Mike Gilligan: AUKUS and submarines – a slippery slope

Apr 27, 2022
Scott Morrison
The implications of AUKUS are shaped by this shortfall in the ANZUS treaty. Image: Flickr / U.S. Secretary of Defence

Not much of AUKUS adds up – at once there is too little and too much information. It looks like the bedrock of Australia’s security policy since the war is being swept aside.

Within the terms of its own defence policy the government’s proposal for nuclear submarines offers little militarily above the already comprehensive capabilities we possess for defending Australia yet comes at extraordinary cost. Overkill is too light a word. It will trigger Chinese glee at its economic absurdity.

What’s going on that the Australian government has surreptitiously dumped the defence policy of nearly fifty years at America’s instigation? Why so slyly? Probably because it cannot explain that it is taking Australia into risky uncharted waters at America’ s bidding without any guarantee beyond a Presidential chuckle. We should decline this offer from our British and American friends to invest in nuclear submarines of little utility; then ask America to formalise equitable risk sharing in the ANZUS treaty, before entertaining becoming ensnared in actions against China.

Australians must be confused about two new international arrangements declared by the government in September last year. We were reminded of a quadrilateral one between the US, Japan, India and Australia that will work cooperatively on broad shared interests, and will not be focussed just on security. It’s known as The Quad. At about the same time a new trilateral security mechanism was unveiled, with the US and Britain, solely centred on security in the Indo-Pacific. The last time this trio got together was for the “Coalition of the Willing” which invaded Iraq illegally on a false pretext.

This trio now calls itself AUKUS, “recognizing our common tradition as maritime democracies, we commit to a shared ambition to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy.” It’s not obvious why each nation being both a democracy and able to traverse oceans should lead to Australia embarking on a major new weaponry path, via the development of Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines in a joint endeavour between the three nations, with a focus on interoperability, commonality, and mutual benefit. How come a new security partnership covering the vast oceans from Arabia to Alaska seems to centre around a few submarines in Australia?

Well, let’s not forget that the submarine as an item has infatuated Australia’s political leaders for decades – at least ever since Kim Beazley became minister for Defence in 1988. That is a good place to start in explaining how Australians have been serially misled on security.

Submarines Are Poor Value for Defence

The effectiveness of submarines in the defence of Australia was examined by the Department of Defence in 1985 just prior to Beazley’s appointment as Minister. At that time the Oberon Class submarine was nearing the end of its life. The result of that analysis, which the Navy accepted, was that the utility of submarines in defending Australia is limited. Moreover, most of the capability that submarines offer is better obtained using other platforms, both land-based and maritime aircraft which Australia already possesses. The finding was that submarines offer little marginal benefit to Australia’s defences and yet inflict a large marginal cost. The reasons for this finding are not complex.

Submarines are slow. In Australia’s capacious maritime surrounds their mobility is close to zero relative to aircraft – generally too slow to be where needed with confidence, unless prepositioned. The numbers contemplated are too small to enable a presence across our waters. Submarines have an advantage in stealth but once revealed by action become vulnerable. Their firepower is relatively limited, with onboard munitions inventory modest. Tailored attack of land targets with cruise missiles has become feasible. It was acknowledged that some specialised intelligence was uniquely available through submarines. But that was about their only standout feature. To top it off, the waters to Australia’s north are unfavourable for submarine operations, whether friend or foe, being generally shallow and warm. The bigger and faster they are the more limited they become.

As a result Defence and Navy seriously considered scrapping the submarines in 1985. But the decision was to recommend to government a ‘core’ buy (4 to 6 boats) of small imported submarines, enough to retain the operational skill should a reason for expansion ever emerge. The added cost of local production could not be justified. That decision was taken by the Defence Force Structure Committee.

Shortly thereafter Minister Beazley instituted an outside review of defence capability. It was published in 1986, but held no mention of the Department’s findings that submarines are of minor value. Yet it advised that “the government is planning to build new submarines in Australia”. This could only mean the review learnt the Minister had his own plans, unsupported by evidence and at odds with expert analysis. Not much wrong with that? Except that incisive authoritative information was denied Australians, leaving large public expenditures unable to be judged truly, at that time and repeatedly since.

Minister Beazley’s White Paper followed in 1987 with “The Government is introducing a new class of submarine which will be constructed in Australia”. No justification, creating a big new subsidised industry, at reckless cost, never able to pay its way. A decade followed, wherein billions of dollars flowed out, to build the Collins Class submarine in Port Adelaide. The cost is unable to be calculated through the decades of project missteps.

Here we have the birth of Australia’s political neurosis with submarines, leading to the current nuclear smoke and mirrors. A culture has been fostered by governments that submarines are a totemic war winner when the opposite is the truth.

Recently the dance started again with serial Prime Ministers pursuing another new submarine to satisfy an ensconced industry – Tony Abbott fell for a Japanese one, then Malcolm Turnbull preferred a bigger, French type, until Scott Morrison turned all that over for a really big and nuclear Anglo-Saxon model. The slight to France drew much coverage. But not a sensible word was offered on the atrocious value of submarines generally for Australia, in all that time.

Limited Guarantee in ANZUS TREATY

Much has been said on the benefits of the ANZUS Treaty to Australia. So that needs no amplification here. To grasp the other deep flaw in “going nuclear” we must know of an underlying deception concerning ANZUS overseen by all Prime Ministers since Robert Menzies: its limited guarantee.

