Michael West Media
The Defence Department has outdone itself with the AUKUS submarine project. In Paul Keating’s words, “it’s the worst deal in all history”. That’s not just because of the staggering $368 billion price tag, but because of the form the program is to take. Former submariner Rex Patrick looks at the most astonishingly irrational part of the announcement.
Our senior Defence bureaucrats, both uniformed and civilian, have a remarkable but unexplainable knack when it comes to acquiring new equipment. When simplicity confronts them, they always find some way to make it complex. In the face of something manageable, they’ll always find a way to make it unmanageable. SNAFU is the order of the day.
But, for Defence, it’s all OK – the admirals, air marshals, generals and top level public servants are immune from the consequences of failed procurement – no matter how big the disaster. No-one’s ever been fired from Defence for stuffing up an equipment purchase; after all, the wasted money is not theirs, it’s mine and yours.
Looking at the AUKUS plan, which some are now labelling USUKA [pronounced “you sucker”] after Paul Keating called it “the worst deal in all history,” Australia will initially acquire three second-hand but proven and highly capable Virginia Class submarines, but then jump off that safe pathway to a high-risk program involving a country that has a track record of being late, and over budget, on its past and current submarine programs.
It’s just reckless.
Virginia submarines, what we could do
The Virginia Class nuclear attack submarine is sea proven but also an evolving design. It’s even fitted with the combat system and weapons that we already have on our Collins Class submarines, or will acquire.
AUKUS is a bad deal. It comes at eye-watering cost, has huge opportunity costs and effectively puts all our Defence eggs in one basket.
It’s not going to deliver a capability within an even remotely sensible time frame either to help deter, let alone fight in, the very conflict Defence purports we need it for.
But if I put that aside and just went along with the whole thing, I’d advise that we could, and should, buy three US built Virginia Class submarines and then build our own, effectively providing the third Virginia shipyard (there are two shipyards in the US, both struggling with capacity).
That’s of benefit to us, and to the US, who would enjoy a surge build capability through us.”
But instead, we will pay to increase US industrial capability and then turn to the British.
Not a shadow of its old self
“Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves. Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.” It’s a song derived from a 1730s poem.
But like the billowing gowns and petticoats that were worn over dome-shaped panniers by women of the 1730s, “Rule Britannia” is no longer in fashion.
The Royal Navy is not even a shadow of its old self. The French Navy and Spanish Armada outnumber Royal Navy frigates and destroyers 32 to 18. Admiral Horatio Nelson would be turning in his grave.
And to make matters worse, the “great” left “Great Britain” soon after Brexit.
(Not so) Astute submarines
Back to the topic at hand, Britain’s recent submarine projects have been project management cluster fiascos.
The Royal Navy’s current Astute class nuclear-powered attack submarine program was approved by the British Government in 1997. Three boats were to be built for £2.6 billion, with the first boat to be in service in 2005. The first boat went in the water five years late, in 2010, and the first three boats blew out in cost by £1.9 billion. And by the way, the UK contracted the US submarine company, General Dynamics Electric Boat, to help them sort out some ‘issues’ within the Astute project in 2004.
Starting with approval for a fourth boat in 2007, the program has grown to seven boats all up. The last four “Batch II” boats were supposed to cost £5.7B but are now expected to total £6.7 billion. The latest boat, HMS Anson, was delivered 25 months late.
The parallel Dreadnought nuclear ballistic missile submarine is on track. On track to be late and over budget.
The Ministry of Defence established its Future Submarine Integrated Project Team in October 2007. The initial approval of the program was in May 2011, with an estimated cost for four submarines of between £11 and £14 billion. The first submarine was intended to be in service in 2028.
The most recent cost estimate for the four ballistic missile platforms is £31 billion. Bizarrely, as the program has advanced, less seems to be known about the in-service date. No-one is saying when the first boat will arrive, other than “some time in the 2030s.”
Refits and retirements
The first of the Royal Navy’s current nuclear ballistic missile submarines, HMS Vanguard, has just come out of refit. The refit was programmed for three years and was to cost around £200 million. It took seven long years and around £500 million. Nearly one quarter of Vanguard’s service life will have been spent in dock undergoing repairs and maintenance.
Earlier this year, a public scandal erupted when it was revealed that the lead contractor had concealed broken bolts in the submarine’s reactor compartment.
In terms of programmatic failure, even more disturbing is the state of dismantling retired Royal Navy nuclear submarines.
The first ever British nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Dreadnought, entered service 60 years ago and served for 17 years. For the last 43 years, it’s been sitting alongside a wharf in the UK. It’s not been dismantled. But neither have any of the other 21 retired Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarines.
It’s a national disgrace. The National Audit Office examined the issue in 2019 and estimated that the cost of maintaining these retired submarines alongside various docks had exceeded £500 million, and the total cost of dismantling the retired and in-service submarines would likely exceed £7.5 billion. Perhaps this will be covered by the AUKUS overheads.
The state of Britain’s submarine enterprise is nothing short of a disaster. And yet the Australian Department of Defence thinks that for the next fifty years, maybe longer, we should hitch ourselves to the clapped out wagon that is Britain’s submarine construction industrial base.
Paul Keating had it right about the AUKUS strategic architecture. Instead of moving forward with focus on a relevant local team like the QUAD (Australian, India, Japan and the United States), we’re committing to a subordinate role with our US ally and an Anglosphere arrangement that’s a hangover from the former, now almost forgotten, British empire.
Yet it’s all “keep calm and carry on” in the Australian Department of Defence. They have no need to worry because all the bigwigs will have retired and moved onto highly paid consultancies and ‘think tanks’ before the proverbial hits the fan.
Pretty much the same goes for the few, timid, politicians who’ve signed off on all this, a gargantuan splurge of taxpayers’ dollars, because they’re all fearful they might be accused of being “weak on defence” if they don’t swallow the Department’s nuclear Kool Aid.
I guess I’ll just keep going to bed each night worrying about the Defence of Australia. Not about some country invading us, but by how much of my money, and your money, the Department’s going to waste tomorrow, next week, next year and for decades to come.
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 – www.transparencywarrior.com.au.