Founder & CEO of South Australian geopolitical think tank, SAGE International.
He is also
The onion is a versatile vegetable with many layers, and similarly, the SSN AUKUS plan is a complex, multi-layered project that promises to deliver a massive capability improvement for the Royal Australian Navy. With a budget of AUD368 billion, this multi-decadal project is the most expensive defence project in Australia’s history, and it may change the internal dynamics of the Australian Defence Force from a land power to a sea power.
Despite the risks associated with such a large project, the benefits of developing a local submarine-building capability outweigh the costs. The Collins class submarines, a Swedish design that was locally modified, proved to be one of the world’s foremost diesel-electric submarines.
While the final costs of the project are uncertain, the Australian public should be optimistic about the project’s potential benefits. With enough transparency and accountability, the project can stay on course and deliver the promised results. Australia’s patterns of defence procurement are evolving, and this project represents an important step forward in the country’s defence self-reliance.
That the Americans and British are two-thirds of this project with a wealth of nuclear-boat-building knowledge between them, this should be considered Australia’s ultimate risk mitigation strategy. Their decades-long experience in building nuclear-powered boats will positively affect the AUKUS project’s trajectory while Australia’s new submarine infrastructure, engineering skills, regulatory authorities and nuclear handling and waste disposal are assembled and matured. The fact that the Americans trust Australia to be part of this complex build is the equivalent of Australians being let in to help develop the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. And while America and Britain have passed through the technological hurdles to create functional, mature and effective nuclear industries, it is now Australia’s turn to pass through this gateway. When we have developed a means to handle and store nuclear waste, arguably the most politically fraught part of this project, we will then have the means to develop a civilian nuclear energy network for Australia, the most significant technological spin-off from the AUKUS boat build. Nuclear power and its successful application in Australia will transform the nation with sustainable green baseload power.
There will be opposition to this.
Progressive academics will criticise most aspects of the AUKUS build siting the usual suspects – lack of adequate naval personnel to crew the new submarines, final costings, traditional leftist anti-Americanism and anti-Angloism, technical issues and ‘wrong-headed thinking’ on the benefits of nuclear power for military and civilian use. The problem with all of this doom and gloom is that it offers no solutions. Indeed, it is regressive thinking. Many of the so-called ‘issues’ that need confronting will be tackled and no doubt have been anticipated by planners. Take crewing. Yes, the Virginia class is a bigger platform than the Collins class. Yes, finding more recruits who would want to serve in or service nuclear-powered submarines will be a problem, but not an insurmountable one. If Australian governments state and federal are all in agreeance that the AUKUS submarine plan is workable and they are all committed to it, finding recruits and plugging skill gaps is a matter of a good PR campaign supported by good pay and conditions while offering a little prestige for working on such an important national project. Having the universities and technical colleges on board will be critical to this outcome. But we have 20 years to work on this campaign, so in the end, this should not be a problem.
Human systems are by their very nature imperfect. So, we should keep our expectations honest about complex, multi-layered projects. There is no such thing as a perfect outcome. Even the Americans and British have had their share of failed or sub-optimal defence projects. But this was largely as a result of working alone. Here the AUKUS trio will leverage off each other’s strengths and cover each other’s weaknesses. But running into problems should not mean giving up. It should mean learning from negative experiences and moving forward with renewed vigour.
In any project, you will have champions, sceptics and nay-sayers that will serve as part of project management. But it is the job of government to make sure that enough transparency and accountability exist to ensure strategic projects stay on course and that inherent biases and ineffectiveness do not dominate the process. With enough checks and balances and organisational reviews, when necessary, the likelihood of things going completely off the rails is slight. And, as a wise person, and former Royal Navy nuclear boat commander, Patrick Tyrrell OBE RN (Ret’d) – also long-time Chair of the SAGE International Advisory Board recently relayed to me, “to eat a buffalo, you eat it one bite at a time! For SSN AUKUS we need to look carefully at all the issues and solve them in a sequential and timely fashion. We need to build the necessary skills and resources to ensure the programme is delivered safely on time and to budget.”
It is right to be welcoming of new projects defence or otherwise.
The AUKUS boats represent radically new technologies, some with critical civilian applications. South Australia is the right and proper place to develop next-generation submarines for Australia. The Defence State of Australia has an innovative core of Primes and Small-to-Medium Enterprise (SME) defence industries located 20 minutes drive from Adelaide. If well managed, Australia could develop itself into a significant Indo-Pacific maritime power. Once the political excitement has settled, when the AUKUS Onion is peeled back, we might well have a flavoursome new addition to our national security mix.