Man the torpedoes: stand by for a national security election

Ian Bushnell 20 September 2021 58
Virginia class US nuclear powered submarine

A Virginia class US nuclear-powered submarine. Australia will have access to US and UK technology to build an eight-boat fleet in Adelaide. Photo: Wikipedia.

It looks like next year’s federal election will be even more about keeping Australia safe.

The Morrison Government will seek to be rewarded for protecting us from the pandemic, albeit with a couple of hiccups around vaccine supply and quarantine arrangements, but the other big external enemy that is looming ever larger is set to play a big part in the campaign.

China has clearly got the government well and truly spooked, so last week’s torpedoing of the $90 billion French submarine project in favour of the US and UK nuclear option should not come as a surprise.

The writing has been on the wall for some time that the French deal had soured, and the access to US and UK nuclear technology as part of the new Anglosphere security arrangement changed the equation for Defence.

At the moment, all we have is an announcement and a lot of detail to be filled in, such as the mind-boggling cost, including the compensation to the French, the timeline, how a country without a civil nuclear industry manages and services a fleet of nuclear-powered vessels, and finding the extra crews for these bigger subs.

Significantly, the subs will still be built in Adelaide, ensuring jobs and votes. But if Australia wanted real value, it could buy US boats of the shelf and get them into service much sooner.

Forget all the nonsense about Australia projecting power and serving notice to the Chinese that we are a force to be reckoned with, though.

It’s going to be 30 years before we even see a sub, so the big benefit is an even cosier defence relationship with the US, beyond ANZUS, and which moves towards further integration of our forces with the Americans.

The message to China is that Australia has got powerful mates, so don’t pick on us.

Already Defence Minister Peter Dutton is laying out the welcome mat for US troops on Australian soil so we can play our part in the American strategy to reinforce its presence in the Indo-Pacific and confront and contain Chinese belligerence.

Welcome to the new Cold War.

The price of protection will be an erosion of sovereignty and independence, a loss of diplomatic clout by nailing our colours so decisively to the US mast, and the potential development of a nuclear industry in Australia that brings with it all the associated risks.

And we will be on the nose with the French.

In an increasingly dangerous world, that may seem a fair price for an Australia that once again keenly senses its isolation.

Considering Australia’s unswerving loyalty to US military adventures, this move can seem a natural next step, especially at a time of increasing tension with China, despite our immensely beneficial trade relationship.

In fact, China’s new assertiveness, rapid arms build-up and claims to the South China Sea and other strategic waters has neighbours such as South Korea and Japan on edge and looking to the US for support.

In this context, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese will have a tough time arguing against the deal, and of course, the Coalition will relish the thought of the internal party divisions the deal may wreak on Labor, not to mention isolating the Greens.

For a government with few genuine policies, that would be a bonus in a national security election.

For some, the deal just puts a target on Australia.

For others, China needs to know that countries that share democratic values are not about to let it ride roughshod over the region and accept its suzerainty.

For a world that has survived two World Wars, the first Cold War, the War on Terror and the whirlwind that reaped, and is facing the existential threat of global warming, the sabre rattling and age-old clash of empires is depressing.

If ever there was a time for global cooperation, not confrontation, this is it.

But China under Xi Jinping can hardly cry foul as it retreats into nationalistic totalitarianism and attempts to resume its imperial posture in the region.

Unfortunately the new AUKUS alliance will only reinforce the insecurity of a nation that remembers its humiliation at the hands of the British during the Opium Wars of the 19th century, and the 1937 Japanese invasion like it was yesterday.

Australia is but a bit player, but, as ever, it will do its bit.


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58 Responses to Man the torpedoes: stand by for a national security election
Deborah Lee Deborah Lee 3:56 pm 21 Sep 21

It won't help against the Chinese

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 7:14 pm 20 Sep 21

Yes, this is inconvenient news for an ALP which has painted itself into a fiscal corner by selling out on negative gearing, capital gains tax and high income tax cuts and clearly thought that it could Bradbury its way into office with a small target strategy and a bit of window dressing about “post war” (virus) reconstruction.

