Next week Anthony Albanese will appear at the San Diego naval base, on America’s west coast, standing shoulder to shoulder with US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Their purpose? To reveal the specifics of what the prime minister last month called “the single biggest leap in our defence capability in our history”: the nuclear-powered submarines promised under the AUKUS agreement.
Eighteen months after the Morrison government conceived the initiative, it falls to Albanese to midwife it – and to foot the bill.
Former Defence Department deputy secretary Peter Jennings estimates the eight boats will eventually cost taxpayers the equivalent of 1 per cent of Australia’s gross domestic product or some $20 billion each year.
That’s roughly the combined annual revenues of Australia’s wheat and beef industries, or more than the cost of the NDIS last year. The problem is, the submarines are not expected to arrive for 15 to 20 years, which could be on the other side of a war with China.
Jennings is one of five of the nation’s top security minds assembled by and for , an in-depth independent national security review. They say Australia faces the real prospect of a war with China within three years that could involve a direct attack on our mainland and expose the vulnerabilities of our unprepared defence force. They warn Australia likely needs to double its defence spending to preserve peace.
Jennings is an AUKUS advocate, but is blunt about the submarines’ usefulness in the near term.
‘Mugged by time’
“AUKUS was a major step that the government took, but what a tragedy it doesn’t actually address the strategic situation we’re dealing with now,” says Australia’s former chief defence strategist. “We have been mugged by time.”
Technology expert Lesley Seebeck, who was appointed to the federal government’s naval shipbuilding advisory board in 2019, says: “The submarines are in never-never land, as far as we’re concerned. We need to talk about the next two to three years.”
While Australia waits for the submarines to arrive, the nation has short-term vulnerabilities and gaps that must be addressed.
To survive a confrontation with an aggressive great power as soon as 2026, the panellists say the nation must move with urgency and be willing to break longstanding political taboos.
“What works during peacetime isn’t going to be appropriate for conflict,” Australia’s former chief scientist Alan Finkel says.
“We have got to break the entire paradigm,” says Jennings. “The current way of doing things will not work.”
One bold idea: Australia must focus on securing the military equipment it needs as soon as possible, rather than using defence projects as a way to create local manufacturing jobs.
“In an urgent crisis, survival must take priority over domestic industry,” the panellists argue in their joint communique, which we publish in full today. “For our most urgent needs, we should not be ‘Australianising’ gear bought overseas to create jobs. To procure weapons and systems needed urgently, an off-the-shelf import usually will be better than a slower, custom-made equivalent,” they say.
Finkel says: “I think it’s wonderful we develop our own capabilities. I just get upset when I hear about us taking some other existing design and customising it to our needs and getting bogged down.”
The panel also proposes two controversial ideas for Australia to consider.
One is national service, which could take both civil and military forms. France and Sweden are among the countries reintroducing some form of national service. In France’s case, it is initially voluntary, but by 2026 will be mandatory for people aged 16 to 25. Sweden is introducing conscription of civilians for its emergency services.
“It need not be limited to young people,” the panel says. “Australia should consider some variety of this option using the strength and energy of Australians to build national resilience in our economy, society and critical infrastructure.”
Then there is the ultimate untouchable issue of Australian politics: nuclear weapons. While everyone longs for a nuclear-free planet, this is not the world we live in. “History has shown that if you have a nuclear weapons capability, you are less likely to be subject to authoritarian pressure by nuclear states,” says Lesley Seebeck, chair of the National Institute of Strategic Resilience.
South Korea’s President, Yoon Suk-yeol, has raised the prospect of his nation acquiring its own nuclear weapons in response to North Korea’s nuclear adventurism.
The panel stresses this would be an option “only to be considered in the most extreme circumstances”. It would involve basing US long-range missiles armed with nuclear weapons on Australian territory if the US were interested in doing so.
“Such a policy of nuclear weapons ‘sharing’ is a standard part of the NATO alliance,” the group explains. “Such a decision would violate Australia’s existing treaty commitments and so should not be made lightly, but it would provide a compelling deterrence against attack.”
The panellists repeatedly emphasised that Australia’s critical threshold change must be psychological. The nation needs to snap out of its complacency and discover urgent effort across society. The coming war likely would be the most consequential since the defeat of global fascism in World War II. And the stakes are every bit as high.
The good news is that we need not despair, the national security specialists say. Australia – a global superpower in food and energy that commands its own island continent – is stronger than it realises. As the experts’ joint statement says: “Australia has many strengths, some unique. It is much more than a ‘middle power’.”
They agree: “Australia has agency and can use its power to influence events – to deter some Chinese Communist Party behaviours, to support allies, to shape some regional institutions and events, to defend itself and to strike the enemy where necessary.” But it needs a cohesive national security strategy to bring these strengths together and build on them.
The fact that Australia – unlike many other developed countries – does not have a national security strategy might surprise the public, but it’s true. The late Liberal Senator Jim Molan, a former army major general, pressed his leader, Scott Morrison, for three years to produce such a policy. He was ignored.
A national security policy is much more than a shopping list of defence equipment. As we explored in part two of , Australia’s critical infrastructure assets – its ports, electricity grid, communications networks – are vulnerable to attack. So are its military bases. If imports were blocked, Australia would run out of petrol, diesel and aviation gas within a month or two, and pharmaceuticals in six to 12 months.
Military strategist Mick Ryan says it is vital the nation’s policymakers reject the “cult of the offensive” that has dominated strategic thinking for decades. “We have to be able to defend ourselves,” he says. Australia’s vital national assets – including its military bases – need to be hardened now against missile, drone and cyberattack. An urgent plan is also needed to protect the dozen or so undersea fibre optic cables that connect us to the global internet and communications systems.
