Main Image Credit Sea change: an artist's rendering of a possible design for the SSN-AUKUS submarines. Image: BAE Systems / Wikimedia Commons / OGL v3.0
While defence matters usually receive limited meaningful public debate in Australia, the government will need to take a different approach if it is to ensure the long-term success of AUKUS.
Australia’s Collins-class submarine replacement is proving a remarkably protracted process. After a false start in 2009, and a prime ministerial foray in 2014 into buying Japanese submarines, a contract was awarded in 2016 for eight very large French-designed conventional submarines to be built in Australia. However, in 2021, the contract was terminated, and instead a remarkable trilateral plan was announced for Australia to acquire nuclear attack submarines (SSN) under the new Australia–UK–US (AUKUS) partnership.
In 2022, a new Labor government was elected that vowed to continue this SSN shift. Accordingly, the plan is formally a bipartisan initiative, although the conservative Liberal National Party (LNP) that began AUKUS is now in opposition and naturally inclined to critique and complain.
On 13 March 2023, the leaders of the US, the UK and Australia announced the detail of this latest Australian submarine plan. Australia will acquire three ex-US Navy Virginia-class submarines for delivery in 2033, 2036 and 2039 respectively; an option to purchase a further two – possibly new builds – will be considered at a later date.
Meanwhile, Australia will be working with the UK on a new-design submarine, the SSN-AUKUS class, with a UK reactor and a US combat system to be acquired for both countries’ navies. One submarine would be built every two years from the early 2040s through to the late 2050s. The Royal Australian Navy would receive its first SSN-AUKUS in 2042, with five delivered by the middle of the 2050s, and all eight in service in the 2060s.
Critics argue the SSN purchase will estrange Australia from its neighbours, and that deep regional engagement should be pursued instead
Worryingly, with the saga already having dragged on for 14 years with little tangible progress, the latest plan will not culminate for another 40 years. Moreover, costs are estimated at between A$270 billion and A$370 billion, but such long-term estimates are inherently unreliable. Realistically, there must be doubts regarding the project’s domestic political sustainability in Australia, irrespective of any US or UK concerns.
A Policy of Ignoring Dissenters
In general, there is little meaningful public debate about defence matters in Australia. Ministerial press conferences simply announce decisions, as in the AUKUS case and in the forthcoming Defence Strategic Review. Parliament is similarly usually sidelined. While there are typically a few ineffective dissenters concerning major defence projects, the scale of AUKUS is widening the field, with five main issue areas currently.
There are worries over the SSN project’s impact on the Navy and the wider Australian Defence Force (ADF). The project will over time rebalance the Navy away from surface warships, cutting into destroyer and frigate numbers. Moreover, SSN crewing at the moment appears an insuperable problem, albeit distant. The initial impact on the wider ADF is likely to be in early reductions in the Army’s armoured vehicle programmes. Of note, the SSN project will cost A$9 billion over the next four fiscal years; the ADF is being asked to find A$3 billion in savings to help meet this cost.
The project is considered high-risk by most commentators. The Defence department is seen, fairly or not, as managing major acquisition projects poorly and often exceeding costs and schedules. The submarine project’s history supports this, and includes the roughly A$4 billion lost on the terminated French contract. Even SSN enthusiasts are fearful.
There are strategic-level doubters. In terms of sovereignty, the SSN partnership is seen as committing Australia to being in lockstep with the US. The main issue in this is Taiwan, whose defence Australia is now seen as definitely committed to and with no real choice. Critics argue the SSN purchase will estrange Australia from its neighbours, and that deep regional engagement should be pursued instead. In terms of technology, some fret that by the 2040s large platforms like SSNs will be of limited value, with autonomous air, land and sea vehicles taking over. The US, UK and Australian navies are indeed running extensive experimentation programmes that will lead to capable autonomous vessels entering service well before Australia’s first Virginia boat.
The government as a whole – and the Defence department in particular – needs to engage dissenters, not ignore them as usual or run a covert campaign to impugn them
Others focus on nuclear safety concerns. Australia has committed to disposing of the nuclear waste the SSNs generate, but the practicalities of this are unknown. The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency advised late last year that the emergency management arrangements in Australia ‘are not fit for purpose for a future with nuclear powered submarines’ and will need significant improvement. SSN basing on Australia’s east coast is undetermined, with Port Kembla the most likely; the decision will be made without consultation with the local public and will draw criticism.
Finally, at the national political level, how to fund the project is an emerging issue. The Greens, a minor party with significant sway in the Senate, have signalled their opposition to cutting public education, health, housing or indigenous programmes to pay for the SSNs. In response, and in an attempt to stir up trouble, the present LNP leader, Peter Dutton, is advocating cutting aged care and disability support funding in favour of the SSNs. There is the potential for a major dispute over SSN funding versus other national-level needs and opportunities – but only potentially. The previous LNP government’s tax cuts starting in 2024 are very substantial, and if not implemented would pay for AUKUS. However, regardless of its bipartisan support for SSNs, the LNP would vigorously oppose such a change.
Making AUKUS Sustainable
The scale of AUKUS suggests positive actions will need to be taken to maintain the programme domestically. First, the government as a whole – and the Defence department in particular – needs to engage dissenters, not ignore them as usual or run a covert campaign to impugn them (as was done recently with Robodebt). The SSN project will encounter difficulties; limiting public opposition through engagement will be advantageous over time.
Second, the government should craft a compelling strategic narrative. The AUKUS story so far is a shallow soundbite; having a much more coherent narrative will inspire greater confidence in the project. Third, a dedicated minister should be the public head of the Australian project. This individual would be seen as being responsible and accountable – unlike how the Defence department is perceived now. The person could regularly report to parliament, providing transparency and building trust in the project’s success.
AUKUS is a vast, high-risk plan. Public support will need to be sustained over a very long period for it to succeed. It is time to move on from simply issuing ministerial edicts and to bring the public along on the journey.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Peter Layton