Dead in the water: The AUKUS SSN delusion

Mar 18, 2024
AUKUS Nuclear submarine in the deep sea.

The general theme of delusion and the particular theme of ‘dead in the water’ as they apply to the entire AUKUS arrangements are provocations worthy of taking further.

These are, of course, extracted from the essays in the most recent issue of Australian Foreign Affairs (paywalled). The most prominent of these, authored by Professor Hugh White, deserves special mention. In short it is an estimable contribution to the debate which marshals a great many of the arguments against AUKUS – his own, and others – which first erupted in the immediate aftermath of its announcement, and followed ever since, not least, and numerously, on this site. It is not being in any way ungenerous to White to mention the others; rather, it is a requirement of intellectual honesty. A similar tribute is due his shorter essay on the Navy’s response to the Surface Fleet Review in “The Saturday Paper” (also paywalled).

The situation is dire: what White has produced could be likened to a revolution in Crown Law and forensic pathology: an auditor’s review, autopsy, and coronial determination – all undertaken in anticipation of the the subject’s demise but nevertheless while it is living but failing.

As more of the organs of the subject are examined it becomes clear that observers could pursue further paths of inquiry which buttress the sense of delusion.

To begin, at the core of the national debate on AUKUS is a question that has not been answered comprehensively by government: as White phrases it, “either we design our capabilities to help America project power against China, or we design them to prevent China projecting power against us.” The respective designs, according to White, are radically different.

What is constant, however, is that the ADF is being designed primarily for a war with China should deterrence fail, a consensus among many strategic commentators who, in their inability to empathise are equally unable to understand a different historically informed knowledge and understanding of the world so wrapped up are they in their own particularity and “exceptionalism.”

China is, therefore, a linear extrapolation of what the US constructs China to be on the basis of reflecting upon itself. Australia is in lockstep both epistemologically and strategically.

This gives rise to the first of the many conundrums. The US has a disposition to war with China but no strategy to relate to China other than by force and the threat of force. Nowhere in official US pronouncements is there to be found a comprehensive plan for engaging with China on equal terms beneath the threshold of violent conflict, or even actions under the aegis of so-called hybrid war which includes clashes across the spectrum of diplomacy, finance, commerce, and technology.

In simple terms the answer to the question, “what does the US reasonably expect from China?” is silence – except for the inference that it should accept US dominance.

It cannot be to deter China from attacking the global shipping lanes when it is itself so dependent on them.

Perversely, given that China is an Asian power, and the US manifestly is not, the US is apparently uninterested in different ways to create a renewed concert of powers in the Indo-Pacific.

In the absence of a proper strategy and in the presence of its surrogate, attitude, the US has proceeded to impute to China its own mindset for ordering the region – namely the propositions advanced by Alfred Thayer Mahanian in the late 19th Century that, inevitably, great powers sought to expand, anticipated conflict between themselves, and would engage in major naval battles for the command of the world’s oceans which, when achieved, would determine the victor. It is an inherently offensive strategy.

Notwithstanding its embrace down the years, its applicability has been uneven; as a guide to success in a full-scale (but non-nuclear) war with China, it has the status of a vagrant – a body of hypothetical maritime strategic thought without visible means of thought.

Leaving to one side the Battle of Tsushima in 1905 (because the circumstances of engagement were sui generis), there is no supporting evidence in World War I, or World War II. Indeed, in the Atlantic theater the greatest threat was posed by submarines which, ultimately, were defeated by sophisticated combination of intelligence, small unit tactics and evolving anti-submarine warfare. In the Pacific the decisive factor was carrier-based air power.

Since 1944 there have been no great, peer-to-peer naval battles. The US has used its preponderant naval power exclusively against Third World adversaries.

To the extent that we can understand the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) it is not designed according to Mahanian principles. Its configuration, notwithstanding its numerical superiority of its surface fleet over that of the USN, is defensive, designed for regional operations and securing its lines of communications (where it can) and mainly deployed within the bounds defined by the coast of mainland China and the 1st Island Chain – which, extending eastwards, is composed of the Kuril Islands, the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyu Island, Taiwan, Formosa, the northern Philippines, and Borneo.

Paradoxically, this is both a bastion in which China is predominant on land, sea, and in the air, and yet an enclosure in which, in a major war with the US, the PLAN would be confined. The “escape routes” from it are relatively few and well-defined for both a surface fleet and submarines. In sum, both would be highly vulnerable to both the US naval forces and whatever allied fleet elements would be arrayed against them.

