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Parliament House Canberra

Breaking Australia’s announce, acquire, announce cycle

By John Coyne

The news that Australia’s future conventional submarine fleet will go nuclear is probably the most significant defence capability announcement in a generation. It’s certain to generate lots of public discussion on the economic, environmental, and geopolitical implications of the decision.

Of course, this decision and the announcement of even closer relations between Australia and its British and American allies will continue to be rebuked by the ruling Communist Party in China.

The nuclear decision will also impact Australia’s relationship with France, whose Naval Group was to build the country’s conventional submarines.

The Australian Government isn’t without experience in dealing with this kind of issue – it faced a similar problem in 2016 when, at the 11th hour, it selected French submarines over Japanese ones. It will once again need to undertake some careful diplomatic efforts to mend this bridge.

Australia was going to work with the Naval Group to build the French-designed submarines. While no submarine project is easy, this one faced some herculean challenges from the start.

Together, Australian defence and the Naval Group were going to take a French nuclear submarine design and turn it into a diesel-electric submarine using yet to be developed battery technology.

Fortunately for all involved, the plan was to build the 12 submarines over three decades – plenty of time to get things right. At the time, a diesel-electric submarine was selected based on the strategic situation, the comparative cost of a nuclear capability, and Australia’s lack of access to the much-needed technology.

However, Australia’s strategic environment has drastically changed since 2016. The 2020 Defence Strategic Update noted that for the first time since the 80s, the warning time for a future conflict was now under 10 years. In this environment, submarines are going to be an increasingly important capability for Australia.

In 2016, the fact that diesel-electric submarines cannot stay submerged for as long as nuclear submarines was an acceptable planning limitation, but in an era of growing strategic uncertainty, the limitations of diesel submarines make them easier to detect and destroy than nuclear ones.

On top of this, within a few years of signing, the project’s cost had soared from 50 to 90 billion dollars. Like so many in defence, the project has proven to be far more expensive than expected.

Of course, now the United States and United Kingdom have agreed to provide Australia with the nuclear technology required to avoid the issue entirely. Problem solved.

These changes do support the decision for defence to go nuclear with Australian submarines. However, someone must be held responsible for the billions of dollars that have been wasted on the now-scrapped program to develop 12 diesel-powered submarines.

This submarine decision demands an answer for a much bigger question: Is there something wrong with Australia’s acquisition approach more generally?

The answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

The problems that have plagued Australia’s submarine decisions aren’t isolated; some issue or another besets most of Australia’s big defence capability acquisition projects.

Even within the last few months, issues weren’t isolated to submarines. Australia’s new five billion dollar Boxer combat reconnaissance vehicles are experiencing delays and, reportedly, performance issues.

So, what is the problem with Australia’s capability acquisition?

Firstly, defence policymakers haven’t acted with the urgency that ‘less than 10 years’ warning time’ actually demands. Australia doesn’t have decades to get things right.

Secondly, the pursuit of perfect capabilities is regularly getting in the way of the good. Australia’s habit of creating bespoke capabilities is costly in terms of resources and time. A long list of projects including capabilities as diverse as helicopters and armoured vehicles illustrates that this mindset isn’t working.

Thirdly, Australia needs to break loose of the constant cycle of announcements about acquisitions that are inevitably followed, a few years later, by cost overruns and capability shortfalls. On top of causing operational and money problems, these bunglings are damaging public trust in Australia’s defence forces.

So, what should defence policymakers do?

Defence and government need to bring the Australian people along on the acquisition journey. Australians need to understand better why certain capabilities are being selected over other options.

Sure, much of this is classified, but Australians are less inclined to jump aboard these days when told no for ‘national security’ reasons.

Ultimately, defence decision-makers need to live up to their policies and strategies by breaking free from a ‘long peace’ mindset. They need to accept by rule, not exception, that they don’t have the time and scale to be producing platforms that integrate multiple countries’ technology over decades.

In this new strategic environment, they have to be more forthright in advising the government on balancing national security and economic dimensions of decisions, especially in areas like shipbuilding.

Australia’s nuclear submarine decision is much bigger than just the defence forces – it will, in time, become a national endeavour. But, if these problems aren’t addressed systematically, public protests, and eventually, project time and cost overruns with potentially dire national security implications, will surely follow.

Originally published by: Policy Forum on 29 Sep 2021