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Ride horses no more


When reading texts with an editorial eye you often come across lines that seem to have wandered in from another manuscript. They don’t seem to fit.  One of them is the verse in the Book of Hosea, ‘We shall not ride horses’. Hardly something God would be much concerned about, we might think. In fact, though, the horses were Assyrian cavalry, and the instruction meant that they should not put their trust in alliances with Assyria, the world power of the time, which would soon deport into exile Hosea’s people of the Northern Kingdom.

The line may speak to the signing of the AUKUS treaty that commits Australia to buy nuclear submarines from the United States and Great Britain to be delivered in the middle of the next decade. We might imagine a contemporary Hosea advising, ‘Do not go sailing in submarines’. If he read the newspapers, he might remind us of our disastrous participation in the invasion of Iraq and urge us to focus our attention the imminent threat of climate change set out in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report

Lack of expertise in strategic planning and weaponry inevitably makes my own response to the submarine deal provisional.  That said, however, there are three grounds on which the purchase of the submarines is open to criticism. First, the cost - which will be carried by Australians of the next generation - is very high for objects that have yet to be fully designed and produced. Australia’s record of buying and making complex military technology that double in price and are delivered late is not promising. Although spruiked in up to three Elections before their delivery, such hardware dating from the F111s  to the Collins Submarines have been dogged by problems in design, arrived years later than promised, and cost double the initial estimate. Nor does the record of the Australian Defence Department, let alone the British, in buying and manufacturing to budget inspire confidence.

The cost of the submarines cannot be measured only in dollars spent. It lies also in opportunities forfeited. With the billions of dollars committed to the submarines many things that could have strengthened Australian society will not be done. The Government has already put off to a putative second and third term any serious efforts to address inequality and climate change that most threaten Australian society in the future. As the bill for the submarines falls due, the cost will provide an excuse for not addressing effectively the need for social housing, for a fair and efficient  health system, for a living wage for all Australians, and above all for the action required to avoid catastrophic global warming. Australia will remain a meaner and more self-lacerating society than it could be and become for our descendants an inhospitable environment.

The second ground for questioning the submarine deal is the lengthy time between the decision to buy them and the time of delivery. To see the implications of this gap imagine having ordered in 2012 for delivery in 2023 a computer that would meet all your needs. You would surely recognise on delivery that both your needs and the technological possibilities for meeting them have changed. We may assume that the AUKUS deal promises access to submarines of the highest standard. They can remain underwater and undetected for many months, have a long range, can be armed with nuclear weapons, and can provide reconnaissance, support and deterrence in local conflicts.

We may also assume, however, that both in China and in the United States scientists will be devoting enormous resources to discover how to detect and neutralise such splendid submarines. There is no guarantee that they will be strategically valuable when they come into service. Almost certainly the Armed Forces in the United States will demand modifications over this period to meet more exacting demands. These will both increase the cost and extend the time before which they can come into service.


'Submarines are a symbol of seeking security through force. They inevitably give priority to security over justice, equality and fraternity in our national and international relationships.'


The third and most significant ground for opposing the submarine deal is that it encourages the naming of enemies, the culture of fear and suspicion, and giving priority to security in public policy. This in turn encourages prejudice against ethnic minorities in the community and the making of harsh laws. The harm to persons resulting from this trend can already be seen in the effects of our immigration policy, in the reorientation of the Aid Budget to focus on regional security, and in the reconstruction of social welfare into punitive social security.

Although the pressure to identify China as a hostile State has been mollified in Australia by the recognition that our prosperity depends on our trade with China and consequently on its economic health, the media focus on Chinese intentions, Chinese spies and sharp Chinese business people has encouraged public anxiety about China. It has led to discrimination against Chinese people in Australia. The identification of Australian relationship with China as a struggle between freedom and totalitarianism, too, coarsens our reflection on our own society. It justifiably highlights the lack of political freedom and the brutal treatment of minorities in China, but it covers up the discrimination against minorities and particularly against First Nations people in our nation.

Like the Assyrian horses in Hosea’s Day, submarines are a symbol of seeking security through force. They inevitably give priority to security over justice, equality and fraternity in our national and international relationships. They are not horses on which we should ride. Perhaps we should see them as more like the white elephants which kings lavished on their rivals who in turn desired them for their own public standing but found themselves impoverished by their profitless maintenance. And more ominously they distract us from the far greater threat posed by Moby Dick, the White Whale, the symbol of nature assaulted and disrespected.  




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Royal Navy nuclear submarine. (BAE Systems via Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Submarines, AUKUS, Security, United States, UK



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Existing comments

Sadly, world politics is not decided on moral grounds, Andy. It is in what Jesus called the realm of Caesar. Having said that, I think the whole AUKUS deal is a dreadful mistake on many levels. Financially, I think the deal could possibly sink us. It will at least distort economic policy for a very long time. We need to be able to defend our shores. Cheaper submarines, such as the German-built Dolphin class diesel submarines used by the Israeli Navy, would probably be adequate for this. To join an alliance against China is madness and will endanger us further. Armed neutrality would probably be our best option but will not be considered. I don't want to get into the world pollution and poverty issues here because they both require forums of their own.

Edward Fido | 31 March 2023  

Like Andrew's article, Easter week gives everyone an opportunity to reconsider and re-vision what on earth we're here for.

Johhn RD | 01 April 2023  

Fr Andrew you make some good points.
We may not ride warhorses or worship the goods our hands have made, but we must regard China as a territorial threat. As did Moses with Egypt.
Whilst we trade with China, they have still not lifted the 20bn worth of tariffs imposed over our temerity in questioning the origins of covid. It is easy to forget the number of coal ships tied up in their ports for over a year.

Perhaps Edward is right and we should go with a cheaper submarine option. However we should also be mindful that China breached its 1985 treaty with Australia on the Antarctic territory and recall the downright lies they uttered over Tibet and the SCS. They prevaricate and once they've attained their objective say well "what are you going to do about it?"
Xinjiang was conquered from the Turks.
China may be a necessary trading partner but they are not to be trusted. AUKUS may be subject to future obsolescence and Global warming needs innovative solutions.
While we agonise over these issues, Russian and Chinese factory ships currently pillage the Ross and Weddell seas of shrimp, krill and sea bass and thumb their noses at international quotas on taking these species upon which the health of the Antarctic depends.
So unless a better allied solution presents, AUKUS is an idealistic rock in a turbulent sea.
They don't ride warhorses in Ukraine, yet as a result of Putin's territorial ambitions, 7.7million Ukrainians are now homeless and scattered.

Francis Armstrong | 03 April 2023  

Recall that to morrison this scheme appeared to be nothing more than red meat for his Rightist supporters. He seems not to have had any interest in the implications, let alone any awareness of them.

Labor - the Alternative Liberal Party - appears to have embraced it partly for the samne reason partly because sup[plying 8 nuclear subs to the USN (which is really what this scheme amounts to) was going to be popular with our - with their - Imperial overlords.

Diplomacy is being ignored with the same disinterest as we saw regarding the Ukraine. Yet only such subtle measures - subtle? us? albanese? morrison? - can balance the tensions with our largest trading counterparty as it morphs into the Great Power status that it is entitled to choose, if it can.

R. Ambrose Raven | 02 May 2023  

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