That sinking feeling: Smith, subs and national security
If Stephen Smith wants to replace Prime Minister Julia Gillard he would be in a stronger position if he did a better job in his portfolio.
As he has only been Defence Minister since September 2010, it might be a bit harsh to judge his efforts so far, but he has one very big issue that seems to be dragging.
The main issue for any defence minister is to ensure that Australia has done everything possible to be able to defend itself against direct armed attack. The security of our country is the highest priority of any government. A strong defence force is our most important insurance policy to maintain our security and so there is no acceptable excuse for not paying the premium.
The Minister's job is to ensure we have "the ability to conduct independent military operations in the defence of Australia by way of controlling the air and sea approaches to Australia, and denying an adversary the ability to operate, without disruption, in our immediate neighbourhood".
For that reason, the Government's 2009 Defence White Paper stated that one of its main priorities was "a significant focus on enhancing our maritime capabilities".
And at the centre of that wish list are 12 new submarines to be built in South Australia in Australia's biggest ever defence project. To me, this seems particularly ambitious; especially without looking at the alternatives. The existing six Collins class submarines, ordered by a previous Labor government, have been disappointing from the start. It is not obvious why Labor wants to risk a repeat of that experience. The Navy has struggled to even have enough crew, submarines have been too regularly out of service and in the Minister's own words (ABC TV July 20, 2011),"There are longstanding maintenance and sustainment difficulties with our Collins class submarines". And now he says he can't start on the new project until he knows how long the existing submarines will last.
An interim report is due in about six weeks with the final due March 2012. But I am not sure that isn't a smoke screen. The Minister has not encouraged any informed public debate and tried to keep the Opposition and the public in the dark.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has recently been quoted as saying that the wish list for military hardware is already a long way behind schedule.
There are various options to enhance our submarine fleet. One option is to buy off the shelf, but that has been ruled out. The Navy always says our needs are unique so we have to build our own submarines. Certainly, we need boats that can travel long distances quickly and remain, for substantial times, undetected. The Europeans build diesel submarines and some have substantial capabilities. They would be cheaper and maybe more practical and reliable. Even if they could not meet all our requirements, perhaps in stronger collaboration with the US, we could have an even stronger submarine force.
These issues are nowhere properly canvassed by the Government; they want the assembly done in SA and that is that. But the options should be discussed. In addition to the European option, another option is to buy nuclear submarines from the Americans but "the Government has ruled out nuclear propulsion for these submarines".
I presume Labor's reason is purely political. Labor agreed to a new nuclear reactor in Sydney a few years ago for medical and research purposes. But today any mention of the word 'nuclear' is just not possible for a Government in bed with the Greens. But sensible discussion about the defence of Australia is too important to be subject to a Green veto.
Nuclear propulsion instead of diesel does not mean Australian submarines would carry nuclear weapons. Nuclear powered boats can travel further and faster so whilst 12 boats are needed if using diesel propulsion, some lesser number may be more than adequate with nuclear propulsion. All these cost differences need to be examined. Servicing a nuclear reactor would mean that we would have to have an arrangement with the US for maintenance as we do not have substantial nuclear technology in Australia. A joint submarine base with the US in Australia would be good for Australia.
And there is no rational reason for us to be too shy about a nuclear-powered ship when, as the White Paper says, Australia has been relying on the nuclear deterrent for years and, under successive governments, has acknowledged the value to Australia of the protection afforded by extended nuclear deterrence under the US alliance.
Working with the US also fits our national interest to work closely with our principle ally. There is nothing new about Australia working closely with the US; Australia already has extensive arrangements with the US in situations where costs are prohibitive for us to operate alone, eg. space-based assets and some sensitive special technologies.
Of course, if we are to build the submarines ourselves it will end up as an open cheque book and the cost will escalate. In the White Paper, the Government says that all purchases should be subject to the principle "that military-off-the-shelf and commercial-off-the-shelf solutions to Defence's capability requirements will be the benchmark against which a rigorous cost-benefit analysis of the military effects and schedule aspects of all proposals will be undertaken". But this will not apply to the biggest ever defence project where the estimates are anywhere between $36 billion and $70 billion.
From the same people who gave Australia pink batts and school halls, there is every reason to have misgivings about how this project will be developed. If it ends up with cosy union deals, like the desalination plant in Victoria, the cost to the taxpayer could be astronomical and the boats might end up no better than the Collins'.
It would be in everybody's interest, including his own, if Minister Smith was a lot more open about the critical decisions yet to be taken on this project so vital to Australia's long term security.
Peter Reith was a senior cabinet minister in the Australian government from 1996 to 2001 and then a director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development from 2003 to 2009.