China, it must be assumed, regards this as an irrevocable fact of strategic geography. Equally, it should be assumed that it is aware that attempting to bust out of the 1st Island Chain on the surface – to where? – is likely to meet with as much strategic success as did the allied naval attempts to “force the Dardanelles” in 1915, and the Kriegsmarine’s “Channel Dash” by the Scharnhorst, Geneisenau, Prinz Eugen and their escorts in February 1942.

It must also be assumed that Chinese strategists concur with and understand the implications of the growing consensus that developments in anti-ship warfare have made surface fleets extremely vulnerable in a major, peer-to-peer war.

Beyond their own deliberations they would have noted the series of 24 war games conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2022 (focusing on China invading Taiwan), and a series of other war games between the US and China, conducted by the Pentagon, its outside contractors, and consultants (including the RAND Corporation), which found that:

• China might, or might not, succeed in taking Taiwan.

• The costs to the US and its allies were estimated at tens of thousands of its service members, and half of the present inventory in the USAF and the USN (including 2 aircraft carriers and between 7 and 20 cruisers and destroyers.

• The risks of approaching China where it is predominant are so catastrophic that the choice is between either an extended battle which is likely to fail but with horrendous costs or, alternatively, deploying the US surface fleet hundreds or even thousands of miles away from China’s bastion – effectively removing it from a major role.

As far as submarines in general are concerned, including nuclear-powered submarines, there is an emerging consensus that undersea and antisubmarine warfare technologies are disruptive of the traditional undetectability of submarines.

Specifically, attempts to deploy the PLAN’s submarines outside the 1st Island Chain would be even more subject to encircling pressures than its surface fleet. The charts of the passages might as well be annotated with the warning reportedly inscribed on the Pillars of Hercules: ‘ne plus ultra.’

None of this, it seems, has permeated the AUKUS dreamworld. To the contrary, there is euphoria born of technophilia – the SSN-as-Apex Predator. Here, there are blatant contradictions and an appalling lack of historical awareness.

An example of the former is the loud justification for the acquisition of SSNs in terms of their undetectability, and yet at the same time pursuing the acquisition of anti-submarine warfare capabilities because they can detect and destroy submarines.

Then there is the refusal to seriously comprehend history as change. Consider the following. All going well – a heroic assumption – the Royal Australian Navy will not have the proposed surface fleet for another 20 years, nor will the full complement of SSNs be operational for at least another 30 years; indeed, given the high probability of delays, some experts in the field have made forecasts extending in to the 2060s and even the 2070s.

If a time frame of just 20 years is adopted the first conclusion is that this considerably exceeds the period of 10-15 years which the war-with-China commentators estimate as most likely.

The second is that scepticism about “Apex predators” is foolish:

• The iconic Spitfire of World War II was introduced into the RAF in 1938; production ceased in 1948. In the meantime, it was surpassed by the advent of British, German, and US jet fighters.

• The equally iconic Lancaster bomber was introduced in 1942; it was retired from the RAF in 1953. But, even by 1942, its days were numbered when the first jet bomber took to the skies.

• Supersonic fighters appeared in 1951; supersonic bombers in 1948.

• Battleships simply never lived up to the hype which accompanied them despite them being exceedingly expensive: their record was of not being decisive in battle. Eventually, they gave way to the aircraft carrier – also expensive and a major component of surface fleets now judged to be both vulnerable and irrelevant in a major war.

Third, where is the sense of possible political realignment?

In the 10 years following 1945 in the West, the status of the Soviet Union and China went from allies to Cold War threats; two former fascist enemies of the allies in WW II – Italy (1949) and Germany (1954) – were welcomed into NATO.

And then there’s been the promiscuous engagement of NATO with former members of the Warsaw pact following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

What is missing in all of this is any sense that something is missing. Grandiloquent international political-strategic arrangements are at best (to borrow from chemistry) emulsions – only temporarily stable because they are composed of things that don’t mix well together. A common enemy or set of enemies enhances what is inevitably an unstable mixture but it demands compromises.

For now, China (and Russia) are serving this purpose but the very possibility that India, especially on its current trajectory, could be a power inimical to Australia’s national interests is simply an unmentionable prospect. It is to Hugh White’s credit that he mentions such a possibility in passing in both his analysis of AUKUS and the surface fleet review.

From the perspective of all that’s been brought to bear, it is no doubt likely that delusion and incompetence over many years and by many decision makers have led to this state of undoing. But visitors from a parallel universe, or writers of fiction in search of material for their latest novels and screenplays might conclude otherwise: the current state of affairs is indistinguishable from a regime which would be imposed by a hostile power that had, by stealth and a chronic lack of scrutiny, taken over select government agencies.

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