There may be a comprehensive argument for why Australia's future submarine should be a home-designed, home-built evolution of the Collins Class, but today's Kokoda Foundation report (subscription needed to see the whole thing) hasn't provided it.

While the report summarises well Australia's strategic maritime disposition and the tasks the future submarine should be able to perform, it adds very little to the debate on how Australia's most expensive and complicated defence project should proceed.

Before it was released, questions had been raised about the objectivity of this report. Its lead author, Brice Pacey, was formerly a strategic analyst for the Australian Submarine Corporation, the company most likely to benefit financially from a decision to build the future submarine in Australia. But this detail is missing from the report's author biography.

The report was sponsored by a coalition of ten defence industry entities, all of which have an interest in a future submarine being built in Australia. But nowhere is it mentioned that their sponsorship on this occasion was linked to this particular report, rather than to the Kokoda Foundation generally.

One of those ten entities is Defence SA, and it may be entirely coincidental that this report finds that the federal government should fund home-grown future submarines and a land-based propulsion test facility in South Australia. It may also be coincidental that the report was launched on the very same day the South Australian Treasurer is in Canberra to lobby Defence on those exact same issues.

It may be yet another coincidence that this 90-page report can spare only one paragraph for a cost analysis of nuclear propulsion, yet devotes 20 pages to advocating a greater role for private sector program management and recommends Defence 'engage private sector engineering and project management specialists', a service offered by one of the sponsors.

There is a legitimate role for defence industry support to academia and think tanks (including this Institute, which has occasionally received modest sponsorship from the defence industry). Without such support, valuable defence policy research questions would go unanswered. But any perceived conflicts of interest need to be managed carefully; see the disclaimer on the Acknowledgments page of this recent report from US think tank CNAS for an excellent template for transparency.

I'm not yet convinced of the best way forward on the future submarines but I'd like to see all options on the table and a debate free of hidden (and not so hidden) conflicts of interest, whether perceived or real. There is an excellent public policy debate to be had on the future submarines, but we haven't had it yet. For a country girt by sea, we don't talk about it nearly enough. More on that tomorrow.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.