20 March 2023

Is this really the subs deal we had to have?

| Ross Solly
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Former prime minister Paul Keating was handing out free character assessments at the National Press Club. Photo: Screenshot.

Does anyone else find it surprising that one of the few voices questioning the Australian Government’s multi-billion dollar submarine deal comes from its most revered living statesman?

Paul Keating was in vintage form when he unloaded at the National Press Club on anyone and everyone who dared to speak in support of the $368 billion AUKUS subs deal with the US and UK, labelling it “the worst in all history”.

Whatever you think of his arguments, and there was no shortage of experts and commentators, and Labor Party colleagues lining up to shoot down the former Prime Minister’s claims, Keating’s flamboyant takedown of Anthony Albanese, Penny Wong and Richard Marles provided a glimpse into the heady days of Australian politics.

Of course, some these days will label it bullying, but that’s a discussion for another day.

READ MORE Albanese cops friendly fire as Keating lets rip over AUKUS and China – but was he right?

There does seem to be a touch of Boys’ Own Annual about this submarine deal, a lot of hairy-chested sabre rattling at a threat we are told is very real and which we need to be alert but not alarmed about – for now.

We are also told to believe that having a handful of nuclear-powered submarines patrolling our coastlines will be enough to deter the Chinese from attacking us. We have almost 60,000 kilometres of coastline, the sixth-longest in the world.

Let’s do the math (as the Americans say). Assume, conservatively, that only a third of our coastline would be vulnerable to a Chinese attack. That’s 20,000 kilometres, patrolled by eight submarines, so 2500 kilometres to be watched by each sub.

We must also accept that by the time these subs finally take to the water in the early 2040s, they will still be as relevant and cutting-edge as we see them today. Technology moves so quickly, and the Chinese are at the forefront. One wonders what defence departments will look like by 2050.

Former Australian diplomat and international security and strategy specialist David Livingstone claims that by the 2050s, it will be surprising if there will be any place for crewed submarines at all.

“The oceans are becoming transparent through the development of new sensors. Cheap, ubiquitous smart sea mines, sensors and UUVs [Unmanned underwater vehicles] will render them obsolete,” Livingstone wrote.

READ MORE Deep-diving the ‘momentous’, ‘eye-wateringly expensive’ AUKUS submarine deal

Another former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, also has doubts about the value of the partnership. His main beef was that, in his view, the AUKUS deal was nowhere near as good as the partnership Australia had lined up with the French before it was scuttled by his political assassin, Scott Morrison. Or, as Turnbull put it, “recklessly cancelled”.

More expensive, more drawn out and more risky, Turnbull said.

Keating, Turnbull and Livingstone may all be wrong, and maybe this $368 billion deal is the partnership we had to have, guaranteeing the safety and the future of our children and our country.

But it’s such a big deal, such a big outlay, surely it deserves more scrutiny and more discussion than we have had. Many readers may wonder why that sort of money could not be spent on more pressing issues closer to home.

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Tom Worthington10:08 am 21 Mar 23

Submarines, even nuclear-powered ones, are not useful for patrolling Australia’s coastline. It is too far, and the sensors on submarines have very limited range. For that Australia has an over-the-horizon radar, plus long range radar equipped drones, and armed patrol aircraft.

Submarines are better used to patrol sea lanes, and enemy ports. However, there are better technologies than submarines for this. In WWII, Catalina flying boats were used by the RAAF to mine sea lanes and enemy harbours. Such mines can now be much smarter, able to move themselves from place to place, carry out surveillance, attack warships, and avoid civilian vessels. Such mines could be deployed by Australia’s maritime patrol aircraft, from the small robot “Ghost Shark” submarines now being built in Sydney, and from the new long range stealth jet “Ghost Bat” robot aircraft, being built in Queensland.

HiddenDragon9:12 pm 20 Mar 23

That performance was not 1980s/90s vintage Keating, it was King Lear, with a large dollop of rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Aside from the inherent sadness of the spectacle, it was an opportunity missed because amidst the ludicrous dismissal of inconvenient realities and the self-indulgent rhetoric and rudeness (some of it blatantly sexist), points worth considering were lost.

It would be far too deeply cynical to suggest that the whole show was meant to defuse and distract from calm, reasoned criticism of the nuclear subs deal, but it has nonetheless served that purpose.

Jenny Graves5:36 pm 20 Mar 23

There’s a good reason why Paul Keating is bleating about us buying subs to counter the threat from China. He has significant links with China and has done ever since he was ousted by Howard. So did Hawke. He is saying what he has to say to protect his interests.

I was listening to Insiders on Sunday and the threat from China is very real. Those in the know (in Defence) believe that we may end up going to war in the next 3 years. I just hope that we can get some subs before then!

So you bleat on about Keating protecting his interests, but then pretend the ‘experts’ on Insiders are perfectly unbiased. One was the SMH editor, the paper doing its best ‘reds under the beds’ impression the other week, another a well known, long time “hawk” in Greg Sheridan, and just one that brought a little balance to the discussion (Laura Tingle).

The only reason the ‘threat from China is very real’ is because we are aligned with the US, who is desperately searching for a war to fight and happy to rattle the sabres at every opportunity. And China is very happy to play at that game – which is likely to just leave us caught in the middle somewhere, whether we like it or not.

It is utterly delusional to think a) we will see submarines anywhere near Australia any time soon and b) that the subs will make any difference should a major global power set their sights.

This response is exactly what the Hawks that run the dreadful dribble in the SMH want – to create fear so to garner support for unending defence expenditure, whether justified or not, whether useful or not, and whether needed or not. The Military Industrial Complex that is pulling the strings behind the scenes will laugh all the way to the bank however.

do you honestly believe that China is benign in their actions and the threat is solely related to the USA’s moves?

Or perhaps should we listen to what the Chinese leadership is actually saying about what they believe and see as their strategic goals in the region are? That we should recognise and understand what they have actually been doing in the region over the last 10-20 years and the potential long term consequences of those moves? To ignore it is foolish and extraordinarily dangerous.

Keating was right in one area and that is around the likely threat of China invading us being very low.

But that’s not remotely the only thing they can do to expand their presence in our region, cripple our economy and lessen the long term safety of our region.

The submarines will not only allow us to protect our interests in the region for things like free and open shipping lanes, but the strategic partnerships with the US, UK and other regional partners will see us benefit significantly in the long term. Whether the likely cost is the best use of the expenditure is definitely debatable but that is separate to the threat of China itself.

You complain about the “hawks” but the China “doves” who just want to either ignore or show acquiescence to China’s expansionary moves and human rights abuses are equally if not more dangerous.

Peter Crowley1:40 pm 20 Mar 23

So many real problems we could be addressing with this money.

I honestly don’t know what level of threat China is, but I baulk at the level of military spending that goes on unchallenged. The lesson we all should have learned over the last three years is the biggest threat to our way of life came, not from military sabre rattling, but from a virus. And one of the main reasons we had to go into such a strict lockdown – which will have economic and other implications for years – was because our health system was not able to cope. And the reason it wasn’t able to cope was because it had been underfunded for decades. Both sides of politics need to share blame for that, along with similar mindsets in other countries. How much of the zillions of dollars this sub deal will cost will be drained from money available for health, education & research? They are the things that will protect and enhance our way of life – not subs.

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