Webs and deceit: The politics of AUKUS

Mar 14, 2024
Adelaide, South Australia - January 26, 2014: Australian Submarine Corporation Collins Class submarine construction progress for the Royal Australian Navy in Osborne dock at Port Adelaide.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive!

Whatever else he might have been, Sir Walter Scott was no clairvoyant. Deeply cemented into Scottish history and folklore, his long narrative poems are now largely forgotten. But this single line captures the essence of AUKUS, where a cocktail of strategic conceits and intersecting political deceits—Australian, British and American—has created a tangled web of illusion and delusion. AUKUS is where pipe dreams, castles in Spain and Shangri-la combine in a submarine La-la-land. How did we reach the point where the nation stumps up an indicative $368 billion on a fantasy?

For an instructive historical perspective, we need to go back to Alfred Deakin. Visiting London in 1907, Deakin was persuaded by an Admiralty briefing (against the advice of his government’s defence planners) that submarines were essential for harbour defence, and accordingly announced the purchase of nine of them, plus two torpedo-boats, over three years. Antipodeans do not lack ambition. The purchase did not materialise, however, for many reasons. The plan was not simply another triumph of hope over experience: it rested on a con, a deceit. The risks associated with fragile technologies at massive cost without the underpinning industrial base, naval skills or operational experience were ignored where they were not deliberately obscured. Did the Admiralty lie to Deakin? No, they simply failed to disclose the truth. That is so often the nature of deceit. And Deakin took the decision for political rather than strategic reasons.

Prime Ministers usually depart before their dreams come true. Just as Morrison has gone decades before Australia has any hope of constructing another submarine, so Deakin was defeated in 1908, only to reappear briefly from 1909 to 1910. Eventually two submarines arrived in Sydney in May 1914. One was lost with all hands in the first month of WW1 off Rabaul, and the second was scuttled in the Sea of Marmara in 1915 during the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign. It would take over fifty years for Australia again to operate submarines, the Oberon class. The Oberons, advanced conventional submarines for their time, demonstrated that the RAN could operate underwater effectively and successfully, though with considerable British help.

Since at least the 1950s, there has been a reasonable consensus among Australian defence planners on the need for submarines as a principal maritime strike platform. During the late seventies, considerable work was done within the RAN and Defence to demonstrate the underwater capabilities needed and the feasibility of an Australian build. There were three principal objectives: reliable operations in the Australian maritime approaches; a state-of-the-art combat system to support operational longevity; and Australian construction to foster sustainment and long-term logistic support. The government endorsed the project in 1981. Work began on the first boat in 1991. HMAS Collins, the first of class, was commissioned in 1996. Delay followed delay. The final boat was commissioned in 2003. In March 2004, the Collins class was finally cleared for full operational service.

Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, the Collins program was a success. Perhaps most importantly, the RAN acquired the skills to be the “parent Navy” of a world-class conventional submarine. With around thirteen years of stop-start planning and twelve years of construction (the original delivery drumbeat was one per year), a new and technologically advanced capability was delivered by Australian industry in two and half decades. By way of comparison, the planning for the British Astute-class nuclear-powered submarine began in 1986, with the final boat due for delivery in 2026 – an elapsed time of four decades.

For submarines, time—lots of it— is clearly of the essence.

The Collins follow-on program has been on the drawing board since at least 2005. Successive governments have shilly-shallied, commissioning interminable studies, postponing policy development and project design and avoiding decision-making. The reason is clear: since 1996, submarines have become a political football, an issue with which to beat up former Defence Ministers and threaten current ones. Instead of the disciplined analysis, design, decision and delivery that was once the aim of strategic policy, we have major capability considerations played out on the stage of domestic politics for domestic political purposes. And instead of a Defence organisation with the responsibilities and skills to advise government in a disciplined and efficient way—as it more or less did during the Collins design and decision phase—submarines have become a playground for armchair strategists, kitchen table warriors, assorted maritime hobbyists and political staffers. And, of course, Prime Ministers whose apotheosis affords them a divine strategic touch. If only they were dealing with scrofula instead of the nation’s security!

The past decade has been extraordinary. First, we had Prime Minister Abbott’s bromance with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Japanese Soryu class submarine. Abbott’s preference for Japanese-built boats put an axe through the bipartisan consensus on Australian manufacture in Adelaide. But more than that, it laid the Collins replacement on the altar of an Australia-Japan defence relationship rather than on that of Australia’s strategic needs. Who advised Abbott and on what grounds remains unacknowledged. But it was a dumb idea.

Then in 2016, with Abbott relegated to the growing list of ex-Prime Ministers, the Turnbull government announced that the French DCNS consortium had edged out Germany’s ThyssenKrupp conglomerate in a run-off for the long-awaited Future Submarine. After a decade and a half of flirting with an evolved Collins, Defence and the RAN landed on a re-designed Barracuda-class boat which was, in reality, a totally new design inside a nuclear-powered submarine hull. Tonnes of risk, tonnes of money, and micrograms of assurance that the project would succeed.

If the advice supporting this decision was robust, and who is to say it was or was not, it took no time for the decision to be scrapped. Along came Prime Minister Morrison, advised by a secret team established in competition with the Navy’s Barracuda project team, with yet another political stunt. He scrapped the French proposal before it had really started (but had, of course, spent around $3 billion in anticipation) to replace it with the AUKUS frolic. And on what justification? Well, none really: just a great idea with President Biden not quite remembering who Morrison was—that fella from Downunder—and Prime Minister Johnston rubbing his hands together in anticipation of streams of Australian cash heading towards Barrow-in-Furness. It was all so very unbecoming. The French were deceived, as President Macron subsequently made clear. So was the Australian taxpayer.

Although it is an artefact of the Cold War, the Virginia class submarine is an outstanding boat that meets America’s particular need for a hunter-killer able to destroy ballistic missile submarines. On any objective analysis, it is not premised on Australia’s defence capability needs or Australia’s bipartisan preference to build and sustain such a capability. While experienced voices in both Britain and the US are counselling caution, we remain dedicated to our vision of the submarine Shangri-la. Perhaps we should pay greater attention to Edward Lear, who was entirely familiar with The Jumblies.

They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,

In a Sieve they went to sea:

In spite of all their friends could say,

On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,

In a Sieve they went to sea!

In all of this, the conceit is that China presents a strategic threat to Australia—it wants to subjugate us—and that Australia, sometime in the next forty or fifty years, will be able to defeat China (well, with a little help from our friend) and simultaneously protect global trade in general and our Sea Lines of Communication in particular. And the deceit is that AUKUS is anything more than a political non-solution to a significant defence capability problem that is centred not on fighting China but on defending Australia. It will take some adroitness and determination to escape this tangled web.

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