Few Australians know that ANZUS does not commit the US to assist Australia militarily if we come under armed attack. Unlike for European countries in NATO, for example, the US declined to provide this key guarantee to Australia. Foreign Minister Percy Spender went to San Francisco in 1951 seeking it but was rebuffed. We have no US commitment as provided the Europeans in NATO Article 5. So the ANZUS dirty little secret lies in what America was not prepared to say for Australia – omitting armed force response specifically, instead “acting in accord with constitutional processes”. At least that does not rule out US armed intervention but is a far cry from the explicit assurance given to NATO in Article 5. And to others, notably in north Asia. This is no accidental exclusion. Deliberately the US does not guarantee to be alongside Australia militarily if we are attacked.

It took Australia’s defence policymakers twenty years to comprehend the implications of a treaty which goes only so far. No State with such an ambivalent treaty could depend on the US. Australia chose to work towards becoming self-reliant. America agreed to cooperate on that endeavour. Thereafter, Australia’s spending emphasis has been on our own direct defence needs. Which has turned out to be surprisingly effective. Submarines aside, Australia has created defences enabling us to be confident of detecting, tracking and interdicting intrusions by air and sea, across our northern approaches. And of intruding submarines in focal areas.

The implications of AUKUS are shaped by this shortfall in the ANZUS treaty, and the limited utility of submarines. Both of which are news to most Australians, as will be the implications of AUKUS.

First, it is evident that the US and Australian governments intend this nuclear submarine to be part of inhibiting any ambitions which China might have beyond its shores. President Biden said AUKUS would improve the three countries “mutual defence posture”. A fresh new concept, unexplained. US defence policy now talks of “integrated deterrence” whereby all resources including those of US allies can be called upon and arraigned against a potential enemy. Thus, for the first time, Australia would be spending heavily on a major military hardware primarily to assist the US in its superpower jostling. The spending required of Australia will be eyewatering with obvious opportunity costs for our direct defence and wider needs.

Second, it was not until the next AUKUS leaders’ statement in April 2022 that anything was said about the armament of the nuclear submarine, describing it is “conventionally armed”. In economic terms, for a nation to build a platform able to patrol for months, subsurface and to deliver nuclear attack at a moment’s notice, without fitting it for nuclear warheads, is off-the-chart. Nothing has been said about the operational role of the submarine. Assuming an attack submarine capable of carrying cruise missiles, a conventional warhead could deliver about a half ton of TNT onto a China target. This compares with about 150,000 tons TNT from a nuclear tip ie a 300,000 times hike in firepower. The bang and the buck don’t fit any rational axes. The reason such a boat is acceptable economically to the US and Britain is because it carries nuclear armaments. China should be amused by our economic gullibility.

Third, perhaps nuclear armament cannot be ruled out entirely. After all the submarines would be fitted-for but not with if they are to be as promised “with a focus on interoperability, commonality, and mutual benefit”. Wouldn’t this be pushing our nuclear non- proliferation (NPT) obligations? Here it gets tricky and requires scrutiny of the NPT fine print. Based on NATO practice it seems the US could store its nuclear weapons in our boats and on our territory. That is the practice in Europe with NATO countries like Belgium, Holland, Italy which are signatories to the NPT. Might we be able even to deliver nuclear attack into China on behalf of the US while still appearing faithful to NPT? We should expect China to respond in kind, patrolling nuclear armed submarines off our east coast.

Fourth, but substantively, how about the neighbours? Indonesia, New Zealand, South East Asia and Oceania just might have views.

Finally, wouldn’t this be the end of our self-reliant defence, painstakingly constructed over the last fifty years? No doubt a deal could be dressed up to preserve dignity but, in effect, Australia would become a sub-unit of the US global security structure, some sort of fulcrum for America to control the Asia-Pacific. Australian cities would then be well and truly on the map, of nuclear targets. No doubt, some here would welcome us becoming a subsidiary military element of US global design.

It’s a good bet that the Australian government has not stood firm and required that ANZUS be revisited. A US-reliant Australia will face some lonely dilemmas as moods inevitably shift in Washington. AUKUS has said it will take 18 months to ”to seek an optimal pathway to deliver this capability.” Before then we must break AUKUS open intellectually, expose its innards, so we know what future risks it’s steering us to. And we must be straight with the Americans.

Dear Mr President

I want you to know we are doing just fine, thanks, in no small part due to the defence capacity we have built here cooperatively with America over many decades. However, this looks like falling apart.

You know the score with AUKUS. Isn’t it a bit rich to ask us to join your strategy to control China without treating us as equals? Do you know that an armed attack on us by China is not treated as an attack on you, and you’re creating conditions for it? You don’t do that to your allies in western Europe or north Asia.

We agree that international relations have no place for sentiment, just national interests. That would work both ways except Australia seldom has a leader able to discern our nations’ interests. So I must remind you of our blood shed and body piles around the globe since the Korean War.

Let’s dump this nuclear submarine. It gets neither of us anywhere and will cost Australia heavily. And if you really want Australia to consider how using its territory might help with your Indo-Pacific ambitions, how about you just take that dear old ANZUS treaty back to Congress to dignify our relationship with equity in the event of armed attack. Then we can talk. It’s a grave matter for Australia.


Dr Mike Gilligan worked for 20 years in Defence in senior policy development roles including in the Pentagon 1979-81 on military force balances in Asia.

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