While much of the politics of the year ahead will be preoccupied with controversies about the cost of living and the Indigenous Voice to parliament, in the next several weeks the Albanese government will be required to make two calls which, while less attention-getting, will be among the most important decisions it will ever make.
Both will have a generational impact on Australia’s future security. Those decisions are the response to the Defence Strategic Review and the choice of nuclear-powered submarine under the AUKUS agreement.
Who will build Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines? Decisions made in the coming months will be critical for the nation’s future security.
In August last year, the government appointed the Rudd government’s defence minister, Stephen Smith, and the former chief of the Defence Force, Sir Angus Houston, to conduct a strategic review of Australia’s Defence needs. The purpose was “to consider the priority of investment in Defence capabilities and assess the ADF’s structure, posture and preparedness in order to optimise Defence capability and posture to meet the nation’s security challenges ... to 2032-33 and beyond”.
It is, in a sense, the continuation of a similar exercise initiated in 2011 by Smith when, as minister, he announced the Australian Defence Force Posture Review. Its terms of reference required it to “outline the future security and strategic environment and challenges Australia needs to be positioned to respond up to 2030”. That was reported in 2012; a number of its recommendations were implemented by the Abbott and Turnbull governments.
It is notable that while the 2011 review prescribed a 20-year timeline, the Smith-Houston review – which is more granular, and more ambitious in scope – uses the vaguer phrase “to 2032-3 and beyond”. But whether it is one decade, two or more, there is a degree of artificiality in all such timelines, for the simple reason that, with the most advanced weapons systems, the time elapsed from decision to acquisition is almost always beyond the event horizon.
The problem is unavoidable; it can be mitigated, but never overcome, by preferring tenders that promise sooner delivery, and favouring systems that are more readily adaptable in the development and construction phase (one of the considerations in the Turnbull government’s choice of the French submarine build).
I predict the Smith-Houston review will be more radical than many are expecting. Smith had a reputation as a tough-minded defence minister; Houston was a hugely respected CDF. Both speak with great authority. And for both of them, this will almost certainly be their last chance to put their permanent stamp on our military posture. They can be expected to be bold. In particular, given the greater appreciation than ever of Australia’s need to defend itself beyond its borders, principally in the maritime domain, do not be surprised if they recommend a reduction in emphasis on land-based weapons systems as a proportion of the overall procurement mix.
The problem of long-term decision-making in defence procurement will be nowhere more acute than in the choice of submarine type for AUKUS – a decision the government has committed to announcing in March.
There is a near-to-universal expectation that it will opt for an American build. Considerations of both cost and sooner delivery favour that course. Yet in either case, the soonest delivery will not be before the early 2030s. So, on even the most optimistic assumptions, the first vessel will not be available before the very end of the time horizon encompassed by the strategic review, while the final delivery to complete the fleet will not be received before the late 2040s.
Nobody can say what the world will look like, what Australia’s strategic needs will be, and what developments will have taken place in technological capability more than a quarter of a century from now.
Domestic politics in our partner nations also matter. The AUKUS decision has now been complicated by the release on Friday of a joint letter by Democrat and Republican senators Jack Reed and James Inhofe to US President Joe Biden, questioning whether capacity constraints on American nuclear submarine production make delivering additional submarines to Australia feasible. I drew attention to this risk in my column of September 12 last year.
These are not just any senators. They are the chair and ranking minority member of the Armed Services Committee – the most powerful individuals outside the administration when it comes to AUKUS. In a bitterly divided Washington, it is significant that they found bipartisanship on the issue. Reed is the first senior Democrat to question supplying US nuclear submarines to Australia – not, it should be emphasised, for any lack of appreciation of the strategic value of AUKUS, rather due to the hard reality of supply-side constraints.
For that reason, as I pointed out last year, a choice of British build is less exposed to domestic political risk. Both the Conservatives and Labour under Sir Keir Starmer are strongly supportive of AUKUS. The Australian submarine contract is viewed as a huge political trophy in rebuilding Britain’s industrial base in the electorally critical north of England.
Illustration: Joe BenkeCredit:
Nevertheless, there is a body of opinion in Britain that maintains scepticism of both the value of AUKUS and more broadly the wisdom of the “tilt to the Indo-Pacific”, which was one of the principal pillars of the Johnson government’s review of Britain’s global posture, published in 2021. That said, there is no sign yet of that point of view prevailing in Britain, however, if the submarine contract does go to the US those who hold that view will claim validation.
Yet just as one cannot predict the global strategic environment decades ahead, nor can one predict domestic politics, whether in Washington or in London. At the moment, London looks the safer bet.
The most important decisions in politics are not necessarily the ones that create the most noise. (The reverse is also true: so often fierce political controversies arise about issues of vanishingly small importance.) Given the strong bipartisan commitment to AUKUS, the appreciation on both sides of politics of how high the stakes are for Australia to have the most appropriate strategic posture in the decades to the middle of the century, and the reassuring fact that both Defence Minister Richard Marles and his shadow Andrew Hastie are intelligent political grown-ups, I expect neither the announcement of the government’s response to the strategic review, nor the AUKUS submarine choice, will become a major political issue in coming weeks.
However, despite the likely political quiescence, be in no doubt that, in decades to come, those decisions will be regarded as key inflection points in the protection of Australia’s security.
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