An Open Letter to the Australian Government from concerned scholars regarding the AUKUS Agreement

May 24, 2023
USS Seawolf (SSN 21) stops for personnel in the Norwegian Sea off the coast of Tromsø, Norway

We the undersigned are scholars of the humanities and social sciences and other disciplines with expertise in the following issues. We write this open letter to express our concerns regarding the Australia, United Kingdom, United States (AUKUS) trilateral security agreement. Specifically, our concerns relate to pillar one of the agreement, the joint development with the US and the UK of a nuclear-powered submarine (SSN) capability for Australia.

The underlying strategic rationale behind the AUKUS decision has not been adequately explained to the Australian public. Even if it is argued that the SSNs may provide certain capability advantages, the government has not made clear how AUKUS will translate into a safer Australia.

AUKUS will come at a huge financial cost and with great uncertainty of its success. It is likely to compound Australia’s strategic risks, heighten geopolitical tensions, and undermine efforts at nuclear non-proliferation. It puts Australia at odds with our closest neighbours in the region, distracts us from addressing climate change, and risks increasing the threat of nuclear war. Australia’s defence autonomy will only be further eroded because of AUKUS. All of this will be done to support the primacy of an ally whose position in Asia is more fragile than commonly assumed, and whose domestic politics is increasingly unstable.

There is no question that a submarine capability is critical for Australia’s defence, particularly for undertaking surveillance and protecting our maritime approaches. The central and critical question, however, is does defending Australia require the offensive long-range power-projection capabilities provided by SSNs?

The answer provided by Defence, and successive Australian governments, has until recently been consistently in the negative. The procurement of French-designed diesel-electric powered submarines, initially sought to replace the ageing Collins-class boats, would be, it was promised, ‘regionally superior’. Now, we are told, it is only the superior attributes of SSNs that fulfil Australia’s defence requirements.

Perhaps this is the case. But Australia should not proceed based solely on these publicly untested assumptions. Peter Varghese, former head of the Office of National Assessments and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, makes the salient point that AUKUS is too momentous a decision to be left to the ‘echo chamber’ of classified discussions. It demands a yet to be had ‘proper and forensic public discussion about other options and their underlying rationale’.

SSNs, it has been proclaimed, are superior vessels when compared to conventionally-powered submarines in terms of stealth, speed, manoeuvrability, endurance, and survivability. This is correct in some respects, but only to an extent, and with important qualifications. Many of the apparent advantages of SSNs are conditional on the specific operational environment, and technological developments may render them less stealthy and effective than defence officials assume.

More importantly, possible superior capabilities alone do not translate into direct defence benefits, and many of the claims made in favour of SSNs enhancing Australia’s security do not survive scrutiny. For example, it’s been argued that the superior speed and endurance of SSNs provides advantages for protecting Australia’s vital shipping routes. However, the volume of our seaborne trade is much too large to patrol effectively, and that which passes through the South China Sea goes mainly to China.

Similarly, the argument that SSNs are required to protect Australia’s undersea communications infrastructure is overstated. Spread across a large geographic area, undersea cables are difficult to protect militarily, vulnerable to attack not only by submarines but also by relatively unsophisticated and cheap underwater technologies.

Significantly, there has been no compelling strategic argument made for why a small number of expensive nuclear-powered submarines confers greater defence advantages rather than a much larger number of cheaper conventionally powered ones.

Whatever the tally of defence benefits that SSNs might offer Australia, they must be carefully weighed against the costs and risks.

With an official estimate of up to $368 billion, almost certain to rise to even greater heights, AUKUS constitutes the most expensive defence procurement in Australian history by a wide margin. Equally importantly, the significant and ongoing opportunity costs and trade-offs this presents for defence and broader social spending are not easily dismissed.

Constructing SSNs will be one of the biggest engineering feats Australia has ever undertaken. There are immense execution risks involved in this effort to build, operate, maintain, and crew eight SSNs, and two types of boat simultaneously – the existing American Virginia-class and the yet to be designed AUKUS-class – with no experience in the management of nuclear-propulsion technology.

The political uncertainly inherent across all three nations, over a period of 10 terms of the Australian government, also raises the risk profile. It seems imprudent to hitch Australia’s most expensive and lethal defence capability to an increasingly uncertain ally that is in relative decline, politically unstable, and exhibiting troubling signs of sliding into an illiberal democracy.

Australia’s future nuclear naval reactors, fuelled by weapons-grade uranium, will not be subject to routine International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards on the grounds of protecting sensitive American military information. Although Australia is in negotiations with the IAEA to develop alternative safeguards, this establishes a troubling precedent for other non-nuclear armed states to exploit, and risks undermining international controls to prevent nuclear proliferation.

