Opinion

Michael Costello
When ineptitude goes nuclear

The decision by the Morrison government to get nuclear-powered submarines rather than conventionally powered ones is correct. But like so many other decisions of the past 10 years, it has been carried out with a stunning ineptness and in a way that damages Australia’s national interests.

Why is the decision correct? Because our strategic needs have fundamentally changed. China is asserting a right to regional dominance in an increasingly aggressive way.

To get a flavour of how China sees us and other countries in our region, it’s useful to recall the words of then Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at the ASEAN Regional Forum in July 2010. At the time, the ASEAN countries were raising their concerns about China’s actions in the South China Sea. Yang Jiechi said, “China is a big country, and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.”

This message, that the rest of us should know our place, permeates the language of China’s leaders and spokespeople. It’s a modern version of the Athenian Empire’s message to the Melians in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War: “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power while the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

Our strategic maritime concerns relate now not just to the archipelago to our north but the wider Pacific. Conventional submarines are better suited to the former, but nuclear-powered submarines have much greater range and much greater speed, enabling them to carry out different tasks in the latter.

So if the decision was correct, what was so inept about the Morrison government’s performance?

First, it is the wild exaggeration of what had been achieved. AUKUS is not a treaty. There are no guarantees of mutual defence. Nor is it, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison cheesily described it, a “Forever Partnership”. In international affairs, nothing is forever. Rather it is a sensible arrangement with our longstanding defence matériel partners, the United States and Britain, for access to the latest and best technology – a significant forward step built on existing habits and practice.

The government presented this as the single most important defence and foreign policy development since the ANZUS Treaty in 1951. Wrong. Along with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the most important strategic development since ANZUS is the rise of China, which the West did everything it could to support and encourage as peaceful but which on the Chinese side has turned to increasingly hostile words and deeds.

The Morrison government’s absurd overcharacterisation of the deal, and its risible, third-grade marketing of it, made something worthwhile appear, depending on your viewpoint, to be either epochal or ridiculous, neither of which is true. Further, the government’s exaggeration of its importance made it seem like a turn from our long-worked-for engagement with Asia to seeking refuge and comfort in the Anglosphere’s bosom.

The negative Chinese reaction, of course, reeks of hypocrisy. The Chinese military build-up on land, sea, in the air and in space has exploded in the past 10 years. China has submarines to burn and plans to build plenty more. It can hardly complain about Australia going a small way down the same path.

Nevertheless, the way government did this has deeply offended many countries who are our friends and supporters. The outrage of France is entirely justified. Australia had every right to make this decision, but we did not have the right to keep suggesting to France, during the many months the government negotiated the new deal with the US and Britain, that while there were problems with the French project it was still possible to work them out.

The blindsiding of French President Emmanuel Macron is a blow to French prestige and his own personal standing. Macron and his government are important players in the Pacific, had taken our side in our problems with China, had intended to do much more in strategic co-operation with us, and were bringing the European Union with them. France remains a major power. With Angela Merkel’s departure as German chancellor, Macron will be the major player in the EU.

France’s justified upset over the government’s subterfuge and cowardly deceit will weaken us severely in the EU. Even worse, it undermined the confidence of France and the EU in the US, which once again left its European allies in the dark. The behaviour of President Joe Biden in this episode is seen as being as bad as that of Donald Trump before him. Biden has Scott Morrison to thank for putting him in that position.

It was always going to be uncomfortable to explain this decision to France, but it was not impossible. It is deeply worrying that Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade should have become so weakened in influence that it did not, or could not, persuade the government to deal with France in a timely, honest and straightforward manner.

We needed to tell France well in advance, quietly, from prime minister to president, from foreign minister to foreign minister, from defence minister to defence minister, why Australia had decided that strategic necessity now demanded nuclear-powered rather than conventionally powered vessels.

We could have explained that while France’s Barracuda nuclear-powered submarine is excellent, its nuclear propulsion system would require development in Australia of a domestic nuclear industry – for us, not politically tenable. The Barracuda’s American equivalent does not because its reactor lasts for the life of the submarine.

France would not have been happy but it would not have been grotesquely deceived and humiliated, rather treated with the respect to which friends are entitled.

This is Diplomacy 101, but diplomacy seems to have been forgotten in the febrile alarmism that has taken hold in Australia’s security establishment and now dominates our national discourse on external relations. The relative decline in DFAT’s resourcing and influence is a critical related factor.

Of further concern is that balanced, calm and professional US State Department influence was nowhere evident. How could the State Department be so clueless as to let this happen? Biden quickly made contact with Macron and acknowledged it was a serious mistake not to tell France well in advance – something the US had unwisely left to Australia to do.

There is another deep, domestic concern to policy in this area, and that is the fact this submarine debacle has run for nearly a decade. When Tony Abbott became prime minister in 2013 he set out to implement Kevin Rudd’s commitment several years earlier for 12 new conventionally powered submarines. Abbott wanted a Japanese submarine but that fell over. His successor, Malcolm Turnbull, decided on the French submarine. That’s been axed.

Now we have a plan to have an American or British submarine that will not be delivered until close to 2040 at the earliest. What do we do in the meantime? We have six ageing conventionally powered subs needing major refurbishment during that time, reducing the number available at any moment to, at best, just four. Perhaps we should ask the Chinese to put off any military action until after 2040 when we will be ready, sort of.

Further, continuation of the idea that we can build these extremely complex and sophisticated subs from scratch in Adelaide is some sort of joke. This fact bedevilled the now jettisoned deal with France from the outset. The requirement for an Australian build from day one was unnecessarily welded onto it for political reasons by the government with marginal South Australian seats in mind.

To state the obvious: security and defence needs should guide Australian policy, not the political needs of the government of the day. The first few subs of the new deal should be built in Britain or the US, with Australian engineers, technicians and seafarers on site and part of the build, learning the necessary capabilities as the prelude to transferring the skills here. Even then, it will be decades, if ever, before we’re capable of doing this on our own.

In the meantime, Australia needs to fill the gap by leasing a number of these submarines as soon as possible, something the government has belatedly canvassed.

Lastly, Australia’s habit of requiring massive modifications to our defence acquisitions, which create significant operational problems, huge additional lead times and vastly higher costs, must end.

It is to Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese’s credit that he instantly recognised the basic strategic decision underlying the new subs deal as correct. If it wins the next election, Labor will face a huge challenge remedying the stunning incompetence of recent defence matériel decision-making. With Penny Wong as Foreign minister, Australia may once again recognise the importance of diplomacy rather than fall into the lazy chest-beating characteristic of the Morrison government.

For too long the government and security community have sounded as though they could hardly wait to get into a biff with China. This way lies disaster for our nation, especially when we can’t organise a submarine fleet to save ourselves.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 9, 2021 as "When ineptitude goes nuclear".

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Michael Costello was secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (1993-96).