The DSR’s desultory treatment of nuclear submarines

Apr 28, 2023
submarine Architect blueprint

The Albanese government’s Defence Strategic Review is marred from the outset by its bald assertion that China’s military build-up is the largest and most ambitious of any country since the end of the Second World War.

China’s military spending is dwarfed by that of the US. According to the authoritative Peterson Institute, US military spending is higher than the total of the next nine biggest spending countries. This means more than China, India, Russia, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan and South Korea combined.

The US budget has allocated US$858 billion for defence in 2023. China’s official figure is $US225 billion, although some estimates put it closer to $300 billion. The DSR acknowledges there is no sign China wants to invade Australia, but it could adversely effect some of our interests without explaining which ones. It is not enough to imply that China might attack our trade routes when it is a major beneficiary of trade. It has no incentive to block trade in peace time. If a war is occurring, shipping companies will stop their ships going anywhere near danger. The US’ 2009/10 AirSea Battle plan envisaged the comprehensive blockading of Chinese trade which would hurt Australia. But Julia Gillard did not oppose this while prime minister.

The DSR says China’s alleged military build-up “is occurring without transparency or reassurance to the Indo Pacific region of China’s strategic intent”. On the contrary, its intent is crystal clear. It feels threatened by the way it is being increasingly surrounded by US bases and subjected to hostile intelligence gathering patrols along its boundaries by surveillance planes. In response to this threat, China’s forces are structured to deny access by hostile forces to the approaches to the Chinese mainland – which is a similar goal to the now abandoned Defence of Australia doctrine.

Although the range of China’s forces has increased, they are not remotely comparable to that of the US. China has no bases off the US mainland. However, the US has military bases on the main island of Japan, plus the island of Okinawa, then stretching down through the Philippines to Guam and onto several of the South Pacific Islands such as Kwajalein. China has no bases in this island chain. Anthony Albanese has even stated that China should not be allowed to establish a naval base in its neighbouring country of Cambodia. It hasn’t, but Albanese did not explain why Cambodia shouldn’t invite it to do so as a sovereign country.

Although the US has over 700 military bases around the world, China only has one on another country’s soil – a small base at Djibouti on the horn of Africa to protect its trade from pirates. It appears to have established at least two bases on artificial islands it constructed on offshore territory it claims close to home in the South China Sea.

However, China has settled land border disputes with over seven countries by making significant concessions. It would be wise do the same in the South and East China Seas.

The DSR says, “China’s assertion of sovereignty over the South China Sea threatens the global rules based order in the Indo Pacific in a way that adversely effects Australia’s national interests”. A more accurate statement would be that China and Taiwan each claim about 80 percent of the territorial waters of the South China Sea, with each making the same claims. The eminent law of the sea scholar Sam Bateman said, “It is simply not true to say Beijing claims almost all the South China Sea and the islands within it. It may claim all the ‘features’ (uninhabited rocks, shoal, reefs etc) but only claim sovereign rights over resources of the sea.’ While the claims from Taiwan and China should be significantly modified, the DSR does not explain how their behaviour has serious “adverse effects on Australia’s national interests”. Another sentence might have helped.

Although the DSR makes a brief reference to the value of arms control, it did not suggest any course of action. Instead, Albanese and the defence minister Richard Marles, keep asserting that spending more on defence will deliver peace when it is just as likely to cause an arms race. Perhaps they could suggest that the South China Sea, after China and Taiwan’s claims are reduced, should become a demilitarised zone for all but the littoral states needing to transit it.

As for the “global rules based order”, the DSR should not praise this vague concept. It excludes the crucial prohibition on the aggressive use of force in international relations, unlike the ANZUS treaty. In a similar breach to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the US and Australia violated both ANZUS and the UN Charter in invading Vietnam in 1965. It did the same in the 2003 invasion of Iraq based on blatantly concocted intelligence. The Congressional Research Service study found the US used force in international relations on 160 occasions since the end of the Cold War in 1991. A Carnegie Melon researcher, Dov Levin has concluded that the US intervened in 81 foreign elections between 1946 and 2000, while the Soviet Union/Russia did on 36 occasions.