With Labor having committed to this even more expensive submarine option, and presumably all the other defence spending entailed with AUKUS, it’s probably also inconvenient news for Canberrans who have been hanging out for a big-spending (in Canberra) federal government.

Futureproof Futureproof 4:26 pm 20 Sep 21

We don’t owe the French anything. This is a business transaction and all they produced was paper and highly paid middle men. It also says a lot about China, making threats of nuclear attacks , when all we want is a nuclear powered/not nuclear armed submarine

ChrisinTurner ChrisinTurner 3:57 pm 20 Sep 21

After the conflict Dutton achieved in Home Affairs he continues in Defence by prodding the bear. He is so dangerous!

Tom Worthington Tom Worthington 2:48 pm 20 Sep 21

Not “Man the torpedoes”, it will be: “Activate the AI in the Uninhabited Underwater Vehicles”. 😉

More seriously, Australia risks buying large attack subs, just as they are rendered obsolete by underwater drones. Leasing some US or UK submarines could be a useful stopgap, until new conventionally powered submarines, purpose built for launching drones, can be built.

ps: I facilitated one of the teams at the Navy Navy Warfare Innovation Workshop 2020 (NWIW), working on dealing with swarms of robotic autonomous systems. https://blog.highereducationwhisperer.com/2020/12/navy-warfare-innovation-workshop-2020.html

John Moulis John Moulis 12:45 pm 20 Sep 21

I don’t know about anybody else, but I haven’t been fooled by this attempt to shift attention away from Covid and health (areas that traditionally favour Labor) onto defence and national security (areas that traditionally favour the Liberals). John Howard won two elections trying to play up fears about terrorism and it looks like the Liberals are resorting to type.

I find the attempts at anti-China, anti-France, anti-New Zealand tub thumping to be shameful. And if I am not mistaken, it all seems to have started since Dutton became Minister for defence. Who can forget the stupid “drums of war” speech that his departmental head gave just after Dutton’s promotion?

I will never support anybody who tries to win an election on the back of national security, defence and terrorism. We’ve been down that road before and it was a disaster. The burnt out and shattered buildings of Afghanistan and the humanitarian crisis caused by foreign troops invading the country and trying to impose a puppet government with ideals at odds with those held by the populace bear testimony to that.

Hopefully the public can see right through this garbage and will not be swayed by it at the ballot box.

    JS9 JS9 2:05 pm 20 Sep 21

    There has certainly been a distinct shift to chest beating since Dutton has become Minister. That is his style, and he won’t stop at nothing – even if it is antagonising major military powers that are already pretty frigging cranky at the current Australian government.

    The public benefit is far from mind though – as you say its all about the election and nothing else.

    I’ll be amazed if we ever see any actual submarines come out of this. And if we do – I fully expect it’ll be the full blown mess that the joint strike fighter process has been.

Blake Anthony Cross Blake Anthony Cross 12:15 pm 20 Sep 21

Would've been better spent in cyber technology. We need some form of protection not from destroyers and aircraft carriers, more like some person sitting on a computer.

Look out boat people!

David Chadwick David Chadwick 10:58 am 20 Sep 21

Bring it on Labor can say we support this in principle and then kick the living daylights out of Morrison and Dutton on cost, time, Payne on shameful lack of diplomacy. Imagine the upcoming Payne v Wong debate Penny will destroy her.

bikhet bikhet 9:26 am 20 Sep 21

Deafening silence from the ALP on all this – apart from Ian B of course. Heard an interview with Adam Bandt about this and what load of codswallop – straight out of the socialist left hymn sheet.

Carol Gainey Carol Gainey 9:22 am 20 Sep 21

It should be an election based on integrity and accountability and the Feds achievements or lack thereof over the term of this government plus the management of vaccine of procurement and rollout and quarantine which were Federal responsibilities.

JS9 JS9 9:17 am 20 Sep 21

I will never understand why we keep poking a bear with a stick. Even with these subs delivered at some indeterminate point in the future (and at some indeterminate cost), it will make zero difference to our actual security situation, should the worst happen.

