Commentary: Australia’s Defence Strategic Review is Albanese’s last chance to save military

19 Feb 2023

“History’s a game that’s played for keeps in my sort of work – and it will be in yours. But for most Australians, it’s a dimension of reality that’s only found on TV – don’t you agree? The reason Australia’s half asleep is that it’s outside history. The Japanese nearly woke us up, but they didn’t quite get there. So we went on sleeping. I wonder who will wake us up? Sukarno? The Communists in Asia?” – Aubrey, an Australian spy, in Christopher Koch’s novel Highways to a War

Australia’s great military reset is happening in a very particular geo-strategic context.

The US sends its F-22 fighter aircraft, the supreme, lethal acrobat of the skies, to shoot out of the air sophisticated Chinese surveillance and intelligence equipment carried on old-fashioned balloons floating in near space. It’s the first time in decades the US has intentionally sent a missile to destroy a Chinese target. It’s a sign of the febrile security times that the sheer military significance of this action didn’t register more sharply.

Meanwhile, the Albanese government sensibly uses the international fuss as a cover for getting rid of hundreds of Chinese-made security cameras throughout not only Defence department establishments but government offices of all kinds.

Consider: our security agencies conclude that routine commercial equipment bought from our biggest trading partner is blighted with espionage danger beyond reasonable risk. We have no idea if Beijing sends near space surveillance equipment against us, for we don’t routinely monitor our near space.

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Russia has begun its spring offensive and is escalating its savage invasion of Ukraine. Iran supplies Russia with technologically simple but deadly drones.

That all this now seems semi-routine is a straw in the wind of the most dangerous strategic circumstances Australia has faced since World War II.

A British Astute-class sub. Picture: Mod Crown

Everyone involved in national security is a aquiver with anticipation, optimism mixed with dread, about the announcements the government is poised to make on our military.

We’re optimistic because the Albanese government gives every sign it understands the security risk and plans to meet it, but deeply worried because of our long, dismal, disgraceful history of producing military capability plans that never get implemented.

Australia has been lightly touched by war. Only in World War II did we confront the possibility that our independent existence might be extinguished. Our long holiday from history is surely coming to an end.

There’s a limit to what we can do. But we are rich and could do a lot. We should make ourselves the most costly, unattractive target for any aggressor, with an independent strategic capability, providing strike, deterrence and area denial, which could also make a difference if US allies were at war in this region.

The government will soon release its decision, following the review by Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead, on what nuclear-powered submarine we get under AUKUS, plus the Defence Strategic Review, which covers everything else.

Nuclear subs, among the most complex machinery humanity has devised, are the sexy bit, but paradoxically less important than the DSR. We won’t get a nuclear sub of our own probably until 2040. We won’t get a fleet before 2050.

AUKUS subs, even notional AUKUS subs, still enhance our security by deepening our alliance with the US, and also with Britain. The US is vastly more important but Britain is the world’s sixth biggest economy, a veto-wielding UN Security Council member, a major military power and one of our most intimate friends.

But if over the next decade we must shape our military environment, deter aggression and, in the worst case, fight, it will be with the kit the DSR provides. The subs are long term, the DSR short and medium term. But they relate intimately.

Australian and Ukrainian soldiers train together this month. Picture: AFP

Soon we’ll know all the answers. Here is the latest cut of gossip and informed speculation.

For the nuclear sub, we’ll go for a British hull and a US combat system and nuclear reactor. This can be seen as an evolved British Astute-class attack sub. These are not as big and powerful as US Virginias but they are much more powerful than our conventional Collins-class subs and require a smaller crew than the Virginias. In reality, what we get will be an Astute-sized whole new sub. The Americans are moving to design the replacement for the Virginias, the British the replacement for the Astutes. Given our program will run for decades, it’s not realistic to go into Virginias or Astutes as they exist now.

The US, Britain and Australia will therefore together design the new AUKUS sub. Presumably, the Brits will go for the same sub as we do. Otherwise there’s no synergy, no cost-sharing.

