With Sophie on board, what of the Fleet of Foolishness? | OPINION

Sophie Mirabella
Sophie Mirabella

THE monster budget is coming.

The strange thing is, as the government prepares its first budget and has set up the National Commission of Audit, one of the biggest, most dysfunctional, most wasteful and most misguided proposed programs has not even been mentioned.

You could say the Future Submarine project remains submerged.

The only sign that the Abbott government is preparing to confront this $30 billion unaffordable, inexcusable financial black hole was its announcement that former Indi MP Sophie Mirabella was joining the board of ASC Pty Ltd, formerly known as the Australian Submarine Corporation.

ASC is a basket case, its fingerprints all over a sequence of expensive failures.

It cannot be reformed, does not deserve to be saved and should be killed off before it can do any further damage to national security.

Yet the Royal Australian Navy expects ASC will be the prime contractor to build a dozen submarines in South Australia to replace the Collins-class, also made in Australia and also a sinkhole.

The cycle of the Defence bureaucracy’s money-soaking arrogance runs like this.

There is no hardware suitable for local conditions so the Defence Materiel Organisation must design tender specifications that are specialised for Australian needs.

The local military-industrial complex will produce custom-modified, low-volume, high-cost military hardware that is the best in the world.

The reality, in a cycle repeated over decades, is Australia gets gold-plated, high-maintenance products that never match hype and cost twice as much as they need to.

Whatever one may think of Sophie Mirabella, she is an economic dry.

She does not shirk the dirty work of confronting spendthrift bureaucrats, brass and unions, all of whom have treated ASC and the Defence Materiel Organisation as a giant honey pot.

Both organisations are impervious to competence.

In 2011, an audit of the navy’s procurement process revealed a shambolic labyrinth that produced cost blowouts and chronic delays.

That same year, the navy received an SOS after cyclone Yasi smashed Queensland but was unable to deploy a single ship as all three of its large amphibious ships were out of service and two so unseaworthy they never returned to service.

And the navy also had to scrap six large landing craft before they were even used, at a cost of $40 million, because they could not be loaded on to the mother ships they had been bought for.

The opposition defence spokesman at the time, David Johnston, described all this as “an absolute walking, living, breathing example of incompetence”.

He is now Defence Minister, responsible for this fleet of foolishness.

The idea that Australia should produce a dozen submarines in South Australia for about $3 billion a vessel is madness. One only need look at the six Collins-class submarines, made by ASC in South Australia for about $1 billion each, and there’s never been more than two in service at any time.

The grand South Australian submarine project is a hold-over from Kevin Rudd’s unbudgeted grandiosity. The government will save more than $20 billion if it brings this project down to size and offshore.

Meanwhile, the fleet supply ship HMAS Sirius, commissioned in 2006, is being taken out of service after just eight years because it can’t function adequately in rough seas.

Australia’s defence establishment remains culturally fixated on big hardware when national security is increasingly determined by asymmetrical warfare, cyber security and intelligence gathering.

A new style of military security requires greater sophistication, not very complex, very conspicuous, very vulnerable and very, very expensive hardware at a time when software rules.