Seebeck makes the point that Australia needs to stockpile ammunition. “The rate of expenditure of munitions in Ukraine is fairly indicative of the way that we’re going to have to deal with future conflict. And we’re really unprepared for that.”
Another defensive option is sea mines: underwater explosives that can blow up encroaching vessels. Jennings says: “Sea mines are a great example of cheap systems that are able to be deployed by many different methods, from expensive submarines to fishing trawlers, or pushed out the back of aircraft – and now with such smarts that they can pick the ship they want to destroy, they sit on the bottom and rise to the surface, all sorts of really clever things. It’s a testament to the way Defence has done business for so many years that they were almost completely off the agenda until 2020.”
The government says it is planning Australia’s first significant investment in sea mines in decades, but has not yet released any detail.
Australia’s most pressing need is medium- and long-range strike weapons. Our missile cupboard is remarkably bare. The panel is clear: we need as much strike power as possible, as soon as possible, to deter a potential attack from China or another nation.
“We should have long-range surface-to-water missiles,” says Finkel. “We should have surface-to-air missiles.”
Jennings is blunt about the reason Australia needs strike power: “I want us to think about what can we do which gives us a capacity, at the furthest projection from our shores, to be able to sink the Chinese Navy and to bring down their aircraft? If we’ve got that capacity that will be useful in a whole variety of different ways, including against other potential adversaries as well.”
The Albanese government announced in January it was buying 20 land-based High Mobility Artillery Rocket System launchers from the United States, but more is needed. Jennings points to Tomahawk missiles – a long-range cruise missile used by the US and UK navies for land-attack operations – as a capability Australia should buy. Another is the SM6, the only weapon that can perform anti-air warfare, ballistic missile defence and anti-surface warfare missions.
Finkel brings up the latest birthday present he received from his kids – an autonomous underwater drone, essentially a robot submarine.
“For every one of these [AUKUS] submarines that we’re going to get 20 years from now, you could probably develop and build 1000 autonomous torpedoes with fairly long ranges because you don’t have to keep human beings alive or anything like that.” Finkel explains.
He cites the Boeing-made Orca, a 16-metre-long robot sub with a 10,000-kilometre range that can conduct underwater spying, mine sweeping and attack. It can run for several months at a time. Other countries are developing similar drone subs, with the Germans planning the world’s biggest yet.
As well as autonomous underwater vehicles, Jennings argues there is an urgent need to invest in armed drones.
“We need autonomous systems everywhere,” he says. The US military has been using armed drones for two decades, and they have played a crucial role on the battlefield in Ukraine. Yet Australia does not yet possess lethal drone technology after the Morrison government scrapped an armed drone program, known as SkyGuardian, last year.
“The ADF has been extraordinarily resistant to autonomous systems,” says Ryan, pointing to a deep-seated bias in favour of submarines, frigates, bombers and helicopters. “We’re a long way behind the rest of the world and there are lots of Australian companies that can do this.”
Finkel argues Australia could be a world leader in defence innovation – like it is in clean energy and biomedicine. “Yes, we should build frigates or missiles or drones or autonomous underwater torpedoes, but we should do them as standalone projects rather than trying to create jobs in Adelaide by taking an existing good product and cracking it apart and wrecking it,” he says.
One avenue might actually be a part of AUKUS – but not the submarines. The expert group unanimously embraces the opportunity offered by AUKUS’s so-called Pillar Two, which is a US-UK-Australian collaboration on advanced technology, including quantum computing, quantum communications, artificial intelligence and hypersonics.
“I look at AUKUS Pillar Two, and that’s the kind of thing that we should be focusing on for now,” says Lavina Lee, a Macquarie University expert on foreign policy and international security.
“I think that’s something that’s been underrated. Perhaps we’re capable of achieving that in the next three to five years and that could actually make a difference if we do have a war with China. The nuclear submarines are just way out there. We shouldn’t even be thinking about it.”
To spur longer-term innovation, the panellists call on the Australian government to create a local version of America’s acclaimed Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The agency – which prides itself on taking big risks and having a high tolerance for failure – has played a crucial role in the development of weather satellites, GPS, drones, stealth technology, voice interfaces, the personal computer and the internet.
Labor promised to create an Australian version of DARPA at last year’s election but has not turned it into a reality. Seebeck stresses the agency should be based outside of Canberra – probably in Sydney or Melbourne – to give it as much independence from the defence bureaucracy as possible.
All this would not come cheap. Including the cost of the AUKUS submarine project, the experts say national defence spending likely needs to double to accomplish the necessary upgrades. This would take defence spending as a proportion of gross domestic product from 2 per cent currently to 4 per cent.
“That would lift the defence budget from $40 billion a year to $80 billion,” explains Jennings. “Obviously, we can’t do that in a year, but that’s the price of living in a really difficult neighbourhood.”
Such an increase sounds huge but would put Australia in lockstep with Japan, which has announced it would double its military spending over the next five years to counter threats posed by China and North Korea. Australia’s greatest ally, the United States, is no longer the world’s sole superpower, meaning the nation will need to take more responsibility for its own defence.
The experts stress the point of their proposals is not to make Australia bellicose. The aim is to make conflict less likely through deterrence. Rather than terrified, they want Australians to feel galvanised to act before it’s too late.
“There is much we can do as a nation in the realms of alliance diplomacy, economics, information, intelligence and the military,” the panel says in its joint communique. “The clock is ticking. It is time to get to work.”
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