Alice in Aukusland: America first and the stillbirth of ‘Australian’ SSNs

Mar 14, 2024
Wonderland fantastic landscape with roses. Caterpillar smokes a hookah. Horizontal banner, vector illustration(the characters in fantasy tales Alice in wonderland)

AUKUS has become a stillborn project.

Vassal states, satellites – in other words the butlers of international relations, the minders of the royal stool – are a rarely respected lot. In Australia’s case, being Washington’s butler is hardly like being Jeeves to Bertie Wooster. Jeeves is, after all, a near omniscient being, a confidant who rescues his master from ridiculous situations and offers sound advice to avoid them. The Canberra wonks, bureaucrats and politicians are in no equivalent position, weak, impotent, and ever reliant on the good grace of the US Congress, the US President and the entire military complex that pillows them.

The latest announcement about delays and dysfunction in the US submarine base should further confirm that the AUKUS security agreement is risky, costly and self-defeating. The security pact, which is primarily focused on technological transfer and the provision of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, is proving, yet again, to be a shaky affair.

The developments are hardly surprising. US shipyards are simply not keeping up with the production line. Roping in the Australian taxpayer into this mess means that money will be going to funding a foreign defence force without any guarantee of the submarines promised to Canberra. Superb if you are working in the Pentagon, disastrous if you are an Australian policy maker.

The latest Fiscal Year 2025 budget request from the US Department of Defence has again shown an industry in stuttering health. The US Navy’s intention to cut a submarine already paid for and built featured prominently in the plans. The implication for this, and AUKUS, is that the number of submarines relevant to the pact will be halved.

Congressman Joe Courtney, ranking Democrat member of the House Seapower and Project Forces Subcommittee, was far from impressed, saying as much in a released statement. “If such a cut is actually enacted it will remove one more attack submarine from a fleet that is already 17 submarines below the Navy’s long stated requirement of 66.”

This measure would place the commitment made by the Pentagon and Congress to furnish three submarines to the Royal Australian Navy in doubt. “This deviation from last year’s projected Future Years Defence Program (FYDP) contradicts the Department’s own National Defence Industries Strategy issued on January 11, 2024, which identified ‘procurement stability’ as critical to achieve resilient supply chains.”

In January, Courtney, along with the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Mike Rogers, Chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee Trent Kelly, and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee Adam Smith, wrote to President Joe Biden arguing “that the US Navy and Congress maintain continued procurement of two Virginia-class submarines per year, as detailed in the Navy’s FY2024 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan.”

The Congressmen had no reason to doubt such a rate of procurement, given the investments from the Navy and Congress “in workforce and supply development over the last five years.” It was “imperative to maintain a steady two-per-year procurement rate to assure our partners in our ability to meet commitments and address concerns about our nation’s undersea capabilities.”

The obsession with the two-submarine annual procurement rate, assessed at 2.33, has been a lingering one with Congress, but there is much to suggest that Courtney and his colleagues had been engaged in an act of wishful thinking. Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker, for instance, found the production rate to be a warranted one in a July 16, 2023 contribution to the Wall Street Journal, but worried about how this would work within the context of AUKUS arrangements. “As it stands, the AUKUS plan would transfer US Virginia-class submarines to a partner nation even before we have met our own Navy’s requirements.”

This is also not helped by the US Navy’s ongoing plans to design and develop 12 new SSBNs of the Columbia (SSBN-826) Class to replace the current, aging fleet of 14 Ohio-class SSBNs. A report from the Congressional Research Service published in January notes the Navy’s revised procurement rate of 2.33 Virginia-class submarines plus one Colombia-class boat, something Courtney might have heeded.

In December 2022, Democratic Senator Jack Reed and an outgoing Republican Senator James Inhofe authored a letter to Biden expressing their worries “about the state of the US submarine industrial base as well as its ability to support the desired AUKUS SSN [nuclear sub] end state.” Current conditions, the senators went on to describe, required “a sober assessment of the facts to avoid stressing the US submarine industrial base to the breaking point.” Sobriety, it would seem, has come biting in stinging fashion.

A deluded, crippling subservience is to be found everywhere. Australia’s Defence Minister, Richard Marles, should be hysterical with concern, his increasingly coloured skin turning pallid. Instead, he is trying to keep a brave face by foolishly claiming to speak for all powers in the trilateral alliance. “As we approach the one-year anniversary of AUKUS, Australia, the United States and United Kingdom remain steadfast in our commitment to the pathway announced last March, which will see Australia acquire conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines.”

Such ill-informed confidence also pervades the Alice in Aukusland mentality, marked by such punditry as that of retired submarine specialist Peter Briggs. Australia, suggests Briggs, should seize the day on submarine construction in taking “an active role in the design and procurement process” for the SSN. But control can only be exerted with a degree of power and experience in the field of nuclear propulsion, something the Australian Navy has little to no experience in.

Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull prefers a bleaker analysis. “The reality is the Americans are not going to make their submarine deficit worse than it is already by giving or selling submarines to Australia and the AUKUS legislation actually sets that out specifically.” Australia had been “mugged by reality”, its sovereignty surrendered, its fate left like a cork bobbing at sea.

Whoever occupies the White House or Congress, the America First mantra prevails: first, Washington’s interests, marked by its own weaknesses and troubles; then, should they matter, those of allies, however loyal and ingratiating. AUKUS has become a stillborn project.

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