that world does not exist and the practices in question cannot be seen through the lens of irony because what took place cannot be covered by euphemism: accuracy of language demands that it be described as dissimulation and/or outright lying.

And since lying frequently involves remaining silent when voice is essential, the government’s decision not to brief the ALP Opposition until the afternoon prior to the announcement of AUKUS was treacherous well beyond the dimensions of political jousting and points-scoring.

The SSN decision was not a normal defence procurement initiative: it represented a precedent in that, for the first time, a non-nuclear weapons state was to acquire, from one of two nuclear powers, a submarine powered with weapons grade uranium. The implications for the nuclear non-proliferation regime are extraordinary and significant.

Given Labor’s historical opposition to nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, the government’s decision to ignore the ALP was calculated to force the latter’s agreement on pain of being seen “soft” in the evolving threat environment.

But it was even more than that. Aware of the ALP’s historical position, the growing list of cancelled defence procurement contracts, and political instability in the major parties, the Biden Administration demanded that the ALP be brought into the fold to ensure that the SSN project would attract a bipartisan budgetary and strategic commitment for, essentially, decades to come.

Consider the task. It is nothing less than an almost immutable bipartisan agreement on the interpretation of global strategic circumstances; the role of submarines in them, and the inevitable loss of Australian sovereignty in relation to them, and in foreign and defence policy more generally.

No future government would be able to undo this massive undertaking without extreme financial and political costs.

And even this requirement begs questions about the possible trajectories of Australian and US politics over the same period. The potentialities for the radical disfigurement of past patterns going back to 1945 are not only real, but probable.

Here, there is also a rupture in the narratives provided by Hartcher (above) and, subsequently, by Dutton. The latter claims that, had the US “conditioned the AUKUS agreement on there being a briefing for the [ALP] . . the deal wouldn’t have gone ahead.”

This is an extraordinary escape from logic. The agreement is held to be an extraordinary, essential development in the defence of Australia but not one whose merits can be relied upon to convince the political party which stands to assume government when the LNC is voted out.

Moreover, by not briefing the ALP when of the Biden White House was insistent that it do so, the LNC government was betraying the trust of the very arbiter of whether Australia should acquire SNNs in the first place.

The fact that, following the ALP becoming government in late May, initial reports suggest that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is “committed” to AUKUS, and open to expanding it, changes nothing. For five months his party was deprived of the necessary time to reflect on the implications of the SSN deal, a matter which the US thought was crucial.’

Equally worthless was the LNC government’s claim that such behaviour towards all concerned was essential on the grounds that, if the bid for an Australian SSN was rejected, the fallback position remained the French Attack class only adds to the deceit: the government had already decided that such a boat would be obsolete on delivery.

We are, therefore, asked to believe that, if the Anglo-American initiative failed, mendacity was required to safeguard the acquisition of a default option – namely, the French submarine already deemed unfit for purpose in the changed strategic and technological environment of the present and likely future which the government foresaw.

Perhaps that was the plan, conditioned by reflex, an heroically stupid insistence on maintaining consistency with the catalogue of defence procurement fiascos resulting in the ADF’s declining capabilities across the board.

And there was domestic, collateral damage as well. As Hartcher recounts developments, this rationale for dishonesty extended across the major areas of national defence with the government imposing the need for a duplicitous regime upon its Cabinet, the Defence Department and, notably, the Royal Australian Navy, part of which continued to engage France in good faith on the Attack class project, and part of which was working assiduously and secretly to ensure that their colleagues’ work would be futile, and their reputations tarnished.

Any familiarity with AUKUS since its inception makes obvious that it is, and will in all likelihood remain a constant source of incoherence and confusion for some time.

Taken alongside Peter Hartcher’s series, a published interview with Vice-Admiral Jonathan Mead by ASPI’s Brendan Nicholson, there are grounds for thinking that either the subterfuge continues, or there is a radical disconnect between what the head of the RAN’s submarine task force thinks is required, or both.

In a wide-ranging interview, which Nicholson reports with the fidelity of a stenographer, VADM Mead canvasses, inter alia, the ways in which the Australian SSN will not threaten the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the need for a “nuclear mindset” which will drive the national “workforce” and “industrial base” – hence the need to “harness Australia’s youth now,” and arrest the decline in STEM enrolments in schools and universities.

On reading this, three things follow according to this author. The first is that VADM Mead is not at all well versed in the politics of incipient nuclear proliferation and which Australia’s SSN has just energised. The second is that his demands for a nuclear workforce essential for sustaining the SSNs, including in an emergency, but which is not part of a nuclear industry which the LNC government disavowed, indicates a contradiction. And third, the demand to reengineer the education system for the benefit of the SSNs is another attempt to further militarise the universities.

It might work for all of that, but it will face strong competition from other areas in the national security sector – such as cyber and weapons research.

Another aspect of the interview which is cause for concern relates to the eventual choice of SSN.

Originally, following the initial statements which accompanied the SSN decision, the public were asked to believe that the choice was essentially to be between boats of the US Navy’s Virginia class, or the Royal Navy’s Astute class. Whatever criticisms might be made of them, they fulfil the criterion of being a “mature design.”

Apparently this criterion is not essential: VADM Mead mentions that the successor classes (USN: SSNX / RN: SSNR) are both under consideration. Neither has a fully determined design. Hardly “mature” it would seem.

Worse, there can be no assurance that Australia’s demands that the SSNs will meet the three reasonable criteria that will be made explicit: that they are delivered within the contractually time frame derived from Australia’s capability demands; that they perform as specified, and that are not over budget.

This simply doesn’t happen in the UK or the US. The prospects are particularly dark. Most recently, the US Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Mike Gilday, delivered (yet another) excoriating tirade against the two companies that build America’s submarines. Their products, he said, were “over cost,” and “underperforming.” His often-repeated view is that the current capacity of the dockyards which the US Navy relies on is totally inadequate all the way to 2050 and beyond.

Nevertheless, unless the ALPs election has changed the timetable for the choice of SSN (late 2022 – early 2030), a decision will be forthcoming that cannot possibly make sense unless it is stripped of its contradictions and the justified suspicion that the decision is tainted in any case.

Consider: As Prime Minister, Scott Morrison had for some years contracted a personal advisor on submarine matters, Dr. Donald Winter, a former Secretary of the Navy in the George. W. Bush Administration, who was contracted until 2024, and a known advocate of terminating the contract with France.

Consider as well: unless its membership is replaced, it is a decision which will be guided by the four members of the Submarine Advisory Committee, three of whom, at last glance, formerly held senior executive positions in the US submarine construction sector. All, including the Prime Minister’s personal advisor on submarines, it can be assumed, are honourable men (in the sense that Shakespeare’s Marc Antony uses the term). That being the case, the decision to terminate the French submarine for the reasons given was merely a coincidence?

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