Derek Woolner & David Glynne Jones – From AUKUS to the Solomon Islands: Australia’s urgent need for a cohesive strategic policy

Apr 19, 2022
Peter Dutton
Image: Flickr / US Defense Secretary

The major issue for Australia’s program to acquire nuclear propelled submarines has little to do with the vessels.

The urgent need is to develop strategic policy to address an environment where Australia’s commitment to AUKUS in September 2021 can be linked to the security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands some 6 months later.

In September 2021 the AUKUS arrangements were announced, incorporating acquisition of (at least) 8 nuclear powered submarines (SSN) for Australia. This is a complex and expensive undertaking and, publicly, it is proceeding systematically, with the Nuclear–Powered Submarine Taskforce (NPST) investigating regulatory issues and due to report around March 2023.

Politically, however, the government appears anxious to be seen aligning Australia’s military planning with its sustained criticism of China. Asked in early March whether Australia would contemplate joining military action against China to protect Taiwan, Defence Minister Peter Dutton replied that “keeping Australians safe” led to the AUKUS agreement “to acquire the nuclear .. sub capability .. (that) allows potentially a vertical launch system or some use of missiles which would speak to a very strong deterrent message.”

These words effectively confirmed that a decision has already been made. The US Navy’s Virginia-class is the submarine preferred by Australia, as the alternative UK Astute-class does not have a vertical launch system (VLS) in its design.

Block V Virginias will begin to enter US Navy service in 2024, and will be the version current when Australia commences acquisition of its SSNs. Repeated statements by the Government and NPST, that Australia will acquire a ‘mature submarine design’, reinforce this conclusion. ‘Maturity’ is essential, as variations to US sourced equipment often make for difficult and expensive integration into the ADF.

The Block V Virginias are intended to replace the USN’s fleet of retiring SSGNs (nuclear-powered guided missile submarines) and incorporate two Virginia Payload Tubes (VPT) forward of the sail, each capable of carrying 6 Tomahawk cruise missiles, and four Virginia Payload Modules (VPM) aft, each capable of carrying 7 Tomahawks, for a total of 40 missiles. The Block V will be the first Virginias to carry hypersonic missiles, referred to as a US/Australia development in the AUKUS announcement.

Instead of submarine warfare, the Block V is optimised for bombardment of land targets, with capacity for heavy salvos that may be required to overcome some advanced defences. This gives it an offensive role similar to an aircraft carrier but with the impact of surprise supporting different strategic objectives to those of a carrier group.

Why would Australia be seeking such a capability?

Many analysts have concluded that US security guarantees to Taiwan are circumscribed by the proliferation of PLA shore based missile systems across the Taiwan Strait. This threatens any US effort to operate major surface vessels (particularly carrier task force groups) between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan.

What if the US had the capacity to destroy those missile systems with little warning and without exposing surface ships, indicating to China that its cover for an invasion of Taiwan could be vulnerable to quick covert attack?
Could that be the “very strong deterrent message” that Peter Dutton thinks an Australian submarine with VLS capability would contribute to options to protect Taiwan?

China is already responding to this prospective threat, and has two decades or more to do so before Australia will be able to field a single SSGN.

The strategy adopted by China’s PLA Navy (PLAN) is quite clear – the early detection of potentially hostile submarines and a quantitatively superior anti-submarine warfare (ASW) submarine force making it highly risky to get within cruise missile range of the Chinese mainland.

The PLA Navy (PLAN) is scheduling four Type 093 Shang-class SSNs, for service in the mid-late 2020s, but is aiming for quantitative superiority built around advanced non-nuclear submarines. Some 25 Yuan Type 039C/D ASW submarines will be built by around 2030, bringing the Yuan-class fleet to at least 35 submarines. Potential development of advanced all-electric (SSE) submarines may further enhance the PLAN’s advantage.

To enable the strategy China is developing and deploying a range of autonomous underwater vehicles and extensive sub-sea sensor networks, intended to detect foreign submarines outside the 2500km maximum operational range of the Tomahawk cruise missile.

In addition, China has options for a pre-emptive response to an Australian SSGN fleet.

One such option became apparent in late March when security arrangements were agreed between the People’s Republic of China and the Solomon Islands. Much of the scope of the agreement remains vague but it has raised the possibility that China might be setting up conditions to position naval vessels in the Solomons.

This has already drawn the response from Lt. General Greg Bilton, the ADF Chief Joint Operations, that “it does change the calculus if Chinese navy vessels are operating from the Solomon Islands .. and would change the way that we undertake day-to-day operations.”

The Solomons security arrangements may not lead on to any Chinese military presence, but represent only one of the options. Another is the the proposed fisheries agreement with PNG  being explored by China to expand its presence in the South West Pacific.

What is inescapable is that joining the US to contain Chinese strategic objectives is not like joining coalitions in Iraq or Afghanistan. It is not something that happens far away, at a safe distance from Australia. China is capable of compromising Australian security much closer to home and can be expected to explore options for doing so.

That China can so quickly conjoin “forward defence” and “defence of Australia”, the eternal poles of the Australian security debate, indicates that the next government urgently needs to develop a viable strategic policy for the era of China’s superpower emergence. One-off decisions on attractive bits of equipment that bring undesirable complications are no longer the way to maximise Australia’s security.

 

Derek Woolner is co-author of “The Collins Class Submarine Story: Steel, Spies and Spin”. He is a previous director of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Group in the Parliamentary Research Service.

David Glynne Jones is an independent advocate for the adoption of renewable energy technology across all sectors of the Australian economy. He is currently assessing the implications of emerging advanced battery technology for renewable electrification of the Australian transport sector.

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