Australia’s nuclear-power submarines will greatly enhance Australia’s ability to provide for its own self-reliant defence. Nevertheless, the new strategic approach confronts us with a number of almighty challenges.
In March 2020, defence think tank Submarines for Australia presented its report on the future submarine in a nationally televised session at Canberra’s National Press Club.
The report argued that the agreement with the French majority-owned company Naval Group to design the Attack class submarine should be terminated. The “Plan B” proposed in the report consisted of acquiring nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) in the longer term and in the short term to build an evolved Collins class boat.
At the same time, on the other side of Lake Burley Griffin, we now know that Commodore Tim Brown was embarking on his new, very challenging and secret task.
He had been commissioned by the prime minister to review the submarine project and, if necessary, recommend options for a plan B. Brown was an excellent choice for this task. A qualified engineer and former Collins class submarine commanding officer, he had recently been chief of staff to the chief of navy and then director general of submarine capability.
The main result of his work became evident on September 16, with the momentous announcement of the plan to acquire at least eight SSNs for the Royal Australian Navy. It seems Brown is a “damn the torpedoes” kind of a guy. To advocate anything involving nuclear energy in Australia is a courageous and possibly career limiting move. Subsequently, despite his expertise, he has been excluded from the new nuclear-powered submarine task force and was recently retired from the navy.
The Submarines for Australia report was launched by Professor Hugh White. This was a generous act by Hugh because we knew at the time that he didn’t support our recommendation to acquire SSNs. His longstanding view was that Australia should acquire a much larger number of conventional submarines — perhaps 24 — to be deployed in a defensive role around the choke points in the Indonesian archipelago.
As Hugh points out in his article in The Saturday Paper, numbers matter in battle and 24 submarines is more than eight.
While that is true, ever since English long bows outranged the French crossbows at Agincourt, superior military technology has also mattered a lot. As Belloc wrote in The Modern Traveller (1898):
Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not.
In our region, Australia has an entire continent to defend with a population of 26 million.
We do not have the human resources to deploy large numbers of personnel in the armed forces. We would particularly struggle to grow submarine command teams in a reasonable time so as to populate 24 submarines.
Instead, Australia has traditionally relied on superior technology for our defence — we need the modern equivalent of the Maxim gun. Interestingly, Saturday’s Australian Financial Review quotes White as saying that he is not against the navy eventually acquiring nuclear-powered submarines.
Australia’s technological advantage is now long gone. China is producing high tech weaponry at a formidable rate. For example, it now has four nuclear-powered submarines carrying long-range ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. While its missiles currently cannot strike the continental US, they do have the range to destroy Australian cities.
The acquisition of nuclear submarines by Australia is important primarily because it will provide us with a formidable deterrent. An SSN’s stealth, speed and ability to project destructive power into an adversary’s back yard would make any country think twice before attacking us.
The argument that this reliance on other countries’ technology will compromise Australia’s sovereignty takes no account of the fact that the Australian Defence Force is already almost totally reliant on other countries, predominantly America, to provide our aircraft, heavy tanks, missiles, communications, naval combat systems and other military hardware and software.
The acquisition will greatly enhance Australia’s ability to provide for its own self-reliant defence.
Nevertheless, the new strategic approach confronts us with a number of almighty challenges.
The first problem is that we may have to wait nearly 20 years before the new submarines begin to join the fleet. Not only will the government have to extend the life of all six Collins class submarines, but it will likely need to build more conventional submarines as well. We may also need to look at some interim offensive capabilities.
The second challenge is to at least double the submarine workforce and train submariners in the operation of nuclear-powered submarines. This is why we need more conventional submarines as soon as possible. You can’t develop experienced submariners unless you can send them to sea regularly and reliably over many years. We will require major assistance from the British and the Americans in training submariners as well as capacity building in industry and regulatory agencies.
A supplementary approach would be to lease one or two existing nuclear submarines in a few years time and use them for training. If the navy acquires British SSNs, as is most likely, fortuitously the British are in the process of building seven Astute class SSNs. Their operational requirement is for six. Defence should examine this leasing option, with the Royal Navy initially providing a fly-in, fly-out crew.
Another concern is how the AUKUS pact sits with Australia’s partners in the region. Superficially, AUKUS has an anachronistic, neo-colonial, Anglo look to it.
Peter Hartcher’s characterisation of the “three amigos” — as an “Aussie marketing huckster, an English buffoon and an American senior citizen” — is unfortunate but will resonate with some. Our diplomats will face challenges in persuading our neighbours that Australia is seeking security within Asia rather than from Asia.
This is where the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade needs to step up to the plate. We should work with neighbouring countries such as Indonesia to explain the benefits of a militarily self-reliant Australia. In particular, we need to reassure China that this is not an exercise in containing its peaceful growth.
We should welcome China’s application to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership on the basis of free and open trade and the withdrawal of its punitive trade barriers to Australia and other countries. As a “rules based” nation, in the absence of a compelling reason we should not think of withdrawing the lease of the port of Darwin.
This segues into another major concern as to whether AUKUS makes it more likely that Australia will be drawn into an armed conflict with China, perhaps over Taiwan. Certainly America will expect some quid pro quo from Australia for the provision of its most sensitive technologies, and this would include military support.
This is where Australia has to draw the line with the US.
While “strategic ambiguity” has long been America’s policy when it comes to Taiwan, we should privately remove any ambiguity in Washington about Australia’s willingness to go to war with China. It is very unlikely that such a war could ever be in our national interests unless we are attacked. While continuing to host the joint facilities and US bases (the price of the alliance), engaging in a kinetic conflict with China should be removed from the agenda.
But it is also unlikely that the US will go to war over Taiwan. Recent war games reportedly suggest it could not prevail militarily against China without undertaking a nuclear first strike. While that option was real in 1996, when the Clinton administration forced China to back down over Taiwan, it would be much more risky today.
The People’s Liberation Army has considerably increased its capability in intercontinental ballistic missiles. Realistically, the US would have to accept losing one or more cities if it went to war.
Sacrificing Los Angeles in defence of Taipei would be unacceptable to any sane American president.
In addition, the inclusion of Britain in the troika could be beneficial, not for its military heft in the region, which is currently insubstantial, but for its diplomatic expertise. There would be no benefit for Britain in going to war with China. The British can also be more forthright than Australia in speaking truth to American power.
For example, in 1958 the US gave the UK its new, top-secret SSN technology. Four years later the Americans gifted the UK the crown jewels — the Polaris submarine launched ballistic missile. In 1965, US president Lyndon B Johnson presented the bill. He invited the UK to join the war in Vietnam. British prime minister Harold Wilson refused. Two years later, Johnson asked again, more forcefully. Wilson refused again. Johnson ended up almost begging for a token British force — “just one Scottish bagpiper”. “No way,” said Wilson.
If there were repercussions, they are not obvious.
The UK has continued to have access to the most sensitive American ballistic missile capability, as well as considerable assistance with nuclear submarine technology. It is possible to maintain the alliance without following America into wars when it is not in our national interest.
Finally, the policy of both sides of Australian politics has been to seek to maintain a significant American presence in the Indo-Pacific for as long as possible. It also has recognised that one of the main benefits of ANZUS is the ability of Australia to gain access to advanced American military technology.
AUKUS appears to satisfy both of those objectives in full measure. Even five years ago, Labor wouldn’t have had a bar of a nuclear submarine. Its ready acquiescence now is a clear measure of the gravity of the strategic threat Australia faces.