From the Honest History vault: It’s not just about the submarines; AUKUS fundamentally threatens Australian independence

In October 2021, we posted a piece on Honest History decrying the focus on the submarine part of the AUKUS story. That was when the Morrison government (remember them?) was still in power. (We had another look at the issue in November last year.)

The original post included – and was updated a number of times with – media commentary, much of which is still relevant, but we are reposting below just the main points in the October 2021 post, because they remain even more relevant. Perhaps the best summary of the whole complex business is this paragraph:

Add in those submarines – on the never-never but locking us in to the US war-waging machine – and Australia looks even less like an independent country and more like the Little Boy from Manly, looking up to other white folks across the seas, and beloved of cartoonists more than a century ago.

Readers can check out that famous Little Boy by scrolling down. Meanwhile, David Hardaker in Crikey has started a series of articles which reinforces the point that everything connects to everything else. In his first article, Hardaker focusses on the revolving door between government and defence contracting. Case studies followed on Joe Hockey, Christopher Pyne.

Update 30 March 2023: There’s also this resource from the United States, but written by Ashley Townshend, formerly from the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. There is also this in The Conversation, from Peter K. Lee, also from the USSC.

Townshend says this:

The agreement [between Australia and the US], known as Submarine Rotational Forces-West (SRF-West), is by far the most important near-term contribution to strengthening deterrence vis-à-vis China in the AUKUS submarine construct. As a relatively fast-moving and operationally relevant endeavor, it stands in stark contrast to the extremely long-term AUKUS defense industrial project …

If all goes to plan, this trilateral effort could double the number of allied SSNs west of the international dateline by 2031, when SRF-West is supposed to reach its full component of forward deployed boats. Were Australia’s Virginia-class submarines to join it from 2033, as is widely expected, the overall laydown of SSNs could be even greater. It’s possible that by 2039—before Australia’s first AUKUS SSN is even in the water—there’ll be twenty-five allied SSNs on permanent or rotational deployment in Hawaii, Guam, and Perth …

Although associated with the AUKUS deal, SRF-West is part of a much wider transformation in the character and purpose of the U.S.-Australia alliance—one that will see Australia play an increasingly pivotal role in actively supporting U.S. military operations as part of a strategy of collective deterrence.

This transformation has been hiding in plain sight. Motivated by a shared recognition of the need to shore up the regional balance of power amid China’s rising military might and the United States’ deteriorating strategic position, Washington and Canberra have been quietly rewiring the alliance through a series of new initiatives under the 2014 Force Posture Agreement. This process was rapidly accelerated by an historic, albeit largely overlooked, decision at the 2021 Australia-United States Ministerial Dialogue to double down on enhanced force posture cooperation across five key areas: four service-based initiatives involving the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy, and Army, and a cross-cutting logistics, sustainment, and maintenance enterprise “to support high-end warfighting and combined military operations in the region.”

These posture arrangements are intended to reinforce the United States’ military position in the Indo-Pacific by leveraging Australia’s strategic geography, geopolitical alignment, and capacity for high-end military integration.

Update 17 April 2023: Dennis Altman in Pearls & Irritations on AUKUS as cultural cringe.

Altman says this:

There are many cogent arguments against AUKUS, and Pearls and Irritations has featured most of them. For me the most galling is the re-emergence of the images of the Anglosphere, and the photos of Australian Prime Ministers beaming between the US President and the UK Prime Minister, as if nothing had changed since Sir Robert Menzies invoked our great and powerful friends.

AUKUS is symbolic of a more general cultural cringe, the assumption that Australia can only define itself in relation to London and Washington, rather than take pride in our own Indigenous history and geographic position …

The underlying symbolism of AUKUS reflects something deep in the psyche of many Australians, namely a continuing need to identify with the leading powers of the Atlantic alliance as a counterbalance to potentially hostile developments closer to home. In time the foray into nuclear submarines may prove to be the most expensive piece of symbolism yet entered into by an Australian government.

Update 25 May 2023: Open letter opposing AUKUS, signed by many academics and experts (Pearls and Irritations)

AUKUS will come at a huge financial cost and with great uncertainty of its success. It is likely to compound Australia’s strategic risks, heighten geopolitical tensions, and undermine efforts at nuclear non-proliferation. It puts Australia at odds with our closest neighbours in the region, distracts us from addressing climate change, and risks increasing the threat of nuclear war. Australia’s defence autonomy will only be further eroded because of AUKUS. All of this will be done to support the primacy of an ally whose position in Asia is more fragile than commonly assumed, and whose domestic politics is increasingly unstable.

Update 30 July 2023: James Curran in the Australian Financial Review (paywall), while AUSMIN talks are under way, focusses on what AUKUS and spin-offs mean for our sovereignty.

