An Open Letter to the Australian Government from concerned scholars regarding the AUKUS AgreementMay 24, 2023
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