Address to the Australian Defence College

March 15, 2023

Address to the Australian Defence College

The Honourable Malcolm Turnbull AC

Canberra, ACT

15 March 2023




As Prime Minister of Australia, I was ultimately responsible for making the decisions to keep our nation safe - today and in the future.


I recognised that we were living in times of rapid change - technologically, economically and geopolitically.


Our goal was not simply to keep Australia safe, to be able to defend Australia and deter aggressors, but to play our part in ensuring the maintenance of what Shinzo Abe described as “a free and open Indo Pacific”. 


Speaking at the Shangri-La Security Conference almost six years ago I put it like this:


“Australia’s vision, optimistic and born of ambition rather than anxiety, is for a neighborhood that is defined by open markets and the free flow of goods, services, capital and ideas.

Where freedom of navigation goes unchallenged and the rights of small states are untrammeled.

Where our shared natural bounty – our land, water and air – is cherished and protected.

And disagreements are resolved by dialogue in accordance with agreed rules and established institutions.

This is a world where big fish neither eat nor intimidate the small.”


All of the concerns that we had then continue today and are exacerbated. China under Xi Jinping is more authoritarian, its military more capable, its willingness to use coercion against others, greater. 


And hard on the heels of the unthinkable global pandemic came a full blown land war in Europe, a reminder that dictators will use force to achieve their goals whenever they think they can win. 


Some things have remained the same - our principal ally is the United States - still the most capable military power in the world. But China is catching up, and determined to become the dominant power in this region. 


And the United States itself is more divided, more angry, more unpredictable than ever before. Donald Trump who threatened to withdraw from most of America’s alliances could well be President again in 2025. These are uncertain times.


Now it is natural in this audience to focus on military capabilities, but before moving onto that in general and AUKUS in particular, let me observe that our national security does not depend on fleets and armies alone. Not by a long shot.


Closer engagement, greater trust, stronger friendships with all the nations in our region, and especially in ASEAN, is of the utmost importance. It was one of the reasons why I worked so hard to ensure that we kept the Trans Pacific Partnership alive after Donald Trump pulled out of the deal.


This is the most ambitious modern trade deal and had been a key part of President Obama’s pivot to Asia strategy. Ash Carter, Obama’s Defence Secretary, described it as being as important to American security as another carrier task group. 


When Trump pulled out almost everyone thought the deal was dead, but working with Shinzo Abe we kept it alive and it is now on foot providing stronger economic ties across the Pacific and our region. Other countries will join the CPTPP - the United Kingdom being the likely first to do so. 


Australia is at its most effective, respected and persuasive in the region when it is seen to be thoroughly independent and autonomous. 


We are a close treaty ally of the United States, but with all due respects to John Howard, being seen as “a deputy sheriff” is counter productive. As one ASEAN foreign minister once said to me “If you are seen as being a rubber stamp for Washington, why would we take much time with you, easier to speak to head office.”


The diplomatic effort to keep the TPP alive was a good example of an independent, Australia making the case to our region that we did not need the United States always to lead, that we could make our own destiny ourselves. 


So as you are all military men and women, let me turn to that domain and in particular to AUKUS.


I have written and spoken at length about this so won’t retrace familiar ground. Suffice to say the birth of AUKUS was thoroughly unedifying. France was deceived, America was misled, Australia’s reputation seriously damaged. America’s oldest ally was so affronted it recalled its ambassador from Washington and Biden had to publicly apologise to Macron.


The decision to dump the partnership with France to build a diesel/electric version of the Suffren class SSN was taken in the darkest secrecy and thus with inadequate analysis or consultation. 


As a result we find ourself with great plans and good intentions. The hard work and the inevitable disappointments are ahead. It will take an enormous effort to make it all work. 

The outcome has been described as an “optimal path.” In my view, however there was a better way for Australia to acquire nuclear powered submarines in terms of sovereignty, time and cost. 


Had Mr Morrison approached France and the US in an open and honest manner this is what could have been achieved.


We could have proceeded with the Attack class programme, diesel/electric, and then switched to the nuclear powered version once we were ready - say by the mid 2030s. We would then have been operating one type of submarine, but with different propulsion systems.


Or we could simply have switched to nuclear propulsion in which case the shipyard in Adelaide could build at least the front half of the boat with the propulsion system and reactor being supplied from France whose shipyard would  have completed its sixth Suffren class boat by 2029.


Either way we would have had new submarines available from the early 2030s and of a single type. Their size 4500 tonnes and crew level of 60  are more suitable for Australia than the much bigger Virginia class submarines (10,200 tonnes, crew of 134). The Suffren class submarines are also much cheaper - about A$2.5 billion versus A$5.8 billion for the Virginia. 


We do not have any meaningful estimates of what the future SSN AUKUS will cost. 


Importantly the French submarines use low enriched uranium in their naval reactors. This fuel is enriched to about the same level as that in civilian power stations and does not pose a nuclear proliferation risk in the way the weapons grade uranium used in US and UK naval reactors does. 