This would presumably mean the Brits giving up their combat system and European weapons to use the US combat system, which we use, and US weapons. That would improve British capabilities, but it means altogether new weight ratios and designs.

The Americans will probably make the reactors. Even the Brits’ reactors are really American reactors anyway. The Brits are miles ahead of us, but they couldn’t have nuclear subs without the Americans. That Washington will share this technology with us, as well as the Brits, is genuinely a great thing.

The Albanese government deserves the highest marks for decisively pursuing this. But they somewhat overdo the partisan criticism of the Morrison government. It was Scott Morrison who pursued and secured AUKUS.

It’s not likely all three nations can have a common sub. The Americans will always want something much bigger than an Astute. It’s possible the American successor to the Virginia-class, and the AUKUS sub for us and the Brits, could have a great deal in common. They could have a modular element, with the US sub having a longer hull in part to accommodate vertical missile launch cells.

Though missiles generally dominate modern war, these missiles, typically Tomahawks, are not so relevant to Australian subs.

THEAUSTRALIAN.COM.AU01:51Australian defence minister drops hint on British-built submarines for Australia

The Australian Defence Minister Richard Miles did not deny on yesterday’s Afternoon Agenda the country will be… receiving British-built submarines before constructing our own nuclear subs, according to Sky News Political Editor Andrew Clennell. “So could we be seeing a couple of British-built sub first, then Australian-made subs make More

No sub can carry enough Tomahawks to have an independent strategic effect in land strike. Tomahawks can be used as anti-ship weapons. That can be very useful. The Astute (and our own Collins) can fire Tomahawks through their torpedo tubes.

But the main use for subs remains to hunt and kill ships and other subs. In World War II, US subs sank a third of the Japanese navy and more than half its merchant fleet. That’s what subs are good at.

Mead said on the ABC that the navy hopes to begin construction of a nuclear-powered sub in Adelaide by 2030. Frankly, this is incredibly unlikely. It means an entirely new nuclear submarine type would be fully designed within seven years and Australia, which has never built a nuclear-powered sub and not for decades built any sub, would be ready to build it, with reactor supplied, by 2030. All real-world experience leads to the conclusion it will be many years longer than that.

That’s why if we’re really worried about potential allied conflict with China we should be building more conventional Collins-class subs right now because we’ll fight that war, if it comes, with the Collins. Tragically, the navy has convinced the government not to do that. For the distant shiny object always defeats today’s gritty reality.

Everyone is nonetheless alive to the capability gap. The six Collins-class subs begin their life-of-type extension in the middle of this decade. Each sub goes into LOTE for two years and gets a 10-year life extension. Then they start retiring in 2038, though the navy has talked of a second LOTE if necessary.

We are already in a capability gap. The 2009 white paper said we urgently needed 12 new, superior conventional submarines, not six ageing workhorses heading to pension age.

There has been talk about Australia getting one or two nuclear-powered subs early. Originally it was thought the Americans might lease or lend us a Virginia-class sub nearing the end of its life. The British media, presumably acting on government and Defence leaks, is reporting the Brits might be able to build us one or two Astutes early next decade.

There are many difficulties with each of these scenarios. The Americans don’t have any Virginias to spare. The existing Astute-class uses a completely different combat system and weapons to what we have, and what we’ll ultimately get.

All of which brings us to the DSR. Because in reality the only plugs for our many capability gaps is what’s in the DSR.

US Air Force B-1B strategic bombers, South Korean Air Force F-35 fighters and USAF F-22 stealth fighters in a joint drill this month. Picture: AFP/South Korean Defence Ministry

We know the DSR will involve hardening and expanding our northern air bases. This means US strategic forces will make more use of them. Naturally these strategic forces might carry nuclear weapons. We can’t benefit from extended US nuclear deterrence and deny the Americans the ability to carry nuclear weapons on our territory.

