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AUKUS submarines “nation building” says Admiral. No they’re not, says Rex Patrick

by Rex Patrick | Apr 23, 2023 | Government, Latest Posts

The Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Mark Hammond, has proclaimed the AUKUS submarine program is a national building endeavour when, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Rex Patrick pulls apart the Admiral’s claim.

Left kicking myself

About a month before Prime Minister Albanese went to San Diego for his threesome with President Biden and Prime Minister Sunak, I decided to warn Michael West Media readers that, in due course, Defence would roll out the “nation building” slogan in support of AUKUS. But I got distracted and last week the Chief of Navy invoked the phrase. So, I’m left kicking myself. 

How did I know the claim was coming? Well, the admiral was singing from a very well thumbed hymn book.  

My first recollection of the words “nation building” and “submarines” being used together was in 2010 when former head of the Submarine Institute of Australia, retired Rear Admiral Peter Briggs, was throwing it around in the backchannels. At the time he was pushing for Australia to build a locally designed “Son of Collins” to meet the needs of our future submarine force.  

National building quickly became a cliché in Defence circles for those who wanted to sell a grandiose submarine project to government.  

By 2013, a decade ago, “nation building” had made its way into the Defence White Paper.

“… the Future Submarine Program represents the largest and most complex project ever undertaken in Australia’s history. This project represents a true nation building endeavour which presents both challenges and significant opportunities for Defence and Australian industry.”

The rhetorical combination has been rolled whenever anyone raises a concern about project cost, like a decoy designed to stop a torpedo hitting its target; “National building” has been deployed a lot in the past decade; South Australia’s Defence Industry Minister before the Senate in July 2014, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds in a November 2020 keynote speech to the Submarine Institute of Australia and now Admiral Hammond.

Admiral Mark Hammond pulled at patriotic heart strings last week when he “implored Australians to see [the AUKUS submarine program] as a nation-building endeavour on par with the original creation of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric scheme”.

Unfortunately, his comparison just doesn’t stack up.

Snowy Hydro

The Snowy Mountains scheme was a very large and complex engineering project that diverted the waters of the Snowy River through tunnels in the mountains and stored it in dams, which were then used to create electricity. It involved the construction of nine power stations, 16 major dams, 80 kilometres of aqueducts and 145 kilometres of interconnected tunnels. 

Snowy stimulated the Australian economy and created an industrial base for national security after World War Two. The Labor government of that era implemented plans for full employment, created public housing and announced it would take in 70,000 immigrants each year. It harnessed the impetus of wartime manufacturing to encourage post-war industrial production. 

It has delivered Australians with an enduring economic workhorse. It’s 33 turbines can generate a maximum of 4,100 megawatts and produce on average, 4,500 gigawatt-hours of renewable electricity each year.

To this day the Snowy Mountains Scheme is still considered to be one of the greatest engineering achievements in the world, however the project is also a story of social, cultural and political changes in Australia. 

AUKUS however

By contrast, what we know about AUKUS is that it will provide investment in US shipyard expansion, to be followed at a later date by an investment in UK shipyard expansion.

As Australian politicians point to a 2040 workforce (20,000; far short of that employed in building Snowy) that will purportedly see submarines being built in Australia, General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut, and Austal USA in Mobile, Alabama, are actively recruiting 5,700 and 1,000 people, respectively, to work on AUKUS right now.

At some stage the flow of money will spread out to the UK’s troubled industry.

Rex Patrick on AUKUS submarines: “an astonishingly bad deal”

The flow of Aussie dollars to the UK will likely start occurring around the early 2030s about the same time as Collins class submarine workers at Osborne in Adelaide are finding out their jobs are gone, bearing in mind that from 2033 there’ll be no further need to conduct Collins Full Cycle Docking or Life of Type Extension work.

And while that’s all happening, Australian taxpayers will be investing billions in upskilling our engineers and technicians in nuclear technology that will have no use beyond AUKUS. Unlike the US and UK that can amortise and leverage their Defence investment in their civil nuclear industries, we don’t have one of those.

Furthermore, we must expect that US restrictions attached to the use of their submarine nuclear technology will not allow the knowledge gained in the AUKUS program to be used anywhere else in the Australian economy.

AUKUS might be a partnership, but it’s an unequal partnership and it well remain so with Australia as the dependent partner. And all for the price of just $368 billion.

There will of course be some submarines, of an unknown type, an unknown capability, at an unknown date. Does that qualify as nation building?

It’s just not nation building

I know Admiral Hammond well. I’ve served with him. I’ve socialised with him. I even offered him a job about a decade ago. He’s a smart guy who has credibility in the capability and naval operations space. He’s a strong leader, but he’s made a significant tactical error by wading into the political space with a shallow argument, in the shadows of a patriotic slogan. Sadly, he risks undermining his hard-earned credibility in doing so.

There is an economic and defence case for spending Defence money in Australia. It generates local economic activity, it builds technical and industrial capability and adds to our advanced manufacturing critical mass, it develops skills that can be employed elsewhere in the economy, it assists with critical mass and it builds the expertise necessary to sustain military capability throughout its life and in conflict. But no matter how you look at it, building foreign designed equipment under ‘licence’ for local use is not nation building. 

The truth is that Defence spending is largely a sunk cost. It’s an insurance cost. Admirals, Air Marshalls and Generals would do well to appreciate that, whilst some benefit to the general economy can flow from Defence acquisition and sustainment, Defence projects, the way they are conducted in Australia, do not offer nation building opportunities. 

On the other hand …

Nation building would be taking our billion dollar lithium export business and turning it into a trillion dollar battery export business, which we have not done. 

National building is investing early into Industry 4.0 to become a manufacturing powerhouse, something Germany has done, but we haven’t. 

Nation building is taking royalties from your finite resources and investing in industries that will outlast the resource demand, something the United Arab Emirates has done, and we haven’t.

Nation building would be establishing modern semiconductor manufacturing capability onshore, our two AUKUS allies are actively encouraging development of their onshore industries, sadly again we’re standing idly by.

There’s no plan

In November of 2021 Senator Penny Wong asked the Navy how much money had been allocated to the Nuclear Submarine Task Force; $300m over two years was the answer. For that significant investment we’re seen a ‘Kabuki Show’ in San Diego where no detail on the program were provided and a pathetic nine FAQ sheets uploaded to the government’s AUKUS website.

First and foremost, if a project is going to be truly nation building, the nation needs to know about it, understand it and embrace it. This means there has to be a plan and that plan needs to be publicly available, it cannot be entirely shrouded in secrecy, known only to the select few. As we can see there is no published industrial plan, there are no published workforce plans. Any details on AUKUS beyond top level have had to be extracted from Government under Freedom of Information laws.

Against that backdrop, and in circumstances where most people rightly see the AUKUS program as a completely unjustifiable nation crippling spend of their money, and a spend that, on the best view, only brings us new defence capability in two decades time, Vice Admiral Hammond must be expecting to draw fire for his repeating the inaccurate and misleading characterisation.

People are right to question him, no matter the gold aiguillettes he wears on his right shoulder. 

I guess he just really wants his ‘Ferrari’.

I just want a Ferrari, sorry, a nuclear submarine, no matter the cost

Rex Patrick is a former Senator for South Australia and earlier a submariner in the armed forces. Best known as an anti-corruption and transparency crusader -

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