Prudence in indeterminacy: challenging the ‘who, what where and why’ of Australia’s future submarines

For a sovereign democratic nation, Andrew Davies’ contribution ‘The who, what, where, and why of the future submarine’ posits some alarming notions. The first relates to an assumption that irrespective of a direct threat to Australia or the engagement of vital Australian national interests we would enter into a major conflict with China simply to meet US expectations. Secondly, is that on this basis it is a reasonable policy position for any government to divert unknown billions of dollars to procure and operate a submarine fleet: billions of dollars that could be spent addressing disadvantage or nation building projects. From a strategic policy perspective, the most alarming notion in the contribution is the acceptance of the wisdom of committing in advance to making a marginal contribution to fighting a war about which currently we are unable conceive of the circumstances in which it might arise, or to predict its outcome and consequences, let alone made a judgement about its justification. The hubris of contemporary strategists is impressive.

As strategic policy the statement that,

The conclusion I came to is that the most compelling reason for us to operate in that theatre isn’t the military impact we could have, which with only a boat or two at sea would necessarily be modest in the big picture, but because the US would welcome our efforts. In other words, the biggest payoff is the alliance benefit

is seriously defective. The future, as Aristotle pointed out nearly two and a half millennia ago, is indeterminate and whether or not there will be a war between China and the US will be determined by currently inconceivable and unknowable factors, but include the impacts of human volition and the vagaries of fortune (or non-linear complexity in contemporary parlance). The first of these submarines is optimistically 25 years away but the simple act of justification of their procurement on the basis of siding with the US in a war on China potentially affects the likelihood of that eventuality. Aristotle’s conclusion that under circumstances of precariousness, where the ultimate survival of the political entity is a stake—a reality were Australia to side against the China that emerges over the next decades, prudence in decision makers is to be highly valued.

This piece first appeared here in the ASPI Strategist on 20 March 2013 titled ‘Reader response: prudence in indeterminacy’