The problem was becoming increasingly obvious - something had to be done about Australia's new submarine.
It wasn't just cost blowouts, although these were huge. Originally estimated at $30 billion, projections rapidly spiralled beyond $90 billion - and they showed no sign of stopping. The huge issue, though, was that it didn't look as if the boat would achieve the mission. This was, quite simply, because it couldn't. It was not technically possible to build a vessel that could remain perpetually submerged without using nuclear power.
Conventional submarines need to regularly "snort", or rise to the surface for oxygen and to expel contaminants. Nuclear vessels don't.
Although at some stage, in the distant future, better and quieter conventional boats will operate beneath the waves, today they can't. That's why the French Barracuda (the design our submarine was based on) is powered by a small nuclear reactor. The idea was to rip out the nuclear reactor and put in batteries, but that's where the problems began.
Because of critical underwater balance issues, changing any one bit of a submarine means throwing everything out of whack - a real problem with developing technology. As just one example, although new and better batteries are becoming available, Naval Group had already chosen its preferred power unit. Altering this would have meant starting again. This was impossible, particularly given the massive political pressure the federal government was already placing on the designers.
It was smiles all round - and the bubble of French champagne - when the contract was originally signed with Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister back in November 2016 - but even then the history of our new submarine dated back the best part of a decade. It had been trouble-plagued since its inception in Kevin Rudd's defence white paper of 2009. Julia Gillard ignored the project, then Tony Abbott decided to buy a Japanese sub. He backtracked after South Australian MPs threatened to revolt. Turnbull needed to get the issue off the agenda, and naively believed assurances that converting a nuclear-powered submarine to conventional power would be possible.
Problems multiplied. Minor issues - like recurring cultural clashes over the French way of doing things - escalated, becoming major irritants in the relationship. It had turned into a bad marriage and, on the quiet, one partner wanted out. Otherwise Canberra would have chosen the simple course: swapping over and buying a French nuclear vessel.
Divorce became inevitable. The question was, who would Australia turn to?
Feelers began before COVID struck. Sweden was the obvious alternative. SAAB had built our current Collins-class submarine, and had just launched its replacement in Baltic waters. But this was also conventionally powered, and the huge distances Australian boats have to travel simply to arrive "on station" require a nuclear boat. Of the six countries operating these (Russia, China, France, India, the US and the UK) only the Anglosphere twins, the Americans and the British, were potential partners. Persuading them to sell highly sensitive technology, though, would be a huge ask.
Finding a solution would be like tripping a combination lock - everything needed to fall into place at once.
The first "click" came when Joe Biden was elected President. Donald Trump was too unpredictable, and jealously guardful of American technology, to approach; Biden was more open to sharing with allies. Peter Dutton was a big advocate of buying American and going nuclear. And the British? Well, Canberra will soon know what it feels like to be the third, most junior, partner in a threesome. Australia's the spare handle in a relationship where the power dynamic is already well established. Although this new relationship - AUKUS - leads off with Australia's initial, it would be totally AUKward if anyone thought this to be more than simple alphabetic convenience. Anyone who believes this implies some sort of equal sharing of critical information and technological development surrounding the new vessels will rapidly become very disappointed.
And this is the critical point of the whole episode; revealing just how easy it is to overturn strategic doctrine supposedly set in stone.
Until Thursday, politicians from both major parties repeatedly insisted it was vital to build submarines here and that nuclear-powered vessels were completely off the table. Today they're the way of the future. This may explain why Naval Group had such difficulty in grasping the fact that the government was moving towards another alternative. Suddenly it seems what we were told was wrong, and these ideas are not actually relevant for the country's strategic planning at all. Nor, presumably, were comments by our naval officers that conventional vessels are quieter and can successfully ambush nuclear-powered submarines. We could say the same for all that talk about China. We're buying these subs because we can, not so we can fight a war tomorrow.
But if these previously unquestioned doctrinal pillars have now turned out to be incorrect, perhaps it's worth revisiting other shibboleths as well - like "Are submarines still relevant?"
As everyone seems to think China is a potential adversary, it's worth recognising this superpower's overwhelming superiority beneath the seas. Before the end of the decade Beijing will have 76 diesel-electric and nuclear-powered attack subs (in addition to other boats carrying nuclear weapons). Our eight boats aren't going to change anything. Rather than compete, it would make more sense to develop our own underwater research on enhanced sub-killers.
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Sea pressure means it's simply physically impossible for any submarine to go beyond certain depths. Hulls would crack from the pressure, so there's a limit as to where they can hide. Advances in remote sensors and independently controlled weapons will, inevitably and necessarily, expose submarines to attack. By the end of World War II the German navy still had many serviceable U-boats; the problem was that engaging Allied ships was too dangerous. They had to hide to survive.
The government will be desperately hoping this decision works out, but the sailors love it. Unfortunately, it's not the first time we've been assured that the politicians have made the right choice, based on the best advice from the Navy.
The situation's better now than it was when we were pursuing an impossible objective at a rapidly ballooning price.
Whether we've ended up making the right choice is another question entirely.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and a regular columnist.