Protracted timeline shows the folly of Australia’s nuclear submarine deal

Sep 21, 2021
us nuclear submarine
(Image: Unsplash)

Buying ludicrously expensive nuclear submarines upsets our neighbours, inflates the defence spending budget, unbalances our military forces and does nothing to address the bigger security threat of global warming and species extinction.

What role will Australia’s nuclear-powered attack submarines play if a war with China breaks out in the next 20 years? The answer is none. The first of these subs will only become operational after 2040 and the last around 2060, if all goes well.

This protracted timeline illustrates the folly of committing Australia to buying eight nuclear attack submarines, probably from the US.

Worse, they will reportedly cost well over $100 billion, the latest estimate for the cost of the 12 French-Australian conventionally powered submarines that the Morrison government has scuppered in an extraordinarily deceitful manner in its discussions with the French.

No one knows what will happen in China. President Xi Jinping could be dead, debilitated or deposed before 2040. A new government could resurrect China’s earlier policy of living in “Confucian harmony” with its neighbours.

Alternatively, Xi could retire before 2040 in favour of someone who is more bellicose. We simply don’t know.

However, the director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Peter Jennings, who is well regarded by the government, says Australian defence spending will have to rise to 3 or 4 per cent of GDP. Four per cent is more than the proportion US spends. But its massive spending is more than the combined total that China, India, Russia, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, Italy and Australia now spend, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The government claims the nuclear attack submarines will give Australia its own sovereign capability. It won’t.

The US will not share the relevant computer source code. Moreover, there seems to be an almost unanimous agreement among commentators that once the US supplies its advanced nuclear technology, Australia will be obliged to commit the submarines to a future war between the US and China. If Australia were really independent, it could do whatever it likes with equipment it has bought.

It is it is far from clear that spending over the $100 billion on nuclear subs makes more sense than buying 12 proven, ultra-quiet German submarines that could be built in a few years for $10 billion. As well as gathering intelligence, these subs, and similar Swedish ones, have a formidable ability to deter hostile ships moving towards Australia, and, if deterrence fails, sinking them.

Contrary to some impressions, nuclear submarines aren’t impossible to detect. When they go at high speed, this leaves a clear wake on the surface. They also release observable hot water from their steam engines that a powered by their nuclear reactors. As well as potentially being discovered by blue green laser light from above, they leave a track while passing through the earth’s magnetic field.

The common assumption that China poses a military threat to Australia is not backed by convincing evidence that it has the motive and capability to mount a successful invasion in the foreseeable future.

Like most rising powers, China is increasing spending on its military. Given that the US announced in 2010 announced its air sea battle plan to defeat China and has held numerous joint exercises to do so, a prudent Chinese leader would build up its defences.

Its military preparations are mainly focused on defending the approaches to its offshore areas which are riddled with underwater checkpoints that bottle up its submarines. In addition, its equipment has not been battle tested — unlike that of the US which has been constantly at war.

China was last in a major war in 1950 when it feared US troops were about to invade after they advanced up to its border with North Korea.

Unlike Australia and the US, China did not participate in the Vietnam War which caused horrible suffering to its people. Nor, unlike Australia or the US, did China invade Iraq or Afghanistan. China has not undertaken such large-scale electoral interference in other countries as has the US.

The Congressional Research Service has calculated that the US has used its military forces in other than a normal peacetime manner on more than 160 occasions since the end of the Cold War in 1991. A Carnegie Mellon scholar, Dov Levin, calculates the US intervened in 81 foreign elections between 1946 and 2000, and the Soviet Union did so 36 times.

The most damaging instance was the US’s intervention to stop an internationally agreed election going ahead in Vietnam in 1956 to unify the country and decide who should be president.

In his memoirs, US president Dwight Eisenhower explained he couldn’t let the election occur because Ho Chi Minh would’ve won easily.

Without that intervention, Vietnamese people would not have been bombed with napalm, tortured, and sprayed with dioxin; a persistent toxin which still causes Vietnamese mothers to give birth to children with terrible abnormalities.

In another intervention with perverse repercussions, the US and the UK overthrew the democratically elected secular Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. After the coup-masters restored the Shah to the throne, his corruption and brutality resulted in his replacement by the Ayatollahs.

The US, with help from Australia, facilitated the overthrow of a democratically elected socialist government in Chile, leaving a vicious dictator Augusto Pinochet in charge.

China has not under taken similar interventions.

But it has pressured other countries with territorial claims in the South China Sea to accept its claims which were first promulgated in 1923 by a National Party leader Sun Yat Sen.

Taiwan makes the same claims today, but usually in a more low-key fashion. If China genuinely wanted to lower the temperature, it would enter into a similar agreement to the Antarctic treaty in which all the claimants put their claims on hold indefinitely.

The South China Sea is often described as oil-rich. But that’s hardly a prize worth winning, given that the price of oil is in a long-term decline.

Australia’s decision to buy the nuclear submarines, plus long-range missiles, has upset neighbours such as Indonesia and Malaysia who don’t want to add fuel to an arms race in the region. We should agree. The submarine decision also unbalances Australia’s military forces by giving too much emphasis to the navy compared to the air force which could have some more valuable capabilities than naval ships.

Buying ludicrously expensive nuclear submarines inflates the defence budget at a time when the latest OECD figures show that the rate of unemployment benefits in Australia is the lowest for any country in the organisation.

Moreover, the threat to the security of Australians from global warming and species extinction is a much more perilous problem than any number of nuclear submarines can tackle.

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