Virginia rises to the top
There are things that are burned into the memory of ministers that are never forgotten. One such occasion for me was being told as Defense Minister by a normally sensible colleague in the Coalition party room that unless every last bolt for a new submarine was made in South Australia, and every last weld done in the state is, the proposal was unacceptable. . It was just one illustration of how parochial South Australian politics distorted national discussions about replacing the aging Collins-class submarines, delaying orders for a decade and potentially jeopardizing our national security.
Successive South Australian governments have perpetuated the fantasy that auto industry workers would readily step into new jobs building submarines, even though the skills and training required vary widely.
The Aukus arrangements offer a neat solution to a problem that has bedeviled our national defense debate for a decade and a half. Having up to four US Virginia-class submarines in our region from 2027 closes the capability gap. Members of the Abbott government discussed buying Virginia-class submarines but did not proceed on the advice of a series of obstacles, including the absence of a nuclear industry in Australia to provide service. Instead, he opted for a new diesel-electric submarine due for delivery in the mid-to-late 2020s. This timeline blew up with the choice of a French design by the Turnbull government which was eventually scrapped in favor of the new arrangements. Rotating submarines from 2027 restores the original roster and reduces the capability gap. Moreover, it involves superior nuclear submarines.
Although the first locally built submarines are not expected until 2042, they will mostly be built in Adelaide, saving local parochialism.
A Rand Corporation study concluded that surface ships built in Australia would cost up to 40 per cent more than the same builds abroad. Given the complexity of a submarine, the differential is even greater. It is also a fact that the cost per vessel drops significantly with each subsequent build. That is why the Abbott government’s competitive evaluation tender called for the cost of an onshore build, an offshore build and a hybrid model incorporating the early submarines built overseas with subsequent construction in Australia.
The Aukus arrangements offer the protection of the purchase of two more overseas submarines if there is a delay in the design and construction of the models to be built locally.
The penchant of the Australian defense leadership to demand bespoke indigenous designs for naval vessels fueled delays and increased costs over many decades. The joint design of the submarines to be built in Adelaide should improve this trend, but not necessarily eliminate it. The option to continue to buy an evolving US-designed boat offers a viable option if the old attitudes persist.
Apart from the dissenting comments of Paul Keating and some pro-China voices, the adaptations drew considerable acclaim. But the real test is the delivery of various projects over the next three decades. The risks should not be underestimated.
One is to protect the project from future decisions to downgrade or delay it. Another is to ensure that genuine bipartisan support remains over the coming decades. The current government, which will be in opposition at some point in the future, should reach out to conservative parties to implement a vehicle for real ongoing discussion on the project. A parliamentary standing committee should also be tasked with overseeing the project – and its members should be given the necessary security clearances to have access to full briefings from the Department of Defence.
The biggest risk is complacency – or worse – about the intentions of the Chinese communist regime. When someone of Paul Keating’s experience turns a blind eye to the outward behavior of Xi Jinping’s regime, how many others will be influenced by him? Asked about the fate of a million Uighurs imprisoned in “re-education” camps in Xinjiang province, with many sent to servitude in Chinese sweatshops, Mr. Keating replied with some false equivalency about Australia’s aboriginal population. He previously said we should not stand by the 25 million people living in democratic Taiwan if they are attacked by Xi’s forces. Hardly a day goes by without a further act of aggression by the Chinese. Just this week, Qantas warned its pilots about radio intercepts by the PLA and interference with airline navigation systems, advising them to ignore them. The list of Chinese violations, documented in these columns for months, grows longer every week. The Chinese regime is obstructing the laying and repair of cables in the South China Sea – an area of international waters in which it has already built military bases on artificial reefs.
Keating’s claim that the Chinese regime is not about ‘changing the international system … or propagating a competing international ideology’ is belied by Xi Jinping’s repeated statements. In November 2020, Xi told President-elect Biden that “democracies cannot be sustained in the 21st century, autocracies will rule the world.” Why? Things change so fast. Democracies require consensus, and that takes time, and you don’t have the time.’
Xi uses Cold War language to describe his goals. In April 2021, the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper highlighted a newly published book, Questions and Answers on the Study of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. The book is full of Cold War rhetoric. The world is described as a field for ‘competition of two ideologies and two social systems’. Xi is convinced that communism will prevail. According to the Chinese leader, China is in ‘the center of the world stage’ and ‘the historical evolution and competition in the world between two ideologies is being resolved in favor of Marx’. The CCP rejects democracy, the rule of law and universal human rights. Mr Keating is deluded into thinking that the CCP is a benign force for good.
Finally, the construction of nuclear submarines in Adelaide should lead to the implementation of the recommendations of the Rare Royal Commission. The report recommended the lifting of state and federal prohibitions that currently prevent further development of the nuclear industry in South Australia beyond its current role in the mining and export of uranium oxide concentrates.