The biggest part of the white paper is devoted to the issue of shipbuilding, namely the acquisition of 12 submarines, 9 frigates, and 12 offshore patrol vessels, to accompany the 2 landing helicopter dock ships recently completed at the Williamtown shipyard, and the 3 air warfare destroyers that are in the process of being built. Australia recognises that its maritime security environment has become more volatile in the wake of China`s activities in the South China Sea, and the fact that other militaries in the region are upgrading their naval capabilities means that Australia must keep up in order to maintain an edge. The white paper also outlined plans for the acquisition of 72 F-35 JSF aircraft, a grand total of 15 P-8 Poseidon aircraft by the late 2020s, 12 E/A 18G Growler aircraft, upgraded M1 Abrams tanks, 7 MQ-4 Triton UAVs, more C-17 Globemaster acquisitions, and upgrades to defence facilities across the country.
The paper also made special emphasis of Australia`s evolving security relationship with Japan. There was clear recognition of the potential for further joint exercises with Japan, the paper very clearly stated that Australia welcomed Japan`s legislative changes that have brought about potential for Japan to play a more active role in regional security operations, and mention was also made of further regulations that need to be drawn up between both countries to facilitate further cooperation. While the much more traditional ties with the US were given the greatest emphasis, Japan, and India, were given more prominence in this white paper than those in the past, which itself is recognition by the Turnbull government that regional ties, and more importantly regional defence diplomacy, is going to play a much greater role in the future in helping to maintain stability in a changing security environment.
Speaking of Japan, last week former PM Tony Abbott went to Japan to speak at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, where he noted his concern about China`s activities in the South China Sea, and also took the opportunity to give the Japanese bid for the Future Submarine Project a boost by stating his preference for Japan`s submarine, and noting that for France and Germany the bid is commercial, whereas for Japan it is strategic. Euan Graham of the Lowy Interpreter picked up on this message, and wrote on the Interpreter blog that perhaps this wasn`t the wisest thing for Mr Abbott to have done, given that in February last year the Competitive Evaluation Process was implemented under his government on the basis that it would be impartial.
Mr Abbott then caused another ruckus during the week when in an interview given to the Australian newspaper`s Greg Sheridan, it was revealed that the draft defence white paper under his government had aimed to have the first of the new generation of Australia`s submarines in the water by the mid-2020s, whereas the Turnbull government whitepaper has planned for this event to occur in the early 2030s. Abbott said that he was `flabbergasted` that such a delay had been approved, thereby putting him at odds with the Turnbull cabinet and giving the media a field day in speculation on what is currently going on inside the federal Liberal party.
Abbott`s comments, which have been regarded as a breach of national security laws and which have prompted an investigation by the Australian Federal Police into how such information came into the hands of Mr Sheridan, earned him a stern rebuke from PM Turnbull, who in Parliament said that the advice he had received from Defence Secretary Dennis Richardson was that since 2013 defence had been advocating the introduction of submarines in the early 2030s. This was backed up by CDF Mark Binskin, who said that the submarines timeframe had always envisioned their introduction in the early 2030s.
Now while Greg Sheridan might claim that it is governments that implement policy and not public servants, it would be unwise to categorically reject the advice of the professionals who will ultimately be the ones operating such equipment. If Abbott had indeed wanted submarines introduced by the mid 2020s, that would imply that he was planning to buy material off the shelf (MOTS) from overseas and then have the remaining submarines built in Australia. It would have been expedient, but it would also have been politically damaging to Abbott`s colleagues from South Australia and other defence manufacturing states.
So the saga of submarines continued unabated in Australia. During the week Mitsubishi Heavy Industries made another pitch for support by declaring that they would set up an innovation centre in Adelaide for a large range of technologies with non-military commercial application should they win the bid. For their part, TKMS stated that they had no problems with a delayed introduction schedule ($), although they also said that they would also have the capacity to introduce subs earlier, a point also emphasised by DCNS (MHI did not make the same promise, but instead said that they would keep to any schedule outlined by the government).
With a federal election looming in Australia this year, the question of submarine choices has taken on a character of its own, fired of course by the antics of politicians seeking to establish their own reputations on national security. It`s an avoidable situation, but one where the temptation to score political points is too great to resist. In my own belief, the sooner we go to a double dissolution election the better, if only to get this malarkey out of the road and begin the process of proper governing.