AUKUS and submarines: Just what are we doing?

Sep 28, 2021
Scott Morrison nuclear submarine announcement uk us AUKUS
Scott Morrison, flanked by Boris Johnson and Joe Biden, announces the AUKUS agreement. (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

There has been so much commentary on the new AUKUS arrangements, especially the cancellation of the long-running submarine contract with the French. It’s timely to strip back all the hype and examine more closely what it all means.

A good starting point is to recognise that despite the colourful words thrown around by the media and the usual anti-China commentariat, AUKUS is not an alliance, nor a pact and certainly not a treaty like ANZUS. As the document issued by the three leaders points out:

“We are announcing the creation of an enhanced trilateral security partnership called ‘AUKUS’ — Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States… our governments will strengthen the ability of each to support our security and defense interests, building on our longstanding and ongoing bilateral ties. We will promote deeper information and technology sharing. We will foster deeper integration of security and defense-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains. And in particular, we will significantly deepen cooperation on a range of security and defense capabilities.”

AUKUS is certainly aspirational in its intent of locking Australia much further into the American embrace — less so with the British who, despite their proclaimed renewed interest in the Indo-Pacific, have much less of a real contribution to make to the region. The fine print of the apparently US-drafted document (“defense” rather than “defence”!) makes it abundantly clear that any concrete outcomes are many years — if not decades — away in an environment that Prime Minister Scott Morrison concedes is changing so rapidly that detailed prediction is hazardous.

The confected hoopla surrounding the seemingly hastily organised announcement in the three capitals shrouded in the three flags was so much what we have come to expect of “ScoMo from marketing” — “China where the bloody hell are you?”. AUKUS will substantially reinforce the Holy Grail of the Australian Defence Force’s interoperability with the US defence machine but, contrary to what Defence Minister Peter Dutton asserts, equally it will severely reduce our independence which, in itself must change our strategic thinking for the future. In the eyes of all our regional neighbours, Australia will be promoted from deputy sheriff with only token ability to influence US strategic thinking with its inexorable implications for Australian involvement in any future US military ventures in the Indo-Pacific.

If all of the above was not enough for concern, the way Morrison and Dutton have managed the whole process has demonstrated yet again their embarrassing ineptitude in the international arena . Their bungling has seriously damaged Australia’s international reputation and destroyed decades of the hard and successful slog put into to enmeshing Australia into our regional environment. Their blatant disregard for the painstaking work involved in building trust and respect in our neighbourhood is clear for all to see. And they are continuing.

Just look at the track record so far:

  • Nobody (least of all China) has been fooled by the deliberate avoidance of reference to China in the announcement and accompanying speeches. China will be well aware that, in his recent fleeting trip around a few regional countries, Dutton has attempted to stir the pot against China and the CCP. Morrison’s arrogant throw away line that he would be willing to discuss AUKUS with President Xi Jinping demonstrated how far he is out of his depth.
  • The French government would have been well aware of the degree of Australian discontent about repeated delays and cost overruns of the submarine contract. Morrison claims to have discussed the problems some months ago over dinner with President Emmanuel Macron. His claim that he had tried to telephone Macron the night before the cancellation of the contract was announced is little short of pathetic. As also has been his seeming nonchalance about calling Macron after the event! With the scene being further muddied by Dutton’s claim that the French had been advised in advance being thrown into doubt by the French Ministry of Defence responding that it had received a formal letter from their Australian counterpart just the day before the announcement which indicated satisfaction with the way the contract discussions had been developing! Macron’s reported direction for his ambassador in Canberra to return to Paris and reported comments from Paris and the EU that the way Morrison has handled the issue could present some impediment to the chances of an early conclusion of Australia-EU Free Trade Agreement have yet to be played out. The repair work will take time and skill to effect. Meanwhile also, as Denise Fisher pointed out in P&I earlier in the week, a fair amount of careful work will be required to patch up the important relationship with France in the South Pacific and the wider Indo-Pacific.
  • There have also been some important complications with the US over the management of the whole process. A well informed New York Times article has reported American special disquiet with Morrison’s failure to sort out the cancellation issue with the French as they had expected him to do. Macron’s withdrawal of his ambassador from the US and the accompanying depth of EU concern about the lack of trust this displayed to EU partners clearly concerned Joe Biden who then spent some time trying to get Macron on the phone — which in itself underlined the strength of French irritation. While the phone call has just taken place the rush by media and others to claim that everything had been smoothed over was belied by the White House spokesperson setting out in quite specific detail that there was still work to be done on the bilateral relationship with the French. The editorial director of Le Monde in a special essay in the New York Times has also underlined the seriousness of the issue for Franco-US relations by claiming that “The fallout is about much more than a scrapped business deal, Gallic pride and bruised egos… It is not a spat it is a crisis.“ She quotes a French diplomat as saying that American leadership “is different from partnership. In Five Eyes, for example, there is one leader — the others are junior partners.”
  • There also has been signs that, given his long and reportedly constructive talk with Xi just a few days before the AUKUS announcement, Biden is determined to direct very closely the wording of any official US comments about China. As he set out subsequently in his speech to the UN General Assembly where the actual word was meticulously avoided. So in his comments on AUKUS he would not be drawn to confirm that it was directed towards China. Again, his very impressive spokesperson, when tackled on this by the media after the announcement, reconfirmed Biden’s words and added the comment that they would leave it to the Australian side to comment how it wanted on that point! And the “fella down under” did not help things.
  • In response to reports of some concern from Indonesia and Malaysia about AUKUS and the submarines, the ambassador to ASEAN released a lengthy media statement to emphasise that AUKUS was not a “defence alliance or pact” and to confirm Australia continued its various long term involvement in South-East Asia. Morrison has also spoken by phone to the Indonesian president and the media reports today that the vice chief of defence staff is to visit some ASEAN countries soon to reassure them about AUKUS and the submarines. All of this is too late and too little. In past years this task would have been given to the minister for foreign affairs or a very senior diplomat with strong personal networks in the region.
  • Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been quick to advise that the New Zealand government would not be lifting its ban on visits by nuclear powered ships, which had caused some tensions within ANZUS years ago. It is also likely that many of the South Pacific countries would not welcome visits by nuclear powered submarines.
  • There has also been speculation that the Australian acquisition could lead to an arms race elsewhere in the region. Both Japan and the ROK likely could be interested to explore gaining access to nuclear powered submarines. As also, India which is already an acknowledged nuclear power

