OPINION | Planning for Australia’s nuclear submarine “supergroup”
Bureaucracy is boring. But it also matters. Complex public projects don’t just happen—they demand the dedication of public servants and effective organisational structures.
With the nuclear-powered submarines to be acquired under the AUKUS partnership, Australia has set itself perhaps the most ambitious public-procurement undertaking in its history. To match the scale of this venture, according to a report in The Australian, the submarine taskforce led by Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead will evolve and grow into a new “stand-alone group inside Defence that will draw personnel from across the government”.
In public-service speak, a “group” is usually the largest organisational unit in a federal government department, headed by a deputy-secretary-level public servant or a three-star military officer. That the submarine acquisition is being elevated to this level reflects the magnitude of the enterprise and the fact that it will become a permanent and dominant feature of the Australian defence organisation for decades to come.
Equally interesting, though, is the scope of this new group in Defence. The Australian described it as a multiagency group “responsible for all elements of the program, including safety, non-proliferation and regulatory measures, international engagement, education and training, industry development and project management”. Its head will have “a direct reporting line to Defence Minister Richard Marles”.
“All indicators point to a highly integrated organisational structure, essentially putting everything ‘SSN AUKUS’ under one roof inside Defence.”
While the exact contours, structure, and mandate of the group are yet to take shape, the role of this new organisational arrangement bears examination. Driven by the complexities of nuclear technology, the group’s remit reaches outside conventional defence policy domains into areas such as education and industrial policy that are usually led by domestic policy agencies at the federal and state level. Defence will have to acquire new policy capabilities to tackle these issues—but also develop networks and institutional relationships with a much wider range of domestic stakeholders. Moreover, the government will need to decide the exact limits of Defence’s policy leadership. Education and industrial policy are, for instance, intrinsically linked to labour and innovation policy.
The reported scope of the group also includes policy domains and functions that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade would conventionally lead, namely international engagement and non-proliferation. For Defence instead to take leadership of these areas would mark a fundamental shift in the division of labour in Australian foreign policy.
All indicators point to a highly integrated organisational structure, essentially putting everything “SSN AUKUS” under one roof inside Defence. Intuitively, that makes sense: the government wants all the people working on a project to be clearly organised and led, working with unity of purpose. But as a recent report by the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue (AP4D) explains, there are complexities and trade-offs in the degree to which different tools of statecraft are coordinated and the mechanisms employed to do so.
A fully integrated, whole-of-government structure following a unified strategy that cuts across multiple policy areas represents the highest degree of coordination. But achieving this degree of integration is difficult: it is intellectually demanding and resource-intensive, requiring a clearly mandated and properly resourced entity such as a taskforce. Australia has previously used such an approach to respond to discrete issues or crises—for example, Operation Sovereign Borders and the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands.
“The government must remain open to evolving this group over time as it learns what works (and what doesn’t) in terms of structure, remit, and mandate.”
Full integration can sometimes, however, be counterproductive. Forcing different actors and tools of Australian statecraft to act within a singular worldview and command structure can diminish the unique strengths and comparative advantages that each brings to bear. There needs to be room for proper consideration of broader foreign policy equities within a structure that is unapologetically mission-focused on delivering defence capability. As the mixed reaction in the Indo-Pacific to AUKUS has demonstrated, Australia can’t assume an overall permissive environment for its strategic policy, so diplomacy is as vital to manifesting the submarines as building a nuclear industrial base. These risks are, however, manageable through effective governance.
There are also other models short of full integration that could be considered. The Office of the Pacific—which comprises a group in DFAT under deputy-secretary-level leadership—is one approach to managing whole-of-government policy by mandating an area to have oversight of all policy and drive overarching strategy in collaboration with a wide range of agencies, including Defence and Home Affairs. This is a level down from “full integration”: it broadly aligns actors around overarching goals and promotes information and resource sharing, while also recognising that specialisation and delegated responsibility across government are valuable.
Whatever way the government chooses to organise the AUKUS submarine group, AP4D’s research suggests that effective coordination of the actors and tools of statecraft is determined by several factors: a clear coordinating structure; clarity on objectives and narrative; sufficient resources and a strong ministerial mandate; effective bureaucratic leadership and staffing; and relevant agencies having a collective interest in the issue.
With the group’s head reporting directly to the deputy prime minister, at least one of these conditions is already satisfied. There’s also speculation that it could have its own budget line separate from the rest of Defence, helping ensure stable resourcing. On all the other factors, only time will tell. Most importantly, though, the government must remain open to evolving its AUKUS submarine “supergroup” over time as it learns what works (and what doesn’t) in terms of structure, remit, and mandate.
Article reprinted with permission from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s analysis and commentary site The Strategist.
Hugh Piper is program lead at the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue.