Submarine sovereignty? The devil is in the detail…

Mar 22, 2023
Navel nuclear submarine cruising on open sea.

Our Defence Minister said that Australia has not given any guarantees to the USA about what we would do with our submarines in the case of war but would take our own decisions at the time. This is welcome but what are the implications? Does it only apply to the submarines? As always, the devil is in the detail.

Mr Marles said that there was no guarantee given that we would join the US during a potential future conflict with China. “I couldn’t be more unequivocal than that … in all that we do, we maintain complete sovereignty for Australia. The moment that there is a flag on the first of those Virginia-class submarines in the early 2030s is the moment that submarine will be under the complete control of the Australian government of the day.”

This assurance is welcome but does our maintenance of sovereignty mean that we can disagree with the USA and especially that, if we disagree with it, we can opt out if the US gets into a war with China – or anyone else? That would seem to follow from what Mr Marles said. Complete sovereignty means just that. Or does he agree with Mr Dutton that it is inconceivable that we would not join the US in any war just as we did in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan?

It is one thing to say that we would not allow our submarines to join the USA in a war but what would we do about Pine Gap and other facilities in Australia that would be used in such a conflict? Would we refuse to contribute submarines but contribute other military assets? Would we refuse to allow US submarines and aircraft to use Australian bases? Given the integration of Australian forces and facilities with those of the USA it is hard to see how it could not be all or nothing. Realistically, how could we deny use of our submarines but allow American use of bases used as part of its war effort? This would surely be tantamount to a declaration of war against America’s enemy.

It would be helpful if Mr Marles were to explain exactly what is involved and how we could disentangle ourselves from the American military net should we decide to exercise our sovereign right not to join the USA in military action. The political cop out is, of course, that these decisions would be made by the government of the day at the relevant time. However, the framework established by the present government at the present time will restrict the options open to future governments.

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