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Just over a year ago, the AUKUS agreement was announced out of the blue. It was widely seen as heralding a dramatic shift in Australia’s defence and strategic position, and has since then been the subject of almost continuous public discussion.
There have been regular statements from politicians and defence officials on the “what” and the “how” of AUKUS, working to address issues from submarine design, to timeframes, to workforce development. There has also been clear messaging around the nature of AUKUS and its significance in strengthening ties between Australia, the United Kingdom, and United States. At its heart, however, this agreement is about the acquisition of nuclear propelled submarines (SSNs). On the rationale for this decision, and its strategic implications, there has been a wall of silence.
The Department of Defence and the government have said remarkably little about the strategic assumptions that have driven the decision to undertake the most expensive and risky defence acquisition in Australian history. Additionally, the public statements that have been made are riddled with contradictions. Recently, Defence Minister Richard Marles has suggested that Australia adopt a “porcupine strategy” – a relatively common suggestion, but one entirely at odds with the idea of spending nearly AU $200 billion on SSNs. Given this, there is a risk that the move to nuclear submarines appears to be driven by a desire to acquire the gold-plated capability, regardless of real strategic need.
A regular critique of AUKUS is that it ties Australia much more closely to the US, and in particular to American strategy in East Asia. This is not necessarily true. The AUKUS agreement is one focused on technology sharing and capability development, as opposed to any specific strategic commitments. But Australia’s decision to acquire SSNs does imply certain assumptions within Defence about the country’s future strategic approach. At its heart, the decision to go nuclear only makes sense if it is believed that Australian boats will be operating far to the north – well outside Australia’s immediate region. This was implicit to a degree in the specifications for the original SEA 1000 submarine project, but the decision to go nuclear further underlines these assumptions.
Critics of such an approach claim, quite reasonably, that this strategy only makes sense within the context of Australia operating as a junior partner in a US-led alliance. This, they argue, has the risk of seeing Australia dragged into a conflict in East Asia that has little to do with the country’s real strategic interests. Australia has long played the role of the junior partner, but since the 1970s at least, this has come at limited cost, and the overarching defence policy and acquisition strategy has remained focused on the defence of territorial Australia and the immediate region. AUKUS thus appears to signal a significant departure from recent practice, and its critics suggest that Australia should instead pursue an increasingly independent strategy focused on regional capability to ensure the protection of continental Australia.
This analysis has serious flaws, not least the way it ignores Australia’s reliance on seaborne trade (or supply). Australia has always aligned itself with the major naval power, and sought to contribute to that wider maritime defence, because the country cannot survive without its maritime supply connections. Everything from the fertiliser essential to agriculture, to diesel additives that enable trucks to run, is imported. Even defence capabilities are absolutely reliant on imports, with very limited domestic capability to refine jet fuel or marine diesel. Ninety-nine percent of Australia’s imports by weight, and 79 percent by value, come by sea, and most originate from well outside the region. Securing these supply lines can only be done by maritime forces operating at considerable distance from Australia, and in collaboration with allies. The argument that Australia can go it alone because it can defend its northern coastline is misguided.
When viewed through the lens of Australia’s maritime position, a strong argument can be made to support the idea of the country acquiring the capability to make a significant contribution to maritime security (broadly defined) in the wider Indo-Pacific. Within this framework, the acquisition of SSNs makes sense. That is not to say that the SSNs, or the forward-leaning defence posture which they seem to embody, are the only, or even the best answer to Australia’s strategic challenges. As the critics of AUKUS rightly point out, there has been virtually no discussion of the strategic assumptions underpinning the decision. Instead, politicians have repeatedly trotted out broad assertions about the declining strategic environment, without addressing the disconnect between the positions set out in the Defence White Paper and Strategic Update, and the capabilities being acquired.
The absence of this discussion is hugely problematic. There has been no public conversation about the risks associated with a more forward-leaning defence posture or serious discussion of potential alternatives, including non-military steps such as enhancing national resilience. It may well be that the assumptions underpinning the new approach are the correct ones, but the Australian public deserves to be informed what they are and understand their implications.
Nor is this approach helpful in the long run for Defence. The department has a very poor track record on openness and transparency, and while hiding behind a mantra of secrecy has short-term advantages, past experience (and a number of lessons learnt reports) testify to the long-term damage it causes. Regarding the AUKUS submarines, if Defence seriously expects the public and successive governments to support the project over the next two decades, it needs to justify why the capability is necessary. In particular, as recently as 2016 the Germans reputedly offered Australia twelve submarines for AU $20 billion. Why should the taxpayer spend a vast amount more on eight nuclear submarines?
If the AUKUS submarine project is to be a success, then the government and Defence need to clearly explain what has changed in Australia’s strategic position, and why SSNs are the right answer to the new challenges. Strong arguments can be made, and recently there have been some indications of steps in this direction. More, however, needs to be done to promote an informed public debate, starting with an acknowledgement of the basic assumptions informing Defence and government decision making. If this does not happen, then Defence will rightly face growing criticism that this is a capability in search of a strategy, and that the money can be better spent elsewhere.
Dr Richard Dunley is a Senior Lecturer at UNSW Canberra working on naval history and maritime strategy.