The central question now is whether the US build-up is transforming Australia into a base for offensive US operations into Asia. The AUSMIN talks over the weekend continued a trend since the late 1990s of tying Australia more tightly into both American grand strategy and war planning in Asia. The permanent American military presence on Australian soil is now at a scale unprecedented since the Second World War.

Update 8 August 2023: Three recent articles focus especially on the announcement about combined intelligence arrangements and other murky projects between the US and Australia. They bring to mind the alleged statement of US President Johnson (as reported by former US Ambassador to Australia, Marshall Green), that LBJ used to think of Australia as the next rectangular-shaped state West of Texas. LBJ was President 1963-68 so bugger all has changed in the intervening decades, to judge by the non-MSM commentary of Mike Scrafton and Mack Williams, plus (a pretty much unquestioning) Angus Grigg and Andrew Greene of the ABC on big plans for Darwin.

Plus there was Clinton Fernandes in Arena (June issue but we just caught up) who blew the whistle loudly on AUKUS – but is anyone listening out there in Marlesland? Among other gems, Fernandes quoted the Chief of Navy in April claiming that the submarine build was a ‘nation-building’ exercise. Utopia script coming up. Meanwhile, Fernandes rounds off his article thus:

AUKUS is not an investment in Australian nation-building but in the materials, products and services that enable the war-fighting capabilities of the United States. Its aim is to uphold US global primacy for the next fifty years, which is how long the nuclear-powered submarines are expected to be in operation. Technical identification of Chinese submarines under the pretext of ‘freedom of navigation’ keeps the public in the dark about the nature and extent of our military operations. Long-term interoperability with the US Navy implies long-term political alignment with the United States. But it is increasingly clear that the assumptions that have underpinned Australian strategy for the past thirty years require serious re-examination. The United States may not be able to heal its domestic fractures, let alone prevent the emergence of a democratic and equitable international order. AUKUS signifies a commitment to a world order that planners would like to see, not one that is actually emerging. Faith may collide with reality, and reality will win. It always does.

David Stephens

29 March 2023 updated

David Stephens is editor, Honest History website, and has been convener of the Heritage Guardians group, opposed to the $548m redevelopment of the Australian War Memorial.


David Stephens*

‘It’s not just about the submarines and the furore with the French: AUKUS, AUSMIN, and lessons from history’, Repost (extract) from Honest History, 1 October 2021

Today, we suggest that commentators – and the people to whom they address their comments – are dills … if they think the big story recently has been all about whether we stick with the French submarines or go with the US and the UK, and whether or not we do it with nuclear power in submarines which will be available and serviceable at some date in the future (assuming other developments, particularly in drone technology, do not make them redundant first).

Jules Verne’s Nautilus electric submarine (ancient pages)

Some recent pieces of evidence, if we absorb then properly, might make that epithet, ‘dills’, less appropriate. It is right there in the public domain that it ain’t just the subs, what they run on, and who they are going to offend, that matters. It’s much more than that.

The first piece of evidence is commentary in Pearls & Irritations from long-retired Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, Mack Williams. Williams says,

AUKUS will substantially reinforce the Holy Grail of the Australian Defence Force’s interoperability with the US defence machine but, contrary to what Defence Minister Peter Dutton asserts, equally it will severely reduce our independence which, in itself must change our strategic thinking for the future …

In his comments to the media in Washington, Dutton expanded on the AUKUS list of possible items for cooperation by reference to basing and storage of weapons and materiel … The US has also long pushed for the homeporting of a nuclear powered aircraft carrier at Stirling in Western Australia – which might well be back on the books again with our nuclear powered submarines to be based there. There have also been suggestions of a possible Australian base for UK nuclear submarines operating in the Indo Pacific.

Then there is another piece in Pearls & Irritations from historian, Douglas Newton, an expert on the circumstances leading to, and the fighting of, the Great War. Newton draws nine AUKUS-relevant lessons from the Anglo-German naval arms race leading up to 1914.

Paraphrased, Newton’s lessons are: be sceptical of advice from senior military officers seeking career opportunities; keep the relative strengths of allies and adversaries in perspective; look for evidence of defence industry ‘philanthropy’ influencing policy advice; be wary of urgers calling for more defence spending; don’t believe politicians who claim there is independence of action within alliances; don’t expect rich folks to pay for increased defence spending; beware claims about peace through strength; don’t expect rational threat assessments; don’t expect rational choices.

Is it a case of ‘here we go again’, then? The Last man and the Last shilling, via All the Way with LBJ, to Over the Top with AUKUS?

Thirdly, and most importantly, there is the official statement from the AUSMIN talks between Australian and US representatives earlier this month in Washington. We sent Ministers Dutton and Payne, the Americans, Secretaries Austin and Blinken. The AUSMIN statement is on the Australian DFAT site and in identical terms on the US State Department site.

