Brian Toohey: Australia’s nuclear submarine deal won’t make us any safer

Sep 29, 2021
Australian Collins-class submarine HMAS Rankin
Image: US National Archives

Despite what some commentators say, China does not pose a nuclear threat to Australia: its submarines and other nuclear weapons systems are much inferior to those of the US.

China doesn’t pose a realistic nuclear threat to Australia. For a start, it shows no sign of abandoning its long held position that it will never engage in a nuclear first strike. Moreover, China’s nuclear weapons are so inferior that it couldn’t be confident of deterring a retaliatory strike from the US.

Take the example of nuclear-powered, ballistic missile-armed submarines (SSBNs). China has four Jin-class SSBNs. Each can carry 12 missiles, each with a single warhead. The subs are easy to detect because they’re noisy. According to the US Office of Naval Intelligence, each is noisier than a Soviet submarine first launched in 1976. Russian and US subs are now much quieter.

China is expected to acquire another four SSBNs that are a little quieter by 2030. However, the missiles on the subs won’t have the range to reach the continental US from near their base on Hainan island in the South China Sea. To target the continental US, they would have to reach suitable locations in the Pacific Ocean. However, they are effectively bottled up inside the South China Sea. To escape, they have to pass through a series of chokepoints where they would be easily sunk by US hunter killer nuclear submarines of the type the Morrison government wants to buy.

In contrast, the US has 14 Ohio-class SSBNs. Each can launch 24 Trident missiles, each containing eight independently targetable warheads able to reach anywhere on the globe. This means a single US submarine can destroy 192 cities, or other targets, compared to 12 for the Chinese submarine. The Ohio class is now being replaced by the bigger Columbia class. These are been constructed at the same time as new US hunter killer submarines. The Congressional Research Service has noted that construction constraints could make it hard to meet delivery schedules. That’s before eight new subs for Australia have to be fitted it in somehow.

The Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on China’s military said on April 27 this year that China’s number of nuclear warheads was currently estimated to be in the low 200s and projected to double over the next decade. This contrasts with 5550 warheads held by the US. The Pentagon report says China has 100 land-based nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), only some of which have the range to reach parts of the continental US. It is unclear how many of China’s road mobile CCS-10 missiles are able to reach most parts the continental US, but the numbers are growing.

In addition, China is reportedly building two new missile fields. It is unclear whether the holes will contain missiles or are decoys. In any event, the US has 400 land-based ICBMs, each able to carry up to three warheads. The US’s B-52 and B2 stealth bombers have significantly larger ranges than China’s H-6K bombers.

Nevertheless, the problems with the China’s nuclear forces don’t dissuade some Australian commentators from arguing that it currently poses a potential nuclear threat to the nation. Most Australian commentators believe that buying eight extraordinary expensive US nuclear attack submarines to operate close to China’s shores will make us safer. They won’t, not least because they are only scheduled to be operational in stages sometime after 2040 and before 2060. The decision will rightly be seen by China as provocative. In due course, China will improve its nuclear forces as well as find other ways to respond to Australia’s provocation.

Many support letting the US base its own nuclear attack submarines, aircraft carriers, and nuclear-capable long range bombers in Australia and believe this will also make Australia safer. It won’t. Australia will have no say in how these weapons platforms are used. Any pretence at having an independent foreign policy will vanish.

If the US wants to deploy these forces to attack China, it will do so. Any pretence Australia has to an independent foreign policy will vanish. The US will take no notice of the obligation imposed by article one of the ANZUS treaty not engage in acts of aggression.

Perhaps the most perverse response to the US willingness to sell Australia nuclear hunter killer submarines, and other sensitive technology, is to consider this as an act of generosity that obliges us to automatically join the US in a war against China.

If we buy these items, we should be the owners and do whatever we like with them, including refusing to let them used in a war of aggression.

One reason not to incur the reported cost of well over $100 billion for eight nuclear powered submarines is that we would have to meet our obligations to declare any fissile material under our control to the International Atomic Energy Agency which acts on behalf of the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The US will refuse to tell us the required information about the highly enriched uranium in the reactors.

However, Australia has ratified the NPT. It should not put itself in a position where it refuses to declare this information.

Another reason not to pay more than $100 billion for nuclear-powered attack submarines is that it’s exorbitant amount of money. Most could be put better use on pressing issues at home, while leaving enough to fund a cost effective policy focused on the defence Australia.

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