While the French reactors do need to be refuelled every ten years that process is a quick efficient one taking weeks, not months, and could be done in Australia were we to develop a modest civilian nuclear power sector to support a thoroughly sovereign nuclear navy. 


France has vast territories, two million citizens and a permanent military presence in the Indo Pacific. There was in the partnership with France a very valuable strategic relationship which added to, and did not detract from, our alliance with the United States. It enhanced our sovereignty, our autonomy and made us a more influential friend and ally. 


The United Kingdom, on the other hand, has no permanent military or material territorial interests in this region from which it withdrew more than sixty years ago. It’s economy is in dire straits and, self isolated from Europe the world’s largest free trade zone, it faces enormous fiscal challenges.


In terms of the AUKUS submarine deal as announced; the rotation of US submarines through our naval base in Perth is welcome, but  will come at a very high price as Australia will pay to build the base just as it will invest billions in the US shipyards where the Virginia class submarines are built.


Posting Australians on American submarines is also to be welcomed as is the plan for Australia to buy at least three and potentially five Virginia Class submarines by the early 2030s. More than twenty of the Virginia class have been built - they are a proven capability. 


The plan to build, in partnership with the UK, a new attack submarine, SSN AUKUS, with the first Australian boat in the water twenty years from now has promise, but it is not yet designed. 


Many are already asking why we would buy 3 or 5 Virginia class submarines (to fill the capability gap as the Collins ages out) but then switch to a completely new design.  And  twenty years is a long time in every respect - strategically and technically - what impact will underwater autonomy have in the submarine domain - given the work with Anduril on the Ghostshark we will likely have a fleet of underwater drones many, many years before the first SSN AUKUS is in the water. 


The upshot of these arrangements is that our navy will be operating two (and potentially three) different submarine types - Collins and Virginia for up to a decade and then Virginia and SSN AUKUS. Given the difficulties our navy has in crewing the smaller Collins class submarines, the human resources challenge of both recruiting and training sufficient numbers of submariners is enormous. 


The US Congress will have to agree to the transfer of Virginia class submarines to Australia and one can well imagine circumstances where Americans will argue those submarines should remain in the US Navy which is anxious to increase its submarine fleet.


I have been very concerned that any submarines acquired by Australia are fully sovereign. Given we have no nuclear industry at all, we have to build from scratch a nuclear supervision and compliance regime to match that of the US and UK. And we would have to satisfy our allies that this regime is sufficiently robust to oversight the operation of reactors with weapons grade uranium. Will they be so persuaded? How much continued oversight will the US require, and how does that impact on our sovereignty? Will Australian nuclear powered submarines be able to be operated if the US withdrew its co-operation? 


So while I am pleased to see AUKUS take a more coherent form, we cannot in the hoopla that always accompanies these announcements underestimate the risks. We also should not forget that there was a better way, and one that was never seriously examined by our government. If we had gone nuclear with France we would have had submarines that were much cheaper, delivered sooner, more suitable in terms of size and crew and with reactors that did not create the very dangerous proliferation precedent that will be seized upon and exploited by our adversaries. 


The AUKUS submarine plan will see many billions of Australian dollars being invested in American and British submarines and submarine related infrastructure. While this will, in time, enhance our naval capabilities it will be seen as making us even more dependent on the United States and now the United Kingdom. 


Australian sovereignty will be perceived to have been diminished.


Will this make us safer? Will it help stabilise the region? Will it deter coercive, even kinetic, actions by China? We must hope so. Certainly the delivery of submarines decades into the future is hardly likely to impact on Xi Jinping’s plans for Taiwan today. 


Which brings us to the second much less talked about pillar 2 of AUKUS - the enhanced collaboration on critical technologies such as cyber security, autonomous systems and AI. It is this part of AUKUS that is far more relevant in the near and medium term. 


It is fair to say that the Australian Defence establishment has  not consistently regarded the development of an Australian defence industry as being a vital part of our national security. Australia may be the 12th largest economy in the world, but every  other G20 nation has a more substantial indigenous defence industry than we do and there are many economies much smaller than ours with much more substantial defence industries. 


It is remarkable that while the US defence and security establishment is vastly larger than ours - more than twenty times as big I would estimate - its innovation culture, support and adoption of new technologies is far more agile than ours. We have both a defence and security establishment which is  much smaller and also less agile and supportive of Innovation.  That is a really bad combination and it must be addressed urgently.


An outlier and an example of what we can do is  CEA based in Canberra which produces phased array radar technology that is 10 to 15 years ahead of any other comparable technology. 


Another more recent example is the autonomous inertial navigation systems developed by Advanced Navigation of which I should note I  am both an investor and chairman. As a venture capitalist critical technologies  are a key focus. 


So we are underdone  and it was a central part of my government’s policy to address this with the innovation agenda, the naval shipbuilding plan and many other measures. 


The new government , I believe, shares the same ambition but we still have a long way to go. It is vitally important that as we go further into AUKUS we ensure that Australian technology has as much access to the US and UK markets as their tech has to ours, and that Australian technology is used in all the AUKUS platforms.


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