The statement is 23 pages long and covers everything from Timor-Leste to Women in Leadership and from climate change to supply chains. (Afghanistan sneaks in at the end under ‘Other Security Issues’.) The knobbly bit though is at pages 16-17 under the headings ‘Enhanced Force Posture Cooperation and Alliance Integration’ and ‘Strategic Capabilities Cooperation’:

Enhanced Force Posture Cooperation and Alliance Integration

Acknowledging it had been 10 years since the establishment of the United States Force Posture Initiatives (USFPI) in Australia and that the strategic challenges of our time center in the Indo-Pacific region, the Secretaries and Ministers committed to significantly advance Australia-United States force posture cooperation.

Reestablished at AUSMIN 2020, the bilateral Force Posture Working Group convened in May 2021 to develop recommendations to promote a secure and stable Indo-Pacific region and deter our adversaries.The Secretaries and Ministers endorsed the following areas of force posture cooperation:

  • Enhanced air cooperation through the rotational deployment of U.S. aircraft of all types in Australia and appropriate aircraft training and exercises.
  • Enhanced maritime cooperation by increasing logistics and sustainment capabilities of U.S. surface and subsurface vessels in Australia.
  • Enhanced land cooperation by conducting more complex and more integrated exercises and greater combined engagement with Allies and Partners in the region.
  • Establish a combined logistics, sustainment, and maintenance enterprise to support highend warfighting and combined military operations in the region.

Strategic Capabilities Cooperation

The Secretaries and Ministers recognized that the operational effectiveness of the Alliance is underpinned by the strength of our cooperation on science, technology, strategic capabilities, and defense industrial base integration.

The Secretaries and Ministers signed a classified Statement of Intent on Strategic Capabilities Cooperation and Implementation, which will further strengthen capability outcomes, deepen our Alliance, and strengthen our cooperation to meet emerging challenges, and support regional stability.

The Secretaries and Ministers discussed Australia’s intent to establish a Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordnance Enterprise.They committed to cooperate on delivering this complex, long-term endeavor, which will complement the United States industrial base and assure defense supply chains in the Indo-Pacific.

The principals also discussed the importance of strong and resilient supply chains and will pursue long term, sustainable Maintenance Repair and Overhaul capabilities in Australia.

The United States and Australian Departments of Defense contribute significant resources and technical effort in research, development, test, and evaluation (RTD&E), production, and support across a range of defense capabilities.These bilateral cooperative programs allow Australia to contribute to Alliance capabilities development, they also provide Australia access to cutting-edge technology and assurances.

The Secretaries and Ministers highlighted the positive progress made in hypersonic weapons and electromagnetic warfare cooperation, including recently finalized bilateral strategies on industrial base collaboration and co-development.

The principals discussed opportunities to further expand practical engagement and integration under the National Technology and Industrial Base (NTIB) to enhance industrial collaboration and build supply chain resiliency.They also committed to strengthen efforts to streamline export controls, and to facilitate technology transfer and protection.

Add in those submarines – on the never-never but locking us in to the US war-waging machine – and Australia looks even less like an independent country and more like the Little Boy from Manly, looking up to other white folks across the seas, and beloved of cartoonists more than a century ago.

A Story for the Marines or The Little Boy from Manly (Bulletin 26 September 1885/Livingston Hopkins/Lindsay Foyle)


What indeed happens afterwards to the men and women we send to fight overseas? Figures this week from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show higher numbers of ex-ADF suicides than we have been used to hearing. A useful SBS storyThe Minister for Veterans’ Affairs offered more support and faster claims processing.

Which should remind us that everything connects to everything else in this field. The extensions to the Australian War Memorial have been promoted on the assumptions not only that recently deployed and mostly returned service men and women should be recognised more fully (by providing acres of additional space) at the Memorial, but also that this space will be needed to recognise and/or commemorate members of future expeditionary forces.

Some of that space and some of the displays will carry the logoes of, sponsorship by, and equipment manufactured by the world’s richest arms manufacturers. Given the revolving door benefiting senior personnel moving from government and the ADF to the defence industry (where they sell expensive military kit to the people they used to work with, and to overseas buyers who use it to flatten poor countries and kill their children) [see Hardaker article referred to above. HH], and given how the defence industry gets kudos from donating its small change to war memorials, we are justified in talking about the ‘military-industrial-commemorative complex’.

Given, too, that these tripartite links are often ignored by the mainstream media, while it focusses on the easy stories (Macron being upset, Macron not calling Morrison, Turnbull dissing Morrison) we could with justification say the ‘military-industrial-commemorative-media complex’. Soft choices by media outlets do matter. Everything connects.

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website. For more on the military-industrial complex and its variants, on defence spending, on arms donors, on arms sales, on Yemen, use the Search engine on this website. See particularly this recent piece on the real winners in Afghanistan.


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