There are many aspects to the latest Australian defence stuff-up, a.k.a. the cancelled French submarine contract and its replacement with the AUKUS agreement. (This agreement promises Australian-UK-USA collaboration on building nuclear powered submarines for the RAN.) Here are some early thoughts:
1. The poor project management of the French deal, including lack of Australian ministerial & departmental control over costs/capability/delivery, was predictable. Indeed, it was predicted.
2. $2.4 billion of ‘sunk costs’, i.e. already spent (+ cancellation fee) has produced zero defence capability.
3. Because Australia’s existing submarines are aging, and the threat environment is said to be significantly and quickly deteriorating, there will likely be a strategic capability gap before Australia can build the promised AUKUS boats. Governments had earlier said this gap would be an unacceptable risk to national security. There’s no detail on how this gap will be closed, although there’s speculation that in the medium term Canberra might lease US or UK subs. But everything seems very vague, with substantive decisions pushed well into the future, presumably to be made (or not) by future governments.
4. Given the sometimes shambolic record of Australian military procurement, I wouldn’t be surprised if the proposed deal never gets translated into hardware.
5. We pissed-off a significant ally partly because of extraordinarily inept diplomacy. (Has anyone heard from the foreign minister yet? Where is she?)
6. The strategic rationale for the switch in policy is that when the contract was signed in 2016, Canberra could not have predicted the changed strategic circumstances (primarily the rise of China). This is wrong. In fact, it’s laughable. It exposes very poor policy making.
7. As far as I know, no one is being held accountable.
8. Looking further into the future, the deal puts the nuclear non-proliferation regime under more pressure. Although nuclear weapons are not part of the package, and although so far there’s no breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, there’s no evidence serious consideration has been given to the wisdom of spreading militarised nuclear technology further around the Asia-Pacific. In my view, nuclear proliferation is the world’s most worrying man-made problem.
9. A look at the map would show Indonesia has more of a strategic rationale for defending against China. What would Canberra think if Djakarta adopted Australia’s logic to go down the same path to nuclear powered submarines?
10. It’s been said the deal will upset or annoy Beijing. However, while there’s no point in gratuitously provoking the PRC, nor should it be granted a veto over Australian defence policy. Moreover, in terms of throwing fuel on to a regional arms race, for the last decade or more Beijing has been the leading culprit, and it is perhaps the main reason Australia has decided to move its military power up a gear.
11. Assuming the arrangement reaches fruition, it will presumably lead to revised strategic concepts for both defence of Australia and power projection, as well as other knock-on effects in defence policy, including implications for the surface fleet, army and air force. It’s unclear just what the final picture will look like here. (An issue that will no doubt be complicated by technological changes and third-party behaviour.)
A fascinating article summarising the latest expose on the Trump administration & its relationship with the military high command, including some questionable issues relating to the nuclear chain of command.
My latest essay, from Inside Story. It has some thoughts on America's failure in Afghanistan, and how it fits in the broad sweep of US national security policy. There's much more that could have been said, but it was a tight word limit.
US (and allied) failure in Afghanistan got me thinking about how, after taking time to reflect, the US re-evaluated the lessons from defeat in Vietnam. Hundreds of books and articles have been written on the topic. Here's a sample:
John Correll, "The Weinberger Doctrine", Air Force Magazine, 1st March, 2014.
E.J. Dionne, "Kicking the Vietnam Syndrome", The Washington Post, 4th March, 1991.
Frank Hoffman, "A second look at the Powell Doctrine", War on the Rocks, 20th February 2014.
Just before the shambolic collapse of the American position in Kabul, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) produced its report "What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction".
An earlier report had a line that would be familiar to many people who've worked in a bureaucracy: “The…key finding is that…monitoring and evaluation (M&E) created the risk of doing the wrong thing perfectly. That is, programs could be deemed “successful” even if they had not achieved or contributed to broader, more important goals…”
There's been a flurry of Think Tank articles on modernisation/maintenance of the US nuclear arsenal: For example:
William Hartung: 'Inside the ICBM Lobby: Special Interests Or the National Interest?'
Kingston Reif & Mandy Smithberger, '500,000,000,000 reasons to scrutinize the US plan for nuclear weapons'
SIPRI has just published an informative article on world military expenditure. It includes interesting charts and graphs.
Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda have published their latest analyses of the US and Russian nuclear arsenals. Perhaps the best publicly available and readily accessible information on the topic.
The UK's "Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy" has just been published. Of particular interest to me is a reversal of the previous policy of gradual reduction of nuclear weapons down to 180 warheads. There will now be a gradual increase, with a new ceiling of 260 warheads (pp. 76-78). The strategy surrounding these weapons is marked, in part, by an official emphasis on "deliberate ambiguity".
All this is, of course, accompanied by a ritualistic, politically necessary and perhaps laughable affirmation of the goal of "a world without nuclear weapons" and "full implementation of the NPT in all its aspects, including nuclear disarmament..."
Hans Kristensen has published a critical commentary. For a more pro-nuclear opinion piece which looks at aspects of the US-UK nuclear relationship, see Linton Brooks et al.
For a sense of just how speculative some of the commentary has been, see the article by Mathew Harries in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. As Harries notes, we just don't know what, exactly, is behind the UK adjustment to nuclear weapons policy.