Christopher Pyne says people who question the government’s handling of the Attack Class Submarine project are demonstrating “weirdness”, lack wisdom and intelligence and demonstrate a “lack of maturity. Mr Pyne says that the Australian polity finds the submarine project to big and complicated ‘ to ‘digest’.
Perhaps it is because Australians fear the taxpayers biggest ever defence acquisition might become a ‘dogs’ breakfast’? Mr Pyne is right to argue that we need submarines, that they remain potent future capabilities and that nuclear submarines are off the table until the Australian community agree to create a dynamic nuclear industry. His argument falls apart thereafter.
The first submarine missteps were by the Rudd and Gillard Governments, who took too long to decide on a replacement for the now superb Australian owned and operated Collins Class submarine. The obvious choice was to evolve Collins into a new lethal next generation capability. ASC had a plan to do that called ‘Deep Blue Tech’.
The next misstep was by the Abbot Government in 2014 who, arguing time had run out, rushed towards an imported submarine built in Japan. A national campaign led by the former SA State Government, steadfastly supported by industry associations and unions so mobilised public opinion that, not building submarines and warships in Australia has become political poison. The issue helped bring an end to the Abbot Prime Ministership and left all sides of politics clear about the aspiration of Australians to remain an advanced manufacturing nation.
The third misstep was the Coalition Governments decision to exclude SAAB and an ASC built genuinely Australian owned, ‘evolved’ Collins submarine from the Competitive Evaluation Process in 2015. Next came the indecent haste to announce before the July 2016 Federal Election the French Naval Group as winner of the contest before matters of cost, schedule and Australian Industry Content had be locked down. To win the work the Naval Group promised that 90% of the work would be Australian. Soon that was back to 60% and now even that promise seems at risk.
Since 2016 the French Government owned Naval Group have cleverly ensured that more and more of the high-end design work and advanced manufacturing remained overseas. Australian industry involvement in the expensive American combat system provided by Lockheed Martin is also in question. It seems we are to be content with blue collar jobs and the’ low value add’ part of the work. That is code for ‘designed and made overseas’ but ‘assembled in Australia’.
If Australian defence scientists, universities and industry do not fully own the technology, the algorithms, the manufacturing capabilities, and the systems engineering used to design and build the more complex parts of the submarines and their weapons and combat systems, can we genuinely operate and sustain them during a conflict?
Enter Covid -19. During this international crisis we found ourselves dependent on foreign governments for face masks, ventilators, medicines, and medical devices. The first thing those governments did was look to their own needs. Even vaccine supplies may now be withheld by Italy and, yes France.
Who thinks a war or defence crisis will be any different? If France or the US prioritise their own defence needs will supplies, technology, weapons or advice arrive on time, if at all? Our submarines may lay idle, dockside and impotent.
Submarines create hard power, but full ownership of the technology, the science and the industry create Australian soft power in the form of enterprise, jobs, and national wealth; and it makes our nation credible in the eyes of the world. Importing vessels ‘off the shelf’ or building overseas but assembling in Australia, leaves us dependent on foreign governments and makes us look weak, vulnerable, and pathetic. Which is it to be?
Mr Pyne finds Australians asking these questions “mystifying”. Silly us. If its too late and too risky to evolve the Collins Class submarine then his French option must work, on budget and on time, but it must be genuinely sovereign. Anything else would be a dog’s breakfast wouldn’t it?
Martin Hamilton-Smith was Defence Industries Minister in The Weatherill Government from2014 to 2018.