Australia’s degree of dependence on the United States to safely operate the SSNs is likely be high and risks the possibility of a US veto over their operation. It may not be wholly unusual for Australia to have limited operational sovereignty of its defence assets, but as former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has remarked, AUKUS takes this dependency to new heights. The pressure to submit this capability to American strategic interests will be almost impossible to resist.

Still, the most significant risks are strategic. The tripartite enterprise risks incorporating Australia into the more offensive-oriented aspects of our American ally’s military strategy in East Asia, most worryingly with respect to nuclear warfare. AUKUS will equip Australia with a potent capability to strike Chinese naval forces close to their home ports and, in coalition with the US, play a frontline role in hunting China’s nuclear-armed submarine force and its second-strike nuclear deterrent capability. ‘For this reason alone’, warns the Australia Institute’s International and Security Affairs head, Allan Behm, ‘China will view Australia’s decision as a wilful contribution to an existential nuclear threat to China’.

Many of our closest neighbours in Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific have expressed concerns that the agreement will heighten geopolitical tensions, contribute to a regional arms race, and undermine nuclear non-proliferation. Such criticism reflects that AUKUS is at odds with regional desires to achieve a peaceful and balanced strategic order, and with the deep antinuclear sentiment that is an especially central element of Pacific regionalism.

Pacific island states have made clear that their primary and immediate security concern is climate change, and expressed the view that AUKUS indicates a lack of serious commitment from Australia in helping them to deal with that risk. Pacific voices should remind us that we too are facing a first-order strategic threat from climate change, and AUKUS serves as a distraction from addressing that critical threat to our security.

Put simply, the public case for AUKUS has yet to be made with any degree of rigour or reliability. The government must justify how the agreement will make Australia safer and at an acceptable cost. We the undersigned call on the government not to proceed with pillar one of AUKUS until and unless the questions and issues raised in this letter are adequately explained and addressed.

Signatories (as of 23 May 2023):

Dr Vince Scappatura, Sessional Academic, Macquarie University

Adjunct Professor, Mark Beeson, University of Technology, Sydney

Adjunct Professor, Albert Palazzo, University of New South Wales, Canberra

Dr Lloyd Cox, Senior Lecturer, Macquarie University

Honorary Professor, Richard Tanter, The University of Melbourne

Dr Jonathan Symons, Senior Lecturer, Macquarie University

Professor Dennis Altman AM, Vice Chancellor’s Fellow, La Trobe University

Professor John Quiggin, Laureate Fellow, University of Queensland

Emeritus Professor, James Cotton, University of New South Wales, Canberra

Professor Henry Reynolds, University of Tasmania

Margaret Reynolds AC, Former Visiting Professor, University of Queensland

Dr Sian Troath, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Canterbury

Dr Scott Burchill, Honorary Fellow, Deakin University

Dr Tania Miletic, Senior Research Fellow, The University of Melbourne

Dr Binoy Kampmark, Senior Lecturer, RMIT University

Dr Allan Patience, Honorary Fellow, The University of Melbourne

Professor Marilyn Lake, The University of Melbourne

Dr Michael McKinley, Emeritus Faculty, The Australian National University

Dr Tom Chodor, Lecturer, Monash University

Honorary Professor Peter Stanley, FAHA, University of New South Wales, Canberra

Associate Professor David Lee, University of New South Wales, Canberra

Allan Behm, Director, International and Security Affairs Program, The Australia Institute

Professor Anthony Burke, University of New South Wales, Canberra

Professor David S G Goodman, The University of Sydney

Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe, Griffith University

Dr Danny Cooper, Sessional Lecturer, The University of Sydney

Adjunct Professor Richard Broinowski AO, Universities of Canberra and Sydney; Former Australian Ambassador

Dr Alison Broinowski AM, FAHA, FAIIA, President, Australians for War Powers Reform

Dr Douglas Newton, Independent Scholar

Dr Julie Kimber, Senior Lecturer, Swinburne University of Technology

Emeritus Professor, Timothy Rowse, Western Sydney University

Dr Marty Branagan, Peace Studies, University of New England

Dr Jumana Bayeh, Senior Lecturer, Macquarie University

Professor John Langmore AM, The University of Melbourne

Adjunct Professor Bob Boughton, University of New England, Armidale

Dr Daryl Le Cornu, Western Sydney University

Dr Tilman Ruff AO, Hon Principal Fellow, The University of Melbourne

Professor Dianne Otto, The University of Melbourne

Distinguished Honorary Professor, Carroll Pursell, FAAAS, The Australian National University

