In many respects Scott Morrison’s nuclear submarines announcement fits the Prime Minister’s standard modus operandi.
Having presided over a huge shambles, he’s always ready to pull down the curtain and then present something new and shiny to the electorate as a distraction to the failure.
In this case, however, he’s taken his marketing strategy to a new atomic level.
I’ve been a strong critic of the French submarine deal. The projected delays and cost overruns, jointly the fault of Defence and Naval Group, were huge and unacceptable. The Government managed to achieve Australia’s worst-ever defence procurement disaster – which is saying a lot.
Although they repeatedly refused to admit it, and fought tooth and nail to prevent the release of information about the problems with the Future Submarine Program, the Government knew they had a total lemon on their hands – a lemon of their own making.
To deal with the strategic possibility of conflict with China, the Government contracted the French to redesign one of their nuclear submarines to create a completely new long-range diesel-electric submarine. That was always going to be fraught with difficulty, with inevitable cost and time overruns.
It wasn’t Australia’s changing strategic circumstances that have driven a shift to the US/UK nuclear submarine option – that was already factored into the French program – it was complete project disarray.
The PM’s atomic marketing is intended to mask the Government’s own mess.
The distant and uncertain future
We now have to be very careful not to jump from the frying pan into the fire.
I don’t underestimate the significance of the joint announcement of a new strategic and defence technology partnership between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. It’s a big commitment with long term national security, geopolitical, and economic consequences.
But the uncertainties are huge. We don’t know whether it’s proposed to acquire a US or a British submarine. We don’t know how many might be constructed. We don’t know the cost, although we know it’s going to be huge. We don’t know the delivery schedule, though it’s been suggested the first boat won’t be completed until 2040 and not operational for several years after that.
Putting the schedule into perspective, by the time Australia’s first nuclear submarine goes into the water, Aussies will have voted in at least seven federal elections. Scott Morrison will be 72 years old, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be 76 and President Joe Biden will be a venerable 98.
And by 2040, the first of the Collins-class submarines, HMAS Collins, will have been operating for 44 years. The Royal Australian Navy will be trying to stretch out the life of the Collins-class subs far beyond what was ever intended.
At least the Government has finally decided to end the nonsense of shifting Collins-class full-cycle dockings from South Australia to Western Australia. We’re going to have to preserve and nurture all the submarine expertise we have to keep the Collins boats ticking over. The risk of a major capability gap is significant.
The nuclear question
The PM says the new nuclear-powered vessels will be built in Adelaide. It is unclear whether this would involve manufacturing or just assembly of pre-manufactured modules supplied from the US or UK.
If it’s the latter, this would have a huge impact on the extent of technology transfer and the shipbuilding workforce in Adelaide. The Australian local manufacturing content for nuclear boats is certainly likely to be much lower.
If the project proceeds there will be operating nuclear reactors sitting on hard-stands at Osborne and moored in the Port River.
Acquiring, operating and maintaining a nuclear submarine fleet without a domestic nuclear power industry is a challenge that must not be underestimated. The nuclear safety and non-proliferation safeguards issues are unquestionably complex and likely to be controversial.
This decision will likely reignite debate over nuclear power options for Australia. It can’t be said there is much political consensus about that.
There are many significant issues that will need to be properly considered and I fear that they haven’t yet. The proposed initial US-UK-Australia joint study to be undertaken over the next 18 months will take place after Australia’s election. But that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be rigorous and wide-ranging scrutiny of the Government’s decision now.
I am going to press for the Senate to open an immediate inquiry to ensure that all the angles, including alternative conventionally-powered submarine procurement options, are fully explored and understood.
We need such an inquiry to inform Government, Opposition, the Parliament and, most importantly, the Australian people before the next election.
This is a huge decision taken in response to a Liberal Party own goal which has cost the taxpayer and national security dearly. We don’t want an even bigger repeat of a failure and this massive project should not proceed further without full transparency and scrutiny.
Rex Patrick, a former submariner, is an independent senator for South Australia.
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