In his comments to the media in Washington, Dutton expanded on the AUKUS list of possible items for cooperation by reference to basing and storage of weapons and materiel. This would be consistent with the pressure the US has been mounting on us for many years which led to then prime minister Julia Gillard agreeing to the temporary rotational deployment of US Marines in Darwin and the use of airfields in the north by US military aircraft. The US has also long pushed for the homeporting of a nuclear powered aircraft carrier at Stirling in Western Australia.- which might well be back on the books again with our nuclear powered submarines to be based there. There have also been suggestions of a possible Australian base for UK nuclear submarines operating in the Indo Pacific.

To look closer at the nuclear submarine proposal, it is pretty clear that we have lost at least 10 years in the development of a replacement submarine even in the unlikely prospect that we can determine “the optimal” choice within 18 months. This raises some very serious issues, apart from the obvious ones of cost, including:

  • Others have explained that we are likely only to begin deploying the new submarines in 2040. This leaves the challenge of upgrading the current Collins-class submarine to tide over some of the transition period — but with nothing approaching the same capability as the new submarine which will be much larger and carry a substantially more capable array of weapons. Ironically, some of the key features of the Collins which will need significant upgrading have been supplied by a French contractor!
  • The US option (Virginia-class) has been the subject of a Congressional Research Service Report of September 14, 2021 which detailed major concerns about the failure of the relevant shipyards to produce on time and within budget the significant number of outstanding orders. Added to critical supply problems with the vital spares needed for repair of those submarines now in service. Given the US domestic political considerations and “America First” there would have to be real concerns about similar problems for the Australian submarines.
  • There have also been challenges for the British option (Astute) — a smaller vessel with less cruise missile capability. It is coming to the end of construction and the British government has just let a very large contract for the design of the successor submarine. Also ASC is owned by BAE which is the only submarine builder in the UK.
  • How much of the construction work would be done in Australia? Early speculation is that in both cases there would be a lower percentage of ASC work compared with that in the French submarine. The domestic political angle here will be no small issue.
  • As the intense debate over the then vexed question of the visits of nuclear powered warships to Australian ports (in which I had some personal involvement) showed, some difficult NIMBY issues with both the construction (in and around ASC in Adelaide) and basing (in Western Australia) have to be factored in. But also more widely, in visiting other major Australian ports. Sydney being a particular case.
  • As with our earlier submarines, crewing will likely be another challenging issue. It took many years to produce enough crews for the Collins-class. Their complement was around 40 while the Astute is around 100 and the Virginia 135. This task will be made even more difficult by the number of years when we have zero or few submarines in operation.

One all too obvious conclusion from the way this exercise has been handled is that Morrison and Dutton have had the forthcoming election uppermost in mind throughout. A khaki election appears inevitable.

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