It doesn’t feel like we have quite as many “pic facs” or “photo ops” as we once did around Parliament House. They are those staged moments set up for TV cameras that capture some formal moment in the nation’s life or politics.
Greeting a foreign dignitary, a meeting of the national cabinet — that sort of thing.
It’s all smiles and shaking hands and a few jolly japes exchanged but no formal media questions. Just something to ensure the event is captured for the evening news.
On Tuesday afternoon in the prime minister’s office, after Question Time, there was a “Pic-Fac Only” set up so that the cameras could catch former Chief of the Defence Force, Sir Angus Houston, ceremonially hand over the Defence Strategic Review that he had been commissioned six months ago to undertake in conjunction with Stephen Smith.
Stephen Smith used to be just Stephen Smith back when we were all a bit younger. But the title of the former defence minister and now High Commissioner to the United Kingdom is now His Excellency Professor the Hon. Stephen Smith. Quite a mouthful for a Labor bloke, and one which seems to even put Angus Houston’s knighted status into the shade.
We don’t officially know yet what the two exceptionally titled people have had to say about our defence strategy, though the prime minister stated the review “will help prepare Australia to effectively respond to the changing regional and global strategic environment and ensure Defence’s capability and structure is fit for purpose and delivers the greatest return on investment”.
As you would hope it would. There seems to have been plenty of well-informed speculation about how it plans to do this.
A gradual morphing of Australia’s defence strategy
The role of our northern air bases, long range missiles, drones, unmanned underwater vehicles and new sea mine technology are all being discussed. There will be more ships and planes but fewer tanks, apparently.
The language of the review about just what strategic threat Australia faces will be interesting. We have come a long way, particularly since the mid 2000s, in shifting our defence strategy from “defence of Australia” to a “forward defence” stance.
But it has been a gradual morphing, with the 2009 Rudd Defence White Paper accused of being too anti-China, then subsequent papers still speaking about threats in somewhat hypothetical terms.
That has certainly changed over the past couple of years.
The secretary of the Department of Defence, Greg Moriarty, told a Senate committee this week that:
“We can no longer accept the fundamental underpinning assumption of Australian defence planning … that we would have at least 10 years’ warning time for any significant conflict that might involve Australia … We are assuming that significant conflict might break out in the Indo-Pacific in less time than that.”
Which makes the whole jumble and chaos of defence strategy and planning — never one of Australia’s high points but particularly “un-good” in recent times — just a tad alarming, as well as depressing as ever.
The Defence Strategic Review may well range broadly across the sorts of strategy questions and material that the defence forces need.
But it was commissioned and conducted over just the past six months, long after the Morrison government had set us plunging headlong into the AUKUS arrangement with the US and the UK — an arrangement that has Australia’s move to a nuclear-powered submarine fleet at its most conspicuous centre.
An arrangement the incoming government embraced with little sign of even blinking.
Does Australia need AUKUS?
In a few weeks, we are expecting to hear what submarine plans we have nutted out with our US and UK allies.
Once again, there is plenty of speculation, most recently focused on the possible purchase of two already built UK-Astute class submarines that would be refitted with US systems.
The Astute class subs apparently all have names beginning with A. “I think we are getting the Armageddon and the Alzheimers,” one Defence wag speculated.
Whatever these plans are, the general consensus seems to be that this will be an exercise in the least bad option.
Neither the US or UK boats under discussion really fit the bill, particularly when you don’t just have to put in the weapons systems but load them down with a long, more political agenda of promised jobs in three countries, the complexities of a nuclear-powered anything when we have no nuclear infrastructure to support them, and the complexities of both the strategic and operational questions of how our navy works with other navies.
In a paper due to be released next week, former Defence Department official Allan Behm observes that nearly 18 months after the AUKUS arrangement was announced, it “remains essentially an exercise in political theatre, lacking in both legal enforceability and a wealth of practical detail”.
Now the director of the International and Security Program at The Australia Institute, Behm asks the question not many people in politics seem to have asked to date: Do we need AUKUS?
The simple answer, he says, is that we do not know yet.
“The rationale for the program presumes a particular but unargued force capability outcome from an as-yet-unrealised root-and-branch review of Australia’s strategic policy in the light of yet-to-be analysed changed strategic circumstances and unevaluated strategic challenges,” Behm says.
“The premise that the availability of nuclear propulsion should determine strategic policy is tantamount to positing advances in technology as the driver of strategy. To put it in domestic terms, a microwave oven is no guarantor of a good meal.”
What’s more, Behm says, “both the targeted US and UK submarines will be nearing obsolescence if and when they are delivered, needing to be superseded by as-yet-unannounced designs, further complicating matters and potentially extending delivery timelines into the 2060s”.
Much of this is known, and is a depressing sort of repeat of so many other excellent bits of defence policy.
What feels a bit new is an evolving concern about sovereignty.
The practicalities of who is in charge
Capability to build and maintain a ship and submarine fleet has long been at the heart of politics in South Australia. And any discussions about new submarines come with obligatory references to local industry and construction.
Behm points out, as others have, that the obsessive rationale with a need for a sovereign capacity to build floating things doesn’t seem to worry, or have affected, other arms of the defence forces.
The Royal Australian Navy’s various problems with Hunter class frigates and the cancelled French submarine contract (based on the French Barracuda design) suggests, “around $50 billion will have been flushed down the defence expenditure drain with nothing to show for it”.
By comparison, Behm notes, “Australia neither designs nor builds its own strike or support aircraft, but the ADF seems quite unperturbed at the lack of sovereignty in the design or construction of its air fleet”.
The new element in the sovereignty debate goes to the practicalities of who is in charge on a nuclear-submarine which has had a reactor manufactured and sealed in the US and marked “never to be opened” for 30 years, and on which — at least at first — we will be reliant on officers from our AUKUS partners to be the nuclear experts.
The chief of the AUKUS submarine Taskforce, Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead, told 7.30’s Sarah Ferguson this week that Australian Navy commanders will have full operational control over their submarines and the powerful nuclear reactors onboard.
You would hope so.
Whether we have full operational control over our submarines when we are even further integrated into US planning is another matter altogether.
Source : ABC