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Here are the facts about Australia’s nuclear submarine program

28 May | Jennifer Parker

It is not an alliance of mutual obligation. It is not a commitment to supporting the US in a conflict over Taiwan. It is a technology capability pact.

Image: Defence images. os Angeles-class submarine USS Annapolis (SSN 760) arriving alongside Diamantina Pier at Fleet Base West, HMAS Stirling, WA.


Australia’s planned acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines is undoubtedly ambitious and certainly risky.


But the frequent negativity among Australian commentators is detached from the reality of the success to date of the plan’s progress, and the wider strategic reasons for the project.


Over a year on from the announcement of the “optimal pathway” for Australia to get its submarines, and the agreement is largely on track. So far, it has hit every major milestone, the latest being the announcement of the partners who will build and sustain the submarines. This doesn’t mean it will stay on track. But it is time we stopped jumping at shadows and acting so insecure as a nation.


Discussion in the media of Australia’s nuclear-powered submarine acquisition has taken on an odd fervour. It often centres on “gotcha” reporting that frequently misinterprets signals from our AUKUS partners.


This approach is unhelpful. It should lead Australians to ask when they stopped believing in themselves as a nation. Why are we so convinced that acquiring the world’s best submarine capability in an era of heightened global tensions is beyond Australia’s abilities? Why don’t we think the women and men who will be asked to put their lives on the line in a conflict deserve a submarine in which they are more likely to survive?


Among the litany of criticisms, there is a spectrum of positions that range from former politicians and academics seeking to defend their legacies, to the assumption that it is just easier to assume that something that is justifiable but risky is not going to work.


There are many valid concerns around the opportunity cost and risk. Do the strategic circumstances justify such a massive acquisition? What are the risks of Australia’s nuclear-powered submarine project failing? So, it is important to lay out some facts.


AUKUS is a technology capability pact


It is not an alliance of mutual obligation. It is not a commitment to support the US in a conflict over Taiwan. It is a technology capability pact that aims primarily to support Australia in the acquisition of the world’s most technologically advanced submarines.


There are, of course, other elements that have now been grouped under AUKUS Pillar II, but its genesis is in Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines. Australia may already be obliged to be involved in a conflict over Taiwan, but this is not because of the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines.


What is the strategic justification for this capability? The world, and more specifically the Indo-Pacific region in which we are located, is changing dramatically. While comparisons to the 1930s are almost always unhelpful, what we do know is that states such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, which seek to challenge the existing global “rules-based order”, are feeling emboldened. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.


But this is also happening in the Indo-Pacific; China’s regular aggression towards the Philippines within that country’s exclusive economic zone is one example. The rapid acceleration of China’s military modernisation alongside its demonstrations of military power in the waters and air off Taiwan, the militarisation of the South China Sea through China’s artificial islands with their missile batteries, surveillance radars, and the near-constant cyberattacks, are others. The list goes on.


These changes do not mean conflict in the region is probable. But the barriers that have prevented it are eroding. They include the United Nations Charter and UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, underpinned by a US capability advantage in the region. This deterioration does increase the likelihood of conflict, and therefore the risk to Australia and its strategic interests.


Investment in a defence force that can respond to regional aggression that impacts on us is a central part of the deterrence strategy outlined in the Defence Strategic Review.


Investment in capabilities that would cause China to think twice about impinging on Australia’s interests is essential to conflict prevention. Should Australia’s deterrence strategy fail, then having a capable defence force to respond and protect Australia’s strategic interests is essential. Think of it as our insurance policy. So, there is a clear strategic reason for bolstering Australia’s defence capabilities.


The best investment?


Why are eye-wateringly expensive nuclear-powered submarines the most effective investment to, first, deter aggression, and then to defend Australia if the deterrent fails?


The first point is that this is not a one-size-fits-all approach. The government is investing in the delivery, and potential acceleration, of many capabilities that bolster defence, including missiles, ships, and cyber capabilities while enhancing its application of diplomatic statecraft within the region. Whether the government is investing enough, given the greater risks of conflict, is a longer conversation.


Australia’s strategy is not solely contingent on submarines. But it’s correct to say that the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines is the most complex, and the most expensive.


So, why nuclear-powered submarines? It’s not, as some commentators have suggested, to supplement US forces in a conflict over Taiwan, or to support a strategy of deterrence by punishment that would enable Australia to launch cruise missiles into the Chinese mainland.


While theoretically capable of this, neither of these explanations make much sense when you think about the numbers of nuclear-powered submarines Australia is acquiring. Three in the 2030s, and potentially eight in the 2040s.


The discussion about Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines is not new, but it has become more urgent due to the strategic circumstances. The nuclear-powered submarines discussion began in Australia in the 1960s. The key to it is that Australia has a vast maritime domain and is heavily dependent on maritime trade.