Maybe, rather then just blindly going along with those driven by the Military Industrial Complex that needs war to justify exorbitant expenditure on military hardware and equipment, we should forge our own way – where instead of trying to piss everybody off, we actually try to maintain a relatively neutral stance….. just saying there are other ways.

But as always, the suckers will get sucked in by a big ‘announceable’ by the king of spin.

    Won’t be fooled again Won’t be fooled again 10:16 am 20 Sep 21

    This is not about strategy or Australian defence. It’s a about getting the band back together (UK-Australia, US-Australia, UK-US) even though we will be the drummer at best, probably a roadie. It’s about the election. It’s about Taiwan.

    We may actually need nuclear subs to defend our approaches but I don’t think this purchase is about that. We don’t even know what we are buying or from whom!

chewy14 chewy14 9:15 am 20 Sep 21

Considering the military moves that China has been making in recent years, I honestly don’t know how anyone could see this as a bad idea, regardless of the author’s claims around the politics.

Whilst antagonising the French may need some fences mended from the failed commercial deals, we have ended up with a stronger alliance and better access to state of the art technology (even beyond the subs).

If you think appeasement of China is a good long term strategic move, you would be sadly mistaken.

    Won’t be fooled again Won’t be fooled again 9:59 am 20 Sep 21

    I disagree. This isn’t about defending Australia. This is about defending Taiwan and keeping the US in the western Pacific.

    chewy14 chewy14 12:24 pm 20 Sep 21

    Won’t be fooled,
    I don’t think this is about directly defending Australia with the submarine purchase although they help.

    No one is under any illusion about what a direct military attack from China would result in.

    It’s about the strategic positioning and the ability to leverage that for wider protection on a number of fronts.

    Won’t be fooled again Won’t be fooled again 1:23 pm 20 Sep 21

    Chewy14
    If purchasing submarines is not about defending Australia, what on earth is it for? Most likely it is so that our stud-enviously expensive (but soon to be out of date) kit will be interoperable with the US if, say, Taiwan crosses China’s red line by declaring independence. We’ll get roped in if we’re not careful. We’re making a big bet here.

    chewy14 chewy14 2:44 pm 20 Sep 21

    Won’t be fooled,
    I said it helps to protect Australia. But only partly through the hardware, the bigger benefits come from the strategic alignment.

    Once again, no one thinks we could go into a direct war with China and win.

    And my entire comment was that ignoring China’s agressive moves won’t keep us safe in any form in the long run. Burying our head in the sand doesn’t make the growing risk go away and China are only interested in what benefits them, regardless of who it affects.

    It’s a “big bet” as you say, no matter the decision.

    Won’t be fooled again Won’t be fooled again 3:38 pm 20 Sep 21

    Chewy14: what exactly is the threat from China? To quote Pauline Hanson, please explain. Last time I checked the map we were well south of Taiwan and there are a lot of countries in between who seem to be capable of dealing with China. To my mind the strategic benefits of this are nebulous, the price tag is ridiculous and the optics are terrible. We look like a frightened country wrapped up in nostalgia.

    chewy14 chewy14 5:38 pm 20 Sep 21

    Won’t be fooled again,
    That’s a joke right?

    This isn’t about China launching a military attack on us in the short term, it’s about global power both economic and militarily into the next 50 years.

    China is already expanding its influence both through economic and military force. That will no doubt continue.

    We’ve seen them attempt to exert some of that force recently through economic sanctions on us.

    So how much true sovereignty do you think Australia would maintain if China significantly dominated the global pecking order? They aren’t interested in an open and free global market, they are interested in both maintaining and growing their own power, no matter the cost to others. If China dominates the globe, everyone will suffer in one form or another.

    Now similar arguments could be made about the US, Russia or to lesser extents some of the other powers but the danger from China is clearly far higher to our way of life.

    As above, if you think appeasement of China is a good long term strategy, you are mistaken.

    Won’t be fooled again Won’t be fooled again 5:57 pm 20 Sep 21

    Chewy, they won’t dominate the globe for the simple reason that the US, Russia, the EU, Japan and Indonesia will have a lot of weight. Our 8 nuclear powered pea shooters will only provide light relief and make us look silly in that scenario.

