The new Pericles: Marles, master of the Seas

Feb 27, 2024
Athens, Greece, statue of Pericles, general of Athens during its golden age.

Thucydides has Pericles, the great Athenian statesman and strategist, observe that “Mastery of the sea is no small matter”. The Defence Minister should have been mindful of Pericles’ words as he launched the Enhanced Lethality Surface Combatant Fleet (ELSCF). Or he might have recalled Pericles’ caution that “I am far more afraid of our own mistakes than I am of the opposition’s plans.”

The AUKUS nuclear-powered submarines project has been clinically demolished by Hugh White in a recent article in Australian Foreign Affairs, where he asks “whether the wider strategic consequences will make us less rather than more secure”. White reports that the “big trends in submarine detection are raising doubts about the future stealth of nuclear-­powered boats that are just as grave as – or even graver than – those about conventional subs”. Tellingly, White makes the operational point that the number of conventional submarines that could be acquired for the price of the AUKUS submarines would provide far more actual capability.

The AUKUS project necessarily also involves a complex “virtual rebuilding of the old Collins boats, replacing many of their key systems and components”. It will probably take a decade from 2026. This will be followed by the construction of the AUKUS submarine; “by far the most complex and difficult engineering project ever undertaken [in Australia]” as White writes.

He concludes that “Coalition and Labor governments have committed Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines that we do not need, via a plan that will almost certainly fail”. The AUKUS decision, White rightly says, “would surely count as the most disastrous defence-­policy mistake in our history and one of the worst on record anywhere”.

Pericles would concur.

White’s arguments concerning the AUKUS project have been exhaustively and compellingly rehearsed forensically in Pearls and Irritations contributions (for example here, here, here, and here). The consensus is with White; AUKUS is “a plan that will almost certainly fail” and that the longer it takes to acknowledge this “the more likely it will be that our submarine capability will simply collapse”.

The ELSCF plan seems reckless as it adds to the burden of the AUKUS decision by embarking on yet another ambitious naval acquisition programme. Defence’s inability to manage major acquisitions doesn’t need to be rehashed following the ANAO report on major projects and the recent Senate Committee hearings. There can be little confidence that the department can manage the Collins class life-of-type extension programme, the AUKUS negotiations and procurement with the UK and US, and the ELSCF construction programme.

For Pericles’ a major weakness of the policies of Sparta’s alliance was that “each [ally] believes that no harm will come from his neglect, and he delegates it to someone else to have foresight for him”. Marles is betting on America to exercise foresight and dictate strategy, in the hope Australia will be spared from harm. The combined price is the AUKUS agreement and the ELSCF.

For example, the Large Optionally Crewed Surface Vessels (LOSVs) at the heart of Marles’ navy sound a lot like the USN’s Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle (LUSV) which is under development but not yet in production. Both will have 32 missile-launching tubes, and, in language almost identical to Marles’ ELSCF launch, the Congressional Research Service has said the American variant is, “more accurately described as optionally or lightly manned ships, because they might sometimes have a few onboard crew members”.

The Albanese government has agreed that the LOSVs “should be acquired through formal engagement with the United States Navy program as a fast follower”, presumably from the experimental LUSV programme. That’s right folks, another not yet floating ship. The first US LUSV to be procured in 2025 is expected to cost $US 315 million, subsequent vessels will cost around $US 240-261 million each. The USN concept for these assets implies they are disposable.

It is reasonable therefore to conclude that the proposed LOSV appears designed to be forward-deployed as part of the USN’s Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) concept and to team with individual manned combatants or augmented battle groups. Command and Control (C2) of the American LUSV will be exercised from a USN vessel afloat or by an ashore element. The USN LUSV will be incapable of “payload activation, deactivation, or engagement” without the direction of a remote “human operator in the command and control loop”. Will the Australian LOSV also be slaved to America C2?

The Minister needs to address the concept of operations for this platform and confirm it is not just another interchangeable contribution by the Australian taxpayers to the forces of America. Outside of a war in the South China Sea what are the characteristics of this vessel that give it such priority and urgency in Australia’s force structure? Hopefully the classified justification for the new ELSCF is more convincing than “It is the largest fleet that [Australia] will have since the end of the Second World War”. This not a strategic justification for the policy in any way.

The 2023 Defence Strategic Review recommended that “An enhanced lethality surface combatant fleet, that complements a conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine fleet, is now essential given our changed strategic circumstances”. However, there is a timing problem.

The enhanced lethality fleet won’t be all that lethal anytime soon. The three Hobart class destroyers urgently need an updated Aegis Combat System apparently, but why is unexplained. The first of six Hunter class frigates won’t be delivered before 2034. Delivery timing of the LOSVs and the general purpose frigates is unclear. The AUKUS submarines, if they were to eventuate, won’t be effective until near mid-century.

The government’s plans for defending Australia over the next twenty or so years are not evident. Although the Gen Z cohort reaching for their superannuation beyond mid-century might feel more secure.

The vulnerability of surface combatants to cheap drones and autonomous undersea vessels is being dramatically demonstrated in the Black Sea, just as Australia embarks on the ELSCF programme. The future prospects for surface combatants look bleak, as AI, sensor technology, automation, and the capability of drones improves. Yet Australia now plans to anchor what purports to be a defence policy on deeply-flawed submarine projects and a proliferation of floating targets to be delivered by a failing procurement capacity. That is the absence of a policy.

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