That’s what the great ANZUS nervous breakdown was about in the mid-1980s. New Zealand wanted the security benefits of ANZUS while banning US nuclear weapons and nuclear-powered ships. That was the end of the alliance for Wellington, while the Hawke Labor government rightly chose to stick with the US alliance and explicitly participate in US extended nuclear deterrence.

The DSR will emphasise missiles and drones, which we need urgently in large numbers, as well as unmanned underwater vehicles. The government has already announced new sea missiles, smart sea mines, new army mis­siles, and other bits and pieces. That’s all to the good.

It seems, happily, we’ll get six corvettes. These are cheap, small size frigates that you can build quickly and load up with missiles. There’s a good chance we’ll get three more air warfare destroyers made by Navantia, though BAE would like to make us a new warship with 100 or 150 vertical launch cells. Building three more AWDs might buy off Adelaide’s inevitable outrage if the first sub is built overseas.

The other late-breaking rumour is we might announce some significant participation in the American B-21 strategic bomber program. A bomber is not the same as a sub. And the B-21s will be hugely expensive. We’d have to protect them in hardened facilities. But they would furnish long range strike.

Richard Marles and Penny Wong … decades since Australia has simultaneously had a strong defence minister and strong foreign minister both very concerned with national security. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage

Three final points are important. The Albanese government is much better structured than any recent Coalition government to deliver these projects. This is because Defence Minister Richard Marles is Deputy Prime Minister, and Foreign Minister Penny Wong the government’s Senate leader. With Anthony Albanese and Jim Chalmers, they are the government’s most senior people.

The Prime Minister, Marles and Wong are all intimately concerned with national security. Not for decades has there been simultaneously a strong defence minister and a strong foreign minister. Provided they stay in their portfolios, they’ve got the best chance of any recent government of making military commitments happen.

There is one necessary structural change. Pat Conroy, as Defence Industry Minister, has been surprisingly good. It’s nuts that he’s also the Pacific Minister and outside cabinet. The Albanese government is about to commit hundreds of billions of dollars on the most important military upgrade in our modern history. Conroy is not a political competitor with Marles. The two can surely work in cabinet together, with Marles clearly senior. But we need a full-time, senior, properly staffed defence industry minister to drive some of the nuts and bolts.

Which leads to point two. The Australian Defence establishment has been hopeless, utterly hopeless, beyond hopeless, like a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, in its ineffectiveness and refusal to deliver programs on time at reasonable cost. It’s the most effective pacifist organisation in Australia. It seems determined never to give an Australian government the ability to commit serious force in combat, in case, heaven forfend, a government should decide to do that.

Former chief of navy David Shackleton, in a widely reported and shocking recent paper, points out that way back in 1995 the Australian navy possessed 368 missile cells on its surface fleet. By 2020 it had 208. Modern warfare is dominated by missiles. Surface fleets are organised almost entirely around them. How did we march so furiously backwards?

Take another example. Three years ago the Morrison government announced Australia would create its own missile construction and exporting industry. Not a single sod of earth has turned towards this end. Strategic urgency? Gimme a break.

A full-time, senior, properly staffed defence industry minister is needed to drive some of the nuts and bolts. Picture: Glenn Campbell

Such spectacular failure in Defence normally leads to promotion and reward. Nobody ever bears responsibility for failure.

The DSR will say tough things about our dysfunctional defence acquisition processes. But another reorganisation will mean nothing if it’s just an internal shuffle of the same folks.

We need a new approach, probably something like World War II when we called on industrialists, people with real-world, big-project experience, to produce weapons we needed. Unless the government does something like that it’s in danger of fulfilling Einstein’s definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

This is much too important for business as usual.

Point three, just to cheer you up. Western weapons stockpiles are gravely, dangerously depleted by the Ukraine war. China has not used a single munition. We are, shamefully, years and years late getting into the weapons queue.

GREG SHERIDAN The Australian Foreign Editor FEBRUARY 18, 2023