Sail of the century: the worst deal in history, and we can't even talk about it
Former PM Paul Keating appeared at the National Press Club to deliver a pointed opposition to the recent submarine deal, stirring a long overdue national discussion, and a strong response.
Appearing before the National Press Club to oppose a recent announcement to acquire nuclear submarines though the AUKUS partnership, Paul Keating delivered a lesson in realism and independent geopolitical and strategic rationalism to detail his critique of the arrangement. Australians who were awaiting a national debate that never came, from a blind consensus delivered by a synchronised and bipartisan political class, were able to witness an impassioned argument from Keating as a rare alternative to the perceived consensus.
After detailing his thesis, the press gallery chose to engage in some low altitude flying around the base of the towering subject matter, on which Keating refused to provide any quarter. A public who has become habitually exhausted by the cloistered and socially insular Canberra press gallery watched with some genuine relief as the subject matter got the attention it required, and the press got the repudiation they deserved.
Keating said a lot, perhaps in tones and postures that could have caused discomfort, but the crux of his delivery seemed to be focused on how the $368 billion dollar investment on eight nuclear submarines, gathered in a disjointed and confusing procurement window, was a bad decision compared with conventional alternatives. He questioned the operational difference between the forward facing 8,000t nuclear attack boats as opposed to the 4,000t conventional submarines that were more suited to territorial defence operations in and around the shallow defensible waters of the Australian continental shelf. He highlighted the enormous challenges of sending highly visible and expensive submarines towards the sensor arrays and anti-submarine platforms in and around Chinese territorial waters, and spoke gravely of the challenges in protecting the national interest with only three submarines around forward positions far away from home in the South China Sea. “The worst deal in history”, he said.
The media’s reaction to the somewhat cranky but mostly poignant thesis from an ultimately erudite and revered living former-Prime Minister was something to behold. After a scolding from Keating in the questions period at the end of the presentation, the Nine papers kicked off the ad-hominem circus and complained of his manners, while some mocked him for his age and irrelevance. David Crowe lamented that his bile would divide the Labor party, Malcolm Knox spoke of the need for a dystopian omerta of silence to be placed on former-PMs, and Peter Hartcher got back on the saddle and started talking about the dangers of what Keating “didn’t say”, while the public was still reeling the fabricated dangers of what the journalist ‘did say’ regarding a cooked up threat of Chinese invasion only a short time prior.
When Anthony Albanese returned from San Diego, he confirmed the soft-ball comments about Chinese threats on Neil Mitchell and went on ‘The Project’ to catchup with Waleed and the gang, but both he and his government failed to convincingly answer the mounting questions raised by Keating and the growing number of subject matter experts. All around him, geopolitical analysts, heavyweight academics, astute Australian political commentators, rusted-on Labor stalwarts, and even the average geopolitically disinterested punter at the dinner table, sounded warning bells towards this stupendously expensive and unreasonably expedited submarine arrangement. People wanted the ‘nuts-and-bolts’ of a nuclear-tipped AUKUS, they were giving us ‘the vibe’ instead.
So why can’t we challenge and discuss the operational, quantity and cost benefits of $368 billion dollars split among eight big and easily detectable nuclear attack submarines, as opposed to the forty-odd conventional submarines approximated by Keating? With the initial tranche of high-yield nuclear boats to be crewed by foreigners operating within interlinking nuclear rotations through the South China Sea, is it really true with one third of submarines deployed, that we may only have one single solitary boat out there somewhere between the Malacca Strait and the Nine Dash line? How does this match up to dozens of Collins style submarines potentially protecting our own territorial waters? What about the inconceivable nuclear maintenance costs? Would it be prudent to discuss the fixed contract counteroffer from the French for state-of-the-art low yield nuclear boats, or the German and Japanese alternatives that seem to be better suited to both our national security and our operational independence? Lets discuss it, shall we?
One of the furthest trilateral agreements in nautical miles stretches thin in body and soul when the only payer thus far is us, and the only recipients are UKUS part who get to resuscitate their collapsing marine industries with Australian coin, getting free upgrades for their ageing nuclear submarine fleets and unconditional basing rights in the process. So then, is this about a military alliance minded values-based approach as opposed to a realist application of common sense defence acquisition based on the national interest? Because if it is, Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli and Friedrich the Great would all be laughing at the senior ADF who seek relevance through American lenses tempered by exploits away in forever wars like Afghanistan and Iraq -- ultimately losing touch with a proud national history of crafting independent security policy at home.
Military brass and think tankers who have come of age in the post-Cold War, ‘end of history’ environment of US forever wars, harangue politically addicted wedge-obsessed modern governments and their journalistic stenographers, insisting on US reliance and interoperability in lieu of the creativity urgently called for to resume the modern Australian tradition of preserving sovereignty through composing a unique form of true armed neutrality. There seems to be a collective fear among strategic decisionmakers that makes them reticent to compose a logical independent defence based on the national interest, and consequently, they are aimlessly drawn into the grand strategic narrative of a great power who may not be wholly concerned about the unique requirements of our national interest at all.
We have an island continent at the bottom of the world, unique to any example, above us is an archipelagic neighbour that could be an important partner in securing our region. To our north, China has secured an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capability and is close to achieving regional maritime hegemony to defend itself from attacks in its own region thanks to the advent of anti-ship missile technology and integrated defence platforms combined with its own (mostly conventional) submarine program. Perhaps might we look to this strategy, focusing on porcupine defence over Tom Clancy-esque nuclear submarine expeditions in foreign seas. It may be worth hedging the bet with A2/AD focused on a sound territorial defence, as opposed to chucking the $368 billion all-in for the acquisition and staggeringly unprecedented operational costs of operating 8 x 8000 tonne nuclear attack-class submarines focused of the containment of our largest two-way trading partner. Could we avoid the heavy burden of ‘nuclear stewardship’ altogether and get a better result?
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Some hawks unhelpfully say that war with China could start in 2025, with no submarines in such a time frame, all this purchase would have secured is a compulsory ticket to World War III over Taiwan. Before these subs come, our mediocre emissions targets may not be on track, biomes may not be functioning due to the stress of climate change leading to the increasing recurrence of manmade natural disasters, and the unpredictable political environments of our AUKUS partners could mean these submarines could be sailing in unprecedented waters.
Keatings AUKUS concerns, shared by large sections of thinkers in this space and echoed through a concerned public, should have been a revelation for the media, something it looked to pursue with the highest priority to help guide a healthy national discussion on the subject. We all got something else entirely to the detriment of the national interest. When a critical eye is attached to these submarines, there are many evident and unanswered realities that bring into question the viability of the project in a legitimate and compelling way. Without any authentic acknowledgement toward these questions of huge public importance, the press loses another rung on its ladder of credibility, and the government looks to lose the trust of a generation at the ballot box, and Australia ultimately misses out on the best opportunity to defend itself.
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A knockout summation and interpretation of Keating's views and the consequent MSM whimpering. Keep thinking and keep writing.