Blowing Up the French Deal Will Push Back Australia Getting Submarines by a Decade
"That means we would get our fleet of eight subs by 2061. That is truly a sick joke."
As things stand, it is unlikely Australia will ever get a nuclear submarine. All that we have done so far is cancel the French submarine. My guess is this delays any submarine at all by at least 10 years.
It fills me with regret to say this, but analytically the conclusion is inescapable that the nuclear subs under the AUKUS rubric will probably proceed the way of all our other submarine announcements. They will enjoy a brief flower of credibility before doubts creep in, critics become mobilised, the prime minister who ordered them moves on and eventually they are consigned to the dustbin for a new submarine announcement that can enjoy its brief season in the sun.
Our submarine acquisition process remains a complete shambles and the chances of anything significant emerging from it remain remote.
My colleague Dennis Shanahan reported from the recent prime ministerial trip to the US that the government was not interested in leasing a nuclear submarine from the US over the next several years. Instead it wanted to add new submarines to the allied fleet, rather than take a sub or two out of the existing US and British lines. On its own, this approach probably guarantees that nothing of consequence comes of this initiative.
Malcolm Turnbull was savage in his National Press Club attack on the Morrison government’s decision to ditch the French subs and go nuclear. Turnbull exaggerates the diplomatic cost. However, his technical critique of the nuclear subs proposal was substantial. He drew attention to obvious contradictions in the process.
All we have done so far is cancel the French subs. As of now, we have no future submarine program at all. The Morrison government scored a diplomatic triumph in getting the Americans to agree to transfer nuclear submarine propulsion to us and in the way AUKUS was presented.
But the global reaction was based on the idea, wholly mistaken, that we would be getting the nuclear subs some time soon.
In his first press conference, Scott Morrison said the subs would be built in Adelaide and he hoped we might start the build before the end of this decade and get the first one into service before the end of the next decade; that is, 2040. Here are some laws of the physical universe and the operation of logic that cannot be contradicted or transcended. If we do not lease a sub and instead make them all in Adelaide we will not get the first one before 2040. Frankly, even that date involves almost miraculous virtuosity.
Every major, complex naval build we’ve undertaken has come in way over budget and long over schedule.
In the history of human habitation of this continent, nothing remotely comparable in complexity to building a nuclear submarine has ever been attempted.
Obviously, it makes no industrial or military sense to build the subs in Adelaide. Doing so will add years to the schedule and tens of billions of dollars to the cost. The French are criticised for prospective delays in their conventional subs, but we could have had them much more quickly if they were built in France.
But here is a moral certainty. The dialectics of Australian politics will force both the Coalition and Labor, before the next election, to commit to building all the subs in Adelaide.
Say by some miracle the process stays on track and we actually get a boat in the water by 2040 – pretty unlikely, but not absolutely impossible – that does not mean we have our replacement submarine fleet by 2040. If we can build one nuclear sub every three years after that we will be doing very well. That means we would get our fleet of eight subs by 2061.
In terms of military capability in the face of the strategic challenges we face in the next decade or two, that is truly a sick joke. It’s the three-card trick all over again.
The capability gap we have to bridge is not up to 2040 but up to, say, 2055, when we might get the sixth nuclear boat and can therefore replace, one for one, the Collins boats. Of course the nuclear subs will be much more capable than the Collins, but they’re no good at all if they don’t actually exist.
Australian submarine policy right now requires the Collins boats to remain our frontline submarine capability until at least the 2040s.
No living Australian prime minister has commissioned a sub that actually got built. The last prime minister to do so was Bob Hawke.
The Collins boats were commissioned in the 1980s, yet must serve into the 2040s. The frankly batshit crazy quality of our circumstances is evident in this comparison: it would be as if Britain commissioned a new weapons system under Queen Victoria in 1901 and it was still in service as the main British weapons system at the time of the Beatles in the 1960s.
It is impossible to understand why the Brits are in the mix, apart from PR. If we choose the British Astute sub and don’t modify it, that means ditching the jewel of our defence technology, the US combat system that we have on the Collins, as well as most of the US weapons we use on the Collins. So the US, at the end of all this, would be getting billions of dollars less work from us and our navies would be less integrated.
Alternatively, there is talk of choosing the Astute but putting a US combat system, US weapons and even US propulsion system into it. Dear God in heaven, if we embrace the insanity of designing a new nuclear sub just for Australia, even 2060 will be optimistic for the first boat.
Or if we choose the Virginia, as we must, the Brits get nothing, yet Boris Johnson was assuring the British public that AUKUS meant hundreds and hundreds of well-paid jobs in Britain’s north. We made a mistake choosing the British Type 26 frigate, which still is not in service even in Britain and is two years behind schedule and counting. Just imagine a Brit submarine saga.
A cynical interpretation might be that the Liberals never explained, championed or campaigned for their own choice of the French sub. Choosing Marise Payne and then Linda Reynolds as defence ministers was grotesque, by Turnbull and Morrison respectively, as neither could carry the debate or the portfolio
So the government has solved only the problem that its own incompetent, lazy and inexplicable failure to champion its own defence programs brought about, but so far has substituted nothing concrete for it.
The result is likely no submarine capability for us at all, except museum piece Collins boats and whatever submarine visits the Americans or Brits send along.
We should have kept the French subs going, perhaps at a reduced number of six or even three, then gone nuclear in an orderly way.
Instead we have once more followed our own traditions of grand announcement leading to grand shambles.
Source: The Australian