Australia’s geography means that we need to be able to position our limited number of submarines quickly and leave them on station longer to protect our maritime trade.


Submarines, especially nuclear-powered ones, have many roles from intelligence collection and surveillance, to hunting other submarines, hunting ships, and striking land targets with missiles. Their versatility is part of the allure.


When you think about Australia’s vulnerabilities, its dependence on maritime trade to keep the economy going is one of its biggest. Would our maritime trade be interfered with should China ever choose to teach Australia a lesson?


This is not a far-fetched scenario, as interfering with Australian trade is exactly what China attempted to do with its campaign of trade coercion against Australia from 2020 to 2022. It makes sense that in a crisis or conflict, Beijing would take the same approach. And remember, China has numerically the largest navy in the world with more than 350 ships, including over 70 submarines, to enforce such action


Australian nuclear-powered submarines with their speed, endurance and ability to remain submerged for lengthy periods dramatically changes the calculus for any country seeking to interfere with Australia’s maritime trade.


Nuclear-powered submarines can position faster to respond and generate greater uncertainty in a potential adversary’s mind as to where they might be operating, and the danger they might pose. The speed and stealth involved in nuclear-powered submarine operations mean that their impact is disproportionate to the number of submarines we might have.


The ability to reduce the risk of interference with Australian maritime livelihood, and the ability to make an adversary stop and wonder about the safety of their own trade at the hands of Australian submarines, is a significant advantage. Although we have significant maritime vulnerabilities, so does China, with more than 60 per cent of its trade coming via the sea.


Opportunity comes at a cost


The acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines comes with significant costs, not just financial. There are workforce implications, and implications for Australia’s defence industrial base.


Because of the lack of a nuclear industry in Australia, and the nature of the agreement, there is a high dependence on the US submarine industrial base for the delivery of three Virginia-class, nuclear-powered submarines in the 2030s, and the UK to provide the design and deliver the self-contained nuclear reactors that will power the AUKUS submarine in the 2040s. But we are already largely dependent on others for the majority of our high-tech defence capabilities. This isn’t much of a change.


But why can’t we do this with conventional submarines, and accept a higher degree of risk. Conventional submarines are slower and have less endurance. That means you need more of them to achieve the same effect, though it can be achieved.


The greatest issue is that conventional submarines need to snorkel, coming to just below the surface of the water and raising a hollow mast to respirate their diesel engines while they recharge the batteries they use for running fully underwater. The faster they manoeuvre, the more frequently they need to do this. When they do this, they are subject to detection. Detecting conventional submarines in this period of vulnerability will be greatly assisted by artificial intelligence, which helps surveillance operators pick out the sound and visual traces from background noise.


Not only are conventional submarines increasingly likely to be detected, but we must remember that detection puts at risk the lives of the crew. In the event of conflict, detection for a submarine means almost certain sinking, and escaping from a submarine is not often a realistic prospect.


When you consider the increased likelihood of conflict in the region, the ability of potential threats such as China to interfere with Australia’s essential maritime trade, the ability of submarines to influence this outcome by either deterrence, or disproportionately engaging an adversary’s maritime capabilities, coupled with the likelihood of a conventional submarine being detected and sunk while trying to do this with a significant loss of Australian life, the strategic reasoning becomes clear.


Often missed in the conversation is the deterrent impact of the AUKUS agreement itself, an impact that should not be understated. The fanfare surrounding the original announcement in 2021 and the announcement of the nuclear-powered submarine optimal pathway in 2023 were staged specifically to send a message to China.


That message was that China’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific region had reached such a level that the US, supported by the UK, were willing to transfer their most sensitive technology to Australia. Something they had declined to do in the 1960s.


A strategy of deterrence is built on three key principles: capability; credibility; and communication. The signal which came just from the formation of AUKUS is in many ways just as important as the nuclear-powered submarine capability itself.


When commentators and the media express alarm about the demands of a submarine industrial base, they miss the point that AUKUS is not just about the capability. It is equally about the communication and credibility that underpin deterrence.


Should the US withdraw from AUKUS following a return of Donald Trump, or because their own submarine construction program is lagging, they would be fundamentally undermining their own strategy of deterrence in the Indo-Pacific.


In a region of states now hedging their bets, a failure by the US to deliver on their AUKUS promises would see them lose all influence within the region, and the strategic competition for the western Pacific itself. It’s not that AUKUS is too big to fail, but there is much more at stake for the US than three Virginia class submarines. When viewed in this light, Australia should not be so nervous.


When it comes to AUKUS, it’s time for Australia to believe in itself. Our value proposition in this deal is significant. We are not simply being gifted submarine capability. We are an essential element of the US deterrence strategy.


The plan, despite its risk and complexities, is on track, and the Australians who put themselves in harm’s way deserve a capability that increases their chance of surviving.

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