Published 21st March 2023

AUKUS offers strategic certainty and sound security options

Bondi Partners Global Chair Richard Spencer believes AUKUS offers strategic certainty and sound security options

The Mandarin | March 21, 2023

Richard V Spencer, the 76th secretary of the US Navy, was unceremoniously sacked by his commander-in-chief four years ago when US president Donald Trump made an extraordinary rebuke of due process and started meddling in the disciplinary case of a SEAL who had been charged with war crimes.

Spencer, an animated all-American embodiment of decorated top brass, was astounded. We know this because, in another unprecedented move, he penned an explanation after the falling out, entitled ‘I was fired as Navy secretary. Here’s what I’ve learned because of it’.

“This was a shocking and unprecedented intervention in a low-level review,” Spencer wrote.

“It was also a reminder that the president has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices.”

It was late 2019, and the freshly sacked Navy head lamented the train of events that saw the president push him to influence a military justice process as the secretary.

Disciplinary matters involving military personnel worked best when senior leadership remained far away from it, Spencer wrote, and this arms-length approach defined what it meant to run an institution of integrity. Officials from the Pentagon community were furious about the president’s overruling (in keeping with Trump’s style of decision-making, the president informed all and sundry about his decision via Twitter on November 21). The whole saga contained lessons for the nation, Spencer added.

“A system that prevents command influence is what separates our armed forces from others. Our system of military justice has helped build the world’s most powerful navy; good leaders get promoted, bad ones get moved out, and criminals are punished,” he said.

“We train our forces to be both disciplined and lethal. We strive to use proportional force, protect civilians and treat detainees fairly. Ethical conduct is what sets our military apart. I have believed that every day since joining the Marine Corps in 1976.”

The scandal saw Trump successfully veto a peer-review process to strip disgraced chief petty officer Edward Gallagher of his elite force Trident pin that all SEALs wear and retire with his rank intact.

The president’s tweeting also led to Gallagher being moved to more-comfortable prison quarters while awaiting trial, despite the fact that the presiding judge of the trial believed placing the accused in confinement in a Navy brig was important given advice about his conduct.

Gallagher had faced more than a dozen charges for criminal acts during his eighth overseas deployment in Iraq. Colleagues referred to his warrior tactics as akin to the conduct of a “pirate” and sometimes violated rules.

While the trial saw Gallagher acquitted for the murder of an Islamic State detainee in 2017, he was found guilty of wrongfully posing for photographs with the prisoner’s body.

Spencer told the National Press Club this week that Gallagher’s actions with respect to the dead body were “egregious” for many reasons. He condemned the way his misdeeds besmirched the reputation of other US navy special operators and uniformed personnel, as well as the message it sent to enemy forces.

“It was very meaningful that we handled this case appropriately,” Spencer said.

“We were trying to protect the institution and let the institution heal. The special operators community knew what happened — that was the most important thing.

“All I wanted to do was to get chief Gallagher in front of his peers, and have his peers review his record. If in fact, his peers said ‘He can keep his Trident, he can remain a SEAL for the rest of his life’, I was perfectly okay they passed the decision.

“Me giving him his Trident [medal] back was tin. The president turned around and said, ‘No, you will not put him in front of a peer-review board’. And I said, ‘Yes, I will’. And he said, ‘You’re fired’.”

Spencer, who is now involved in the advisory investment firm Bondi Partners, founded by former Australian treasurer and ambassador to the United States Joe Hockey, made his remarks on Monday. A respected marine aviator and Wall Street banker, he leads Hockey’s firm as global chair and has investment interests in dual-use technology companies.

Responding to questions from The Mandarin about whether a future US president whose style and volatility emulated Trump’s might pose a risk to the fate of the AUKUS alliance, the former US secretary for the navy said he was confident in the checks and balances of the democratic system.

Spencer added that since the January 6 Capitol Hill insurrection in 2021, the US had learned some important lessons about the fragility of its “experiment of democracy”.

“A lot has been learned, a lot has been observed [since] that great problem that we had in Washington,” Spencer said.

“I will not be as naive as to say that the US is homogeneous in its thoughts […] I do believe, though, that Congress does its job in counteracting or being a counterweight to the executive branch, and I think the system does work well in that regard,” he said.

In his view, the former secretary said the AUKUS deal would supersede differing preferences of any future administration beyond Joe Biden’s because, in an increasingly competitive geostrategic context, it made sense to stick with your allies.

“I will never second-guess the US congress but I truly believe that there is an understanding about the competition with China that is non-partisan. I feel fairly confident that in the near term — let’s say seven years — yes.

“It all depends on what happens. If we have a huge peace dividend all of a sudden, if the PRC rolls over and we’re dealing with the people of China in a different framework, it might be different. But we still need security in the region, and to have this capability only helps all of us,” he said.

Spencer went on to share that he regarded AUKUS as a momentous step forward in the right direction to address the security of Australia and the Indo-Pacific region. He said the agreement would provide the impetus needed to focus on critical areas or “tenets of technology” such as quantumAIbiotechnology and critical minerals.

For the US, Spencer said a nuclear-powered naval program delivered not only for national security but the research and development sector, technology, manufacturing and employment.

“The resources needed to develop and maintain such a platform are daunting. We must be candid about that. But the consumption of those resources should be weighed against the [other benefits],” Spencer said.

Last week’s AUKUS submarine deal was an exceptional first, the former secretary noted, because it marked the initial step of Australia, the UK and the US to share technologies, skill sets and manpower during a period of Great Power competition.

“The subs are today’s headlines and the first steps but I truly believe there’s much more. I believe AUKUS is the catalyst for the three partners to immediately begin coordinating policy to address the competitive environment we face now,” he said.

“Policy does not do — doers do — but we need policy as a foundation.”

A coordinated, whole-of-government approach to policy development and implementation would be needed by the AUKUS allies to take meaningful action, Spencer said.

Investing in defence capabilities to secure national and regional security was a critical starting point for a bigger picture, he added. But the state department and portfolios ranging from commerce to education, energy, agriculture, energy and transportation should also be included in this focused mission.

“The military is just one arrow in our quiver. There’s a longer, more powerful arrow in the quiver — and that is commerce,” Spencer said.

“If we look at the industrial process, a key of policy that we put forward, I’ll look most recently at the CHIPS [and science] Act — possibly the first industrial policy the US has laid down since the Cold War.

“Already, $70 billion worth of capital is flowing and earth is being moved for multiple CHIP foundries in the US. This is what we call focused reaction and focused work. We need to do the same thing for [the tenets of technology] pillars that I just mentioned.”

Reflecting on the impact of American industrial policy during WWII, and the production of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator aircraft at the government-owned assembly plant Willow Run, Spencer said an 83-acre building was developed to produce parts.

By November 1941, every hour a new aircraft was being made. The stunning feat was an example of successful focused industrial and government policy that contemporary PPI should seek to copy, Spencer said.

“I am an admirer of history and any chance that I get, whether it be in the US or abroad, I love to talk about our relationship with Australia because you provided your men and women to fight alongside us in WWI, WWII, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Gulf War I, Somalia, the ‘War on Terror’, Gulf War II, the war in Afghanistan, and counter ISIL in both Iraq and Syria,” Spencer said.

“You, Australia, are front and centre on the stage. And we [the US] will stand beside you, with firm resolve, like two interlocking bands of steel. We must, we will, we have to — there’s too much to be done.”

Published by The Mandarin

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