Dr Luke Fletcher, Visiting Fellow, University of New South Wales, Sydney

Emeritus Professor Louise Edwards, FAHA, FASSA, FHKAH, University of New South Wales, Sydney

Dr Murray Noonan, Casual Academic, Deakin University

Professor Derek McDougall, Professorial Fellow, The University of Melbourne

Professor Robyn Eckersley FASSA, The University of Melbourne

Honorary Associate Professor, Greg Fry, The Australian National University

Dr Umut Ozguc, Lecturer, Macquarie University

Associate Professor Jake Lynch, The University of Sydney

Honorary Professor Peter Hayes, The University of Sydney, Director, Nautilus Institute

Professor Angela Woollacott, The Australian National University

Professor Sarah Joseph, Griffith University

Emeritus Professor Gavan McCormack, FAHA, The Australian National University

Adjunct Professor Scott Poynting, Queensland University of Technology

Professor John Keane, The University of Sydney

Emeritus Professor Michael Hamel-Green, Victoria University

Associate Professor David Hundt, Deakin University

Dr Mike Donaldson, University of Wollongong, retired

Dr Monique Cormier, Senior Lecturer, Monash University

Dr Charles Hawksley, University of Wollongong

Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees AM, The University of Sydney

Associate Professor Nick Apoifis, University of New South Wales, Sydney

Dr Greg Lockhart, Historian and Writer

Dr Benjamin Zala, Fellow, The Australian National University

Conjoint Professor Aurelia George Mulgan, University of New South Wales, Canberra

Honorary Professor Geoffrey Hawker, Macquarie University

Professor Susan Park, The University of Sydney

Professor Mobo Gao, University of Adelaide

Associate Professor Peter Christoff, The University of Melbourne

Professor Kanishka Jayasuriya, Murdoch University, Western Australia

Professor George Lawson, The Australian National University

Dr Peter Van Ness, Visiting Fellow, The Australian National University

Dr Anna Hood, Senior Lecturer, University of Auckland

Professor Christian Reus-Smit, University of Queensland

Professor Susan Harris Rimmer, Griffith University

Professor Wanning Sun, University of Technology Sydney

Professor Yingjie Guo, The University of Sydney

Professor Jane Golley, The Australian National University

Professor Jocelyn Chey, Visiting Professor, The University of Sydney

Associate Professor Matt McDonald, University of Queensland

Emeritus Professor Christopher Cook, University of Wollongong

Emeritus Professor Colin Mackerras, Griffith University

Distinguished Professor Ien Ang, FAHA, Western Sydney University

Professor David Lowe, Deakin University

Honorary Professor, Melanie Oppenheimer FASSA, The Australian National University

Dr Emma Shortis, Lecturer, RMIT University

Associate Professor Jamie Reilly, The University of Sydney

Dr Valentina Baú, Senior Research Fellow, Western Sydney University

Dr Declan Kuch, Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow, Western Sydney University

Dr Federica Caso, Lecturer, La Trobe University

Dr Ben Wellings, Senior Lecturer, Monash University

Dr Kelly Gerard, Senior Lecturer, University of Western Australia

Dr Priya Chacko, Senior Lecturer, University of Adelaide

Associate Professor Jingdong Yuan, The University of Sydney

Dr Melissa Johnston, Lecturer, The University of Queensland

Associate Professor Chengxin Pan, University of Macau; Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Technology Sydney

Professor Michael Dutton, FASSA, University of London

Professor Joy Damousi, The University of Melbourne

Associate Professor Marianne Hanson, University of Queensland

Honorary Professor Garry Rodan, The University of Queensland

Dr Evan Jones, Honorary Associate, The University of Sydney

Dr Judy Hemming, Emeritus Faculty, The Australian National University

Emeritus Professor Ian Dance, University of New South Wales, Sydney

Emeritus Professor David Holm, National Cheng-Chi University, Taipei; Former Professor, The University of Melbourne

Professor Baogang He, Deakin University

Emeritus Professor Tony Bennett, Western Sydney University

Associate Professor Nichole Georgeou, Western Sydney University

Dr Erik Paul, School of Political and Social Sciences, The University of Sydney

Dr Qian Gong, Senior Lecturer, Curtin University

David Morris, Senior Research Fellow, Beijing Foreign Studies University

Professor Justin O’Connor, University of South Australia

Dr Monika Barthwal-Datta, Senior Lecturer, University of New South Wales, Sydney

Media Inquires:

Vince Scappatura
E: vincenzo.scappatura@mq.edu.au

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