    JS9 JS9 11:02 am 20 Sep 21

    Meh, we really shouldn’t care about the French to be honest.

    But I don’t get this obsession some hold of us trying to play at the ‘big boys’ table. We never were, are currently not, and never will be, a major military power.

    These subs genuinely will make zero difference to any significant measure of ‘security’ for Australia from a military point of view – especially by the time they are developed warfare will have moved on far more towards ‘remote’ warfare in terms of weaponry, and all sorts of other types of warfare otherwise.

    Its like trying to buy a dreadnought battleship to fight in WW2. A good technology for its time, but lost past its used by date when it comes to actually hitting the water.

    Let the big boys do their posturing is my view, and find a way for Australia to stay out of what is a problem we can’t genuinely influence from a military matter, but could very much end up on the blunt end of the stick if the poking goes too far.

    chewy14 chewy14 12:29 pm 20 Sep 21

    JS9,
    Whilst I disagree slightly with some of your position on the worth of the technology because it’s still to be determined exactly what we will get, I agree that this isn’t about directly becoming a major military power.

    This is about the overall strategic alignment we are making with the US, UK and

    Sitting back and doing nothing or trying to placate China, won’t make a lick of difference to how they treat us.

    JS9 JS9 2:03 pm 20 Sep 21

    By strategically aligning in particular with the US at this time in the public ‘look at me’ way we have, we are lining up behind a country that loves to pick a fight, loves to send people off to die in ‘insert country we shouldn’t be involved in’ and loves a good battle that consumes huge amounts of military consumables, as a key element of their economy relies on it. No doubt the Military Industrial Complex is wanting a war somewhere soon – given what served them so well in Afghanistan and Iraq is now over.

    It aligns us to a position of ‘war first, diplomacy later’, which leaves us in my opinion more exposed then taking a less agressive stance.

    And I’d be astounded if the submarines we get are of any genuine usefulness whenever they arrive – if indeed they do arrive at all.

    JC JC 11:55 am 20 Sep 21

    Do you think a handful of subs (or indeed the whole ADF) is going to make a difference against China. Especially as you have pointed out the moves and growth in their military over the last decade?

    Better thing for Australia would be strengthening our non military ties in the South Pacific. The kind of money being bandied around as to the cost of these subs would go a long way and do it a good 20 years earlier than the subs.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 1:40 pm 20 Sep 21

    It’s way too late for us to be bolstering up the economies of South Pacific island countries, JC:
    https://www.brookings.edu/articles/the-risks-of-chinas-ambitions-in-the-south-pacific/

    Hopefully India will establish a large military presence in Fiji to restore some balance of influence in the region because Australia totally missed the boat on what was happening.

    chewy14 chewy14 2:48 pm 20 Sep 21

    JC,
    I’ve repeatedly said this isn’t mainly about the hardware although it helps.

    And why can’t we strengthen our non military ties in the region at the same time as increases our military strength and alliances. It isn’t an either/or proposition.

    And as we’ve also seen recently, throwing money at those non military ties is often only as useful as the last aid payment. There are better ways to achieve the same goals.

Capital Retro Capital Retro 9:14 am 20 Sep 21

“And we will be on the nose with the French.”

Who cares? We have bought a lot of military stuff and avionics from the French over the last 60 years and who could forget their arrogance in denying us spare parts and ammunition for the Mirage jet fighters they sold us because of a difference in geopolitical opinions?

What about the French using our backyard in the South Pacific as a nuclear testing site and their secret service blowing up the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour?

Alan Myburgh Alan Myburgh 9:12 am 20 Sep 21

The mad pom, Sleepy Joe and the fella from down under, old mate Scotty… bought a new submarine… and Xi just laughed and laughed and laughed… the end.

Warren Curry Warren Curry 9:10 am 20 Sep 21

Exactly! Fear and xenophobia going to be spread far and wide. Sounds like the old yellow peril may get a dust off and placed front and centre. It could work as well as many Aussie voters are upset and focused on not being able to go to the pub or the gym, not on what is happening in the country.