In contrast, China has not started a major war of aggression since the Communist takeover in 1949. In 1979, the then Chinese government foolishly launched a brutal incursion into Vietnam before pulling out. The goal was to punish Vietnam for removing Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia after it shelled Vietnamese villages on the border. At that stage, the US, Australia and China still supported Pol Pot.

The DSR emphasises the importance of acquiring longer range missiles to project power further than the 2000 kilometres envisaged under the previous Defence of Australia doctrine. Although a key capability is to attack moving targets, such as ships, there is no explanation about how the targets will be detected, tracked and the required data fed into the missiles. This could prove a very expensive capability to acquire. The task of hitting stationary land targets may seem easier, so long as we don’t care about whether the country being hit retaliates. This may not be wise if the country is China several thousand kilometres from Australia. We would be attacking it where its military forces are strongest and ours weakest. The ability of nuclear submarines to fire cruise missiles into China at a long distance from Australia is regarded as one of their key attractions. Whether this would be a cost-effective mission is a different matter. Modern conventional submarines can do the same, more cheaply, but aren’t considered in the DSR.

The DSR’s treatment of nuclear submarines is desultory – perhaps because the government’s mind was already firmly made up. However, the decision was taken to the severe detriment of the budget using seriously misleading information. New information casts a dreadful light on the decision.

The April 19 edition of Newsweek uses secret US navy documents and interviews to report that its submarine force can barely deploy a quarter of its nuclear attack boats at any one time. In 2022, only 10 percent spent more than 30 days fully submerged. Yet it is taken for granted that Australia’s future nuclear submarines will operate fully submerged at all times.

With only a quarter of the US’s nuclear submarines operationally available, this means that when Australia’s three Virginia class subs are delivered after 2030, none will be available on some occasions. On others, one might be available. Only two of the eight new designed AUKUS submarines will normally be operationally available. Realistically, the full complement will not arrive from the Adelaide shipyards until sometime after 2060.

By then, the world will almost certainly be radically different. The Chinese economy could have collapsed. As has happened before, it could have a new leadership that is more moderate than its predecessor. Perhaps it will revert to China’s earlier policy of living in “Confucian harmony with its neighbours”. By then, Australia’s American protector may have degenerated into a ruinous civil war.

According to Newsweek’s secret US Navy data, “In 2022, between eight and 11 Chinese submarines [conventional and nuclear] operated beyond local waters, including one ballistic missile submarine patrol. These submarines rarely left the protected seas around the mainland.” The recent news is the fleet was affectively bottled up by underwater chokepoints and US and Japanese sonars arrays that ensured they would be detected if they ventured into the open ocean. So much for the DSR’s supposedly terrifying results from China’s military build-up.

Newsweek’s sobering information strongly suggests Australia’s whole nuclear adventure should be re-assessed. It makes no financial sense. The total cost of the project is likely to be at least $400 billion – just to deliver two submarines that are operationally available at any one time. Despite Marles assertion nuclear submarines are essential to protecting Australia’s trade, two nuclear submarines can’t protect 3000 different ships making 26,000 Australian port calls a year. It was ludicrous for Marles to suggest otherwise.

Twelve of the latest conventional submarines fitted with hydrogen fuel cells and/or advanced batteries will be available for project cost of around $15 billion. With the fuel cells and batteries running silently for several weeks at a time, this is far better value than buying nuclear submarines which are less reliable and easier to detect.

One of the worst features of the nuclear submarines we are getting is that they use highly enriched, weapons grade, uranium fuel. The spent fuel will have to be stored safely in stable rock formations for hundreds of years after these boats retire. Neither the US nor Britain has managed to do this. It’s not clear how Marles will succeed.

The Labor Party should insist that the inner cabinet drop the folly of buying nuclear submarines before it’s too late.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!