Eighteen months ago, when Australians first learned of the AUKUS proposal for their country to build nuclear-powered submarines, it came as a stunning shock. So great was the shock, in fact, that for a time it eclipsed any serious debate about this revolutionary and quite unprecedented idea. An initiative of such scale and audacity seemed almost to defy critique and analysis.
But that began to change last month when the leaders of America, Britain and Australia gathered in San Diego to announce the broad outline of how this massive project would actually work. They revealed a plan of immense complexity and staggering cost, beset by a host of technological, economic, political, strategic and diplomatic risks. Suddenly, in response, searching questions are being asked.
Some of the most searching questions come from within Australia’s governing Labor Party itself, led by its most revered elder statesman, Paul Keating. He has excoriated the present Labor leadership for its swift and eager embrace of the AUKUS project, first when they were in Opposition at the time it was first announced, and now in government since it won office in May 2022.
There are two reasons for Labor’s rather surprising embrace of the AUKUS initiative. One of them is pure politics. Like many centre-left parties around the world, Labor fears it will lose votes if it seems soft on national security, and it has fervently backed AUKUS to avoid such criticisms from their conservative opponents.
But it is not just politics. Like most Australians, many Labor figures are deeply committed to Australia’s alliance with America, and they understand that this is what AUKUS is really all about. The present generation of party leadership came of age politically in the optimistic, ‘End of History’ 1990s, when preponderant US power seemed to guarantee a long era of peace. They still retain that era’s faith in the idea of a US-led global order, despite the obvious challenges it now faces, especially from China. The stronger and more ambitious China has become, the more fervently they cling to the idea that only US power can protect Australia from Beijing, and the more eagerly they look for ways to draw the alliance with America even closer. To them, this is what AUKUS seemed to promise.
But now the doubts are setting in. First, there are questions about whether the program to replace Australia’s existing Collins-class conventional subs with nuclear powered boats will actually work. There are lots of ways it could fail. The upgrade of the Collins subs, required to maintain Australia’s submarine capabilities and skills until the nuclear boats arrive, could falter and fail. The plan for Australia to buy between three and five second-hand American Virginia-class subs from the US Navy from the early 2030s might fall through either because Washington decides it cannot spare them, or because Australia’s Navy is not ready to take delivery and operate them safely.
Learning to operate and maintain nuclear-powered submarines safely and reliably is a huge task, made all the harder because Australia is starting from a very low base of nuclear technology and engineering expertise. It will be especially demanding for the Australian Navy, which has a poor record in managing the acquisition of new capabilities and maintaining and operating its existing fleet of much simpler ships and submarines.
These Virginia-class subs, if they can be brought into service on time, are only supposed to be a stopgap while Australia and Britain work together to design and build a brand new submarine – called the AUKUS class – for their two navies. It is supposed to start coming into service with the Australian navy in the early 2040s, but that too is very uncertain. Work on the design has only just begun in Britain, and the delivery schedule is unrealistically ambitious.
Britain’s limited design and construction capabilities are already tied up with building a new class of ballistic-missile submarines. This and other UK submarine projects have been plagued with major problems for many years, and further big delays and cost overruns in the AUKUS program virtually certain. Even if all goes according to plan, Australia will not have a minimum viable fleet of six AUKUS submarines in service till the late 2050s, and realistically it will be much later. Meanwhile the costs look eyewatering, even if the Government’s initial estimates of up to A$368 Billion do not prove grossly optimistic, as they almost certainly will.
But that is not all. There are serious concerns about the wider implications of Australia acquiring nuclear propulsion technologies. The most serious of these relates to the implications for the global regime which has done so much to help prevent the spread of nuclear weapons for 50 years.
Australia clearly has no intention to acquire nuclear weapons, but the AUKUS plans nonetheless raise serious proliferation questions because the reactors that will power its new submarines contain highly-enriched uranium that could be used in a nuclear warhead. Moreover this uranium will not be subject to the normal international safeguards used to enforce the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, because a special provision, never used before, allows them to be waived for non weapons-related military applications like nuclear propulsion. Some experts fear this will create dangerous precedent allowing other countries to evade stringent safeguards, thus weakening the fragile credibility of the non-proliferation regime at a time when it is already under great stress.
All this raises questions about why Australia needs nuclear-powered submarines at all. No serious analysis supports Canberra’s assertion that conventionally-powered subs will not be effective in the decades ahead. Indeed there is good reason to think that a larger fleet of cheaper conventional boats, delivered sooner and easier to operate and maintain, would be more cost-effective in meeting Australia’s strategic priorities than a the nuclear-powered force proposed under AUKUS. The suggestion that the AUKUS program poses an effective deterrent to China’s strategic ambitions in the decades ahead looks absurd against the reality that it will deliver no substantial new capability until the 2050s.
But perhaps the biggest questions about AUKUS now being raised in Australia’s governing Labor Party and more broadly among Australians are about what it means for the country’s alliance with America. That is because AUKUS really does draw Australia closer to its US ally in ways and under circumstances that are only now perhaps becoming clear. The real possibility that the strategic contest between America and China will lead to war can no longer be ignored, and AUKUS marks a big shift in what that means for Australia.
The enhanced strategic commitment embodied in AUKUS makes it now ‘inconceivable’ – in the words of former Defence Minister and now leader of the Opposition Peter Dutton – that Australia would not go to war alongside America against China. Of course Australia has often gone to war alongside America before, most recently in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. But war with China would be very different – incomparably bigger, more intense and more destructive than any war since 1945, and quite possibly a nuclear war, and it would be a war that America has no clear way of winning. Not surprisingly, many are starting to wonder whether this is a war that Australia should fight, or should be encouraging America to fight. The reality is that going to war with China could not save the US strategic leadership in Asia on which Australia has for so long depended.
That being so, Australia must think deeply not just about whether the AUKUS plan is the best way to build its new submarines, but whether continued dependence on its old Anglo-Saxon guardians is really the best way to secure its future in Asia. Those are questions that the Labor Government must now consider.
Republished from the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore 2023