Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Marles torpedoes French subs, but is yet to explain nuclear advantage

For such a high-stakes and expensive enterprise the public deserves to know not just what boats we’re getting, but why.

Defence Minister Richard Marles says Australia has “no plans” for any conventionally powered interim submarine capability (Defence Department)
Defence Minister Richard Marles says Australia has “no plans” for any conventionally powered interim submarine capability (Defence Department)

Of all the places to drop a bombshell about Australia’s quest for new submarines, could Defence Minister Richard Marles have picked a worse one than Paris? The question put to Marles in yesterday’s joint press conference with Foreign Minister Penny Wong and their French counterparts was whether France had any hope of securing a contract for an interim submarine, in light of the fact that Australia’s nuclear-powered boats are likely to arrive too late to prevent a gap after the retirement of the existing Collins-class boats:

… there are no plans for any … conventionally powered interim submarine capability, as we move towards gaining the nuclear-powered submarine capability, which we are working towards.

It was less than 18 months ago that former Prime Minister Scott Morrison ripped the heart out of the Australia-France relationship by announcing the cancellation of the deal to buy 12 French-designed submarines in favour of a US or UK nuclear-powered design. Granted, France’s response was overwrought. After all, there was a cancellation clause in the contract, which included generous compensation. Australia merely exercised it. Still, for Marles to stand before senior members of the French government in their own capital to announce that France had no chance of a face-saving deal for an interim submarine seems impolitic.

I don’t share many of the views of The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan on defence policy, but he was the first to point to the extreme risk of the AUKUS agreement, and to question whether we will get the nuclear-powered submarines at all. Sheridan’s response to the Marles comment is interesting, also.

On Marles ruling out an interim submarine, Sheridan says: “The navy has won a big political battle here”. Sheridan doesn’t explain further, but one way to interpret him is that the navy thinks the Defence Department simply cannot handle three submarine projects (AUKUS, the Collins-class life-of-type extension, and the interim boat) at once. Another interpretation is that the navy is against any gap-filler submarine because such a project could go from being an interim solution to a fall-back solution. In other words, Australia needs to walk a tight rope towards a nuclear-powered submarine, and the navy would prefer we do it without a net, because the net would merely tempt us to make a soft landing rather than cross the ravine towards AUKUS.

Just hinting that it’s all about China or making loose references to “deterrence” will not do.

Sheridan goes on to list the many ways the AUKUS project could go wrong. America doesn’t have enough production capacity. Australia doesn’t have the crews or facilities. Australian politics is too unstable to offer 20+ years of support. Nuclear-powered submarine production in Adelaide is a “fantasy”. He also says: “There are still substantial sections of the US Navy and industry which are against this program. There are also substantial parts of the UK Labour Party against it.”

Can I humbly suggest to Australian journalists posted in Washington and London that this part of the AUKUS story is under-reported? AUKUS was so secretive in conception that bureaucratic involvement was kept to a bare minimum. It was an agreement conceived at the political level and largely kept there until it was publicly announced. It is not surprising that it should now be meeting bureaucratic resistance, but that story is yet to be fully told.

In light of all that, it is mildly astonishing for Sheridan to conclude that “nuclear submarines are the best and we should proceed, notwithstanding the difficulties”. No, merely having “the best” is not a good enough reason for Australia to embark on this massively costly and risky project. We need a much better reason.

Let’s hope that when the government finally makes an announcement about the future submarine in March, they tell us not just what model we are getting and what it can do, but why we need them. Just hinting that it’s all about China or making loose references to “deterrence” will not do. There are many ways to deter China; why are we choosing this one?

You may also be interested in