Hugh White dismantles the AUKUS project

Feb 29, 2024
AUKUS Nuclear submarine in the deep sea, The US, UK, and Australia have announced a historic security pact in the Asia-Pacific, Australia new submarine deals with the US. France upset. Artists impression. Image iStock/ Homayon Kabir

As opposition to AUKUS grows, the nuclear submarine project does not stand up to expert scrutiny.

There is no doubt that opposition to the AUKUS agreement is growing within the Australian public. The more people see through the secrecy and obfuscation; the more they learn about the project’s far-reaching implications for them and the nation, the more they feel uneasy and even angry about it. As might be expected, initial opposition came from left-leaning groups like the Sydney Anti-AUKUS Coalition. Recently, more conservative groups have joined the left, to create the Marrickville Declaration.

What is extraordinary and interesting is that very serious questions about AUKUS are also coming from within what might be termed ‘The Establishment’. For example, Sam Roggeveen of the Lowy Institute in his book “The Echidna Strategy” writes

“It (AUKUS) is a project of vaulting ambition that is out of step with Australian tradition as a middle military power, wildly at odds with our international status and, most importantly, a wasteful expenditure of public money that will make Australia less safe.”

When a writer for the Lowy Institute echoes the sentiments of left wingers in this way, one can expect people to sit up and listen.

The latest contribution, from no less a figure than Hugh White, is of a similar type. The very title of his essay in Australian Foreign Affairs “Dead in the Water, the AUKUS delusion” has surely rung the death-knell for the submarine component of AUKUS.

White begins by raising the obvious question “Does Australia need nuclear-powered submarines?”. His straightforward answer is a flat “No”. He gives several reasons for arriving at this conclusion, asking what had changed in the 5 years between the decision to acquire the French Attack-class diesel-powered submarines and the decision to switch to nuclear. He points to many examples of where abundant, cheap and unsophisticated weaponry has prevailed over its expensive and sophisticated alternative. He asks whether the operational advantages of nuclear-powered submarines justify their price-tag and the greater risks of buying and operating them.

Having concluded that Australia does not need nuclear submarines, it might not be necessary to go any further. However, White does go on to discuss the matter of detection. (One of the advantages proclaimed by the submarines’ advocates is that nuclear propelled submarines are much harder to detect.) He points out that “A whole range of technologies seems poised to make submarines easier to find”, nullifying this presumed advantage.

On the question of speed (nuclear submarines are much faster than conventional ones), White argues that nuclear gives no advantage when compared with a much larger fleet of conventional vessels. According to White, Australia could acquire 40 conventional submarines for the projected price of 8 nuclear ones. In his estimation, a fleet of just 24 conventional submarines would actually deliver more ‘combat power’ than 8 nuclear ones.

At the core of White’s position is his understanding that nuclear submarines would make sense, if their purpose were to team up with the US in confronting China. On the other hand, if they are intended to prevent China projecting power by sea against Australia and its close neighbours, they make no sense at all, according to White.

White’s attention turns to the matter of whether or not the AUKUS plan can work in practise. Will it actually deliver? The plan starts with a radical upgrade and overhaul of the Collins-class boats – a task he describes as daunting. Even if that program goes without a hitch, the RAN is still faced with having to learn how to operate and maintain nuclear submarines and their nuclear reactors in less than ten years (before the US Virginia class submarines arrive in the 2030s). He estimates the chances of the RAN meeting these constraints to be very low.

Having cast doubts on the RAN’s ability to put the AUKUS plan into action, White declares that this is not the biggest threat to it. He sees serious problems in Washington, where there exist doubts about the wisdom of selling nuclear-powered submarines to any other country. Besides, America has no Virginia-class submarines to spare and appears unable to construct new ones fast enough to reach Pentagon targets. White suggests that strategists in the USA are weighing up whether it makes strategic sense for America to pass submarines to Australia rather than keeping them for the US fleet.

White then takes issue with phase 3 of the AUKUS project, under which Australia is involved in designing, building and bringing into service the AUKUS-class submarines in co-operation with the UK’s Royal Navy. He writes

“Both the British and the Australian ends of this co-operative program will have to deliver if the AUKUS plan is to work. It is more than likely both will fail.”

He says that the UK end of the arrangement has had major problems over decades and that in Australia long delays and cost overruns are certain and “outright failure is a real possibility”.

But even that is not the end of the problems White foresees. If the project does go according to plan, the RAN will end up having to crew and manage three different classes of submarine for an extended period (the Collins-, Virginia- and AUKUS-classes), with corresponding requirements for training, management, maintenance engineering etc. White does not believe it possible that three classes (two of them nuclear-powered) can be managed by the RAN at the same time.

Sam Roggeveen is director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Program. Hugh White is Emeritus Professor of Strategic and Defence Studies at the Australian National University and was principal author of Australia’s 2000 Defence White Paper. Both are highly regarded in their field. The significance of their contributions to debate about the AUKUS matter cannot be underestimated. White’s latest contribution, in particular, will dismay AUKUS’s proponents. At the very least, it should provoke much more discussion of the topic in the media and among members of the public. White’s and Roggeveen’s arguments are too compelling to go unanswered. Unless some serious answers come from very senior levels, AUKUS is, indeed, dead in the water.

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