Jayden Hackett Jayden Hackett 9:09 am 20 Sep 21

It's what we need! And the polls still have him ahead by a mile

Alison Jones Alison Jones 9:06 am 20 Sep 21

So not about how millions of us have been deeply impacted by Covid-19 thanks to the inability & unwillingness of the federal government to procure vaccines? Or their utter negligence in the area of climate policy, despite the massive fires & ongoing threats from heat and drought? Or inequality, with the ever widening gaps between rich and poor and the different treatments of those overpaid JobKeeper compared with those overpaid JobSeeker?

I could not give a hoot about national security compared with these issues. But if we must focus on that, let's consider how sensible it was to announce we would buy submarines at any cost named by the UK and USA without even knowing the type of submarine we are committing to, with no plan between Collins Class and the future fleet in 2040 & how we completely angered both the French and Chinese. That's the story of this government's national security policy.

Shane Westmore Shane Westmore 9:02 am 20 Sep 21

sadly it's a power move that could work cos voters have short memories... make people forget about the shocking response to the bushfires & failure to roll out vaccines & let people die, by forming an alliance with the UK & USA

Acton Acton 9:02 am 20 Sep 21

China’s bullying, hostile and territorially aggresive actions in the SCS, its trade war, its cyber attacks, treatment of minorities, economic coercion of smaller nations, intimidation of academics in Australia, military buildup and nuclear threats against Japan and Taiwan all compel Australia to make these choices. China has miscalculated and its own actions have pushed Australia into this closer pact with the US. The lessons from history show that subserviance and appeasement do not deter an aggressor. The best outcome is a resumption of peaceful coexistance once everyone understands the lines in the sand. The election should focus on the covid responses and the best way forward as that is of more immediate concern to the average locked up elector, deprived of travel, schooling, work and liberties we took for granted and want back.

Won’t be fooled again Won’t be fooled again 8:39 am 20 Sep 21

It’s extraordinary isn’t it.

From whom are we buying these widgets? Will they be US Virginia Class (yes, the ones the US is phasing out) or UK Astute Class? Will there be a tender process to protect the taxpayer? Will there be strings attached; in other words, are we going to be roped into another war and to pay a premium in blood for an insurance policy with outdated terms?

What happened to the outward-looking trading nation that sought to engage with its neighbours with nuance?

    Won’t be fooled again Won’t be fooled again 9:06 am 20 Sep 21

    Yes, I do know that my final question applies as much to China as Orstraalya.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 9:55 am 20 Sep 21

    We are negotiating with the US to immediately lease some of the Virginia Class subs as a stop gap strategy while the new subs are built.

    Seems like a good idea at this time and it would appear that the base we choose to operate the new subs from will also be used by the the US which is also a good idea.

    Won’t be fooled again Won’t be fooled again 11:39 am 20 Sep 21

    They have to lease something because we’ve lost a decade stuffing around. But I would question the rationale of using the subs “because they will also be used by the US”. Seriously? We are, or should be, an independent country. Our interest are not theirs. The US may well bolt from the western Pacific at some point. If they do, where will we be and what will we look like? I suspect we will look white, scared truculent and foolish, even pitiful, if we don’t start thinking and acting for ourselves. This announcement is comfort food for a certain sector of the electorate.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 12:05 pm 20 Sep 21

    I said the base we choose, not the subs, will also be used by the US.

    Remember the US closed their huge base in the Philippines (Subic Bay) about 20 years ago and since then the Chinese have “claimed” lots of strategic islands in the area. This wouldn’t have happened if a vacuum was left after the US retreated.

    Won’t be fooled again Won’t be fooled again 3:27 pm 20 Sep 21

    Apologies CR, I misread. I suspect we’ll just end up using Guam, San Diego and the UK for basea. Might as well go all in,

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 5:54 pm 20 Sep 21

    Thanks for that and I should have said “if a vacuum wasn’t left”.

    And it makes a lot of sense if we think globally about the adaptability of what we buy to use compatible port facilities with the US and the UK using nuclear submarines with similar type.

    Imagine trying to have our retro-diesel French submarines serviced globally?

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