Destroying deterrence

Apr 26, 2023
The Virginia class, also known as the SSN-774 class

The Albanese government wouldn’t be able buy nuclear attack submarines from the US without agreeing to let them keep performing all their core roles in our region.

One key role is to follow Chinese nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines to be in a position to sink them if a US president wants to launch a nuclear first strike against China. Because China would no longer have enough surviving missiles to retaliate from sea or land, this would remove China’s ability to deter the US from a full-scale attack. Deterrence, which we are constantly told will keep the peace, will instead be rendered useless.

The three second hand Virginia class attack submarines Australia is buying will be from the existing US fleet and can’t be readily replaced. For this reason, the US wants no impediments to their performing the full range of their existing roles. The Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles seems happy with this, insisting the US and Australian submarines will be interchangeable.

The US is planning to build more attack submarines because it says it doesn’t have enough. It wants an additional 16 to lift the total number to 66. The Navy would have to pay for another three if Australia refused to let the ones it buys be authorised to sink Chinese ballistic missile submarines. If Australia has agreed, it means Anthony Albanese has signed up to potentially help kill millions of people.

The reason the US wants more attack submarines is set out in an article by the highly credentialled American journalist William Arkin. Writing in the April 19 edition of Newsweek, Arkin uses secret US navy documents and interviews to report that it can barely deploy a quarter of its 50 attack submarines at any one time. In 2022, only 10 percent of its attack submarines operated stealthily by spending more than 30 days fully submerged. Less than 20 percent were deployed and fully operational at any one time, even if not fully submerged. It also means the plan to increase the number of attack submarines from 50 to 66 effectively adds only four forward deployable subs at any one time.

Arkin says that what’s not discussed “is that modern submarines are so complex, the only way the Navy can appreciably increase its level of operations against Russia and China is by building many more”. Improved maintenance, it seems, is not realistically possible. This means Australia is unlikely to have a higher proportion of its nuclear submarines operationally available than the US. As a result, sometimes none of the three Virginia class will be available. On other occasions, one might be available. When the eight new AUKUS submarines arrive after 2060, only two will normally be operationally available.

Despite the government’s enthusiasm for spending what is likely to amount to at least $400 billion on nuclear submarines, they are not trouble-free. Two US submarines sunk in the 1960s. In October 2021 the USS Connecticut ran into an undersea mountain in the South China Sea, injuring 11 sailors. The Navy subsequently relieved the commanding officer, executive office officer, and chief of the boat from their duties and later removed three other crew members. An official inquiry found that “Grounding at this speed and depth had the potential for more serious injuries, fatalities and even the loss of the ship”. Photos of the Connecticut show it tethered to a tug with its bow sheared off and its sonar dome missing.

Arkin says, “Navy records, including reports, individual logs and ‘contact’ reports with enemy ships and submarines, show that an average of six submarines were deployed against Russia in 2022, with only three submarines forward deployed in June. Against China, a slightly larger average of almost seven submarines were deployed at any one time in 2022, with as few as four deployed in January.”

Arkin says Russia’s attack submarine force barely left Russian waters in 2022. Russia had no more than two ballistic missile submarines deployed to sea in 2022. Most of the time it only had one. Its ballistic missile submarines left nearby waters only nine times in 2022, according to Navy data. In each case, a single US attack submarine shadowed the Russian boats, according to the secret Navy ‘contact’ reports.

Normally, the US submarine would confine itself to shadowing the Russian boat. But would sink it if ordered to do so at the outset of a war. This aspect of the ongoing US war fighting doctrine was first revealed by the then US secretary of the Navy John Lehman who announced in 1985 that US nuclear submarines would attack Soviet ballistic missiles submarines “in the first five minutes of a war”. They would be close enough to do so because they would have trailed their targets from soon after they were detected leaving their base.

Arkin said China’s submarine operations were also minor in 2022. According to the secret Navy data, “most months between eight and 11 Chinese submarines [conventional and nuclear] operated beyond local waters, including one ballistic missile submarine patrol. But these submarines rarely left the protected seas around the mainland.” One reason is that these seas require Chinese submarines to pass through numerous underwater choke points and be confronted by long arrays of US and Japanese sensors that make it hard for them to enter the open ocean undetected.

China has six Jin class nuclear missile submarines, each carrying 12 missiles equipped with four multiple re-entry war heads. These submarines are much noisier, and easier to detect, than their American counterparts. Modern, much cheaper, conventional submarines are even harder to detect.

The US has 14 Ohio class ballistic missile carrying submarines each with up to 20 Trident II missiles, each equipped with 12 multiple independently retargetable war heads. In a common configuration, a single Ohio submarine can destroy 192 cities. The replacement for the Ohio, the Columbia is bigger.

The US willingness to sink Russian and Chinese submarines on passive patrols, suggests arms control measures need to be revitalised and include China. The crucial Strategic Arms Limitation Talks treaty between Russia and US in 1972 had two key components. One was a treaty to reduce the huge number of nuclear weapons. The other was a treaty to limit the ability of either side to destroy the other’s ability to retaliate against a first strike. Called the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, it maintained nuclear deterrence and stopped a full-scale nuclear war.

In 2002, George W Bush unilaterally withdrew from this treaty. Vladimir Putin retaliated by saying Russia would no longer adhere to the START II treaty cutting the number of nuclear weapons.

If progress doesn’t quickly achieve the ideal solution of abolishing all nuclear arms, other urgent steps are needed. Talks between the US, Russia and China should resume with the goal of cutting the number of nuclear weapons and maintaining the ability to retaliate against a first strike. This means Australia will have to agree not to engage in the pre-emptive sinking of submarines carrying nuclear armed ballistic missiles.

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