The ‘forever submarines’ go nuclear

Sep 17, 2021
Scott Morrison nuclear submarine announcement uk us AUKUS
(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

The nuclear submarine deal intensifies Australia’s military cooperation with the US. It will be up to our regional neighbours to decide whether, as Scott Morrison says, the deal will help and not hinder them. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s surprise announcement of the formation of “AUKUS” on Thursday, with US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson must have been the result of intense work within our government and within the “AUKUS caucus”.

But it seems that our new — and now-to-be nuclear-powered — submarines are still many years away.

Morrison said that times had changed, strategic concerns had grown, and that as a result the Attack-class submarine project with France had been scrapped, and Australia would instead proceed to acquire eight nuclear-powered submarines based on American and British technology, and to be built in Adelaide.

This would be only one of a number of projects designed to add strike and deterrence capacity to the Australian Defence Force. The timescale for the nuclear submarines coming into service is still long.

The French submarine boondoggle is Australia’s biggest defence blunder. Our tame corporate media hardly noticed.

In a press conference later in the day Morrison spoke of “within the next decade”, and in his remarks to the press Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, who had been briefed on the change, spoke of “by 2040”. So instead of not having new conventional submarines until the late 2030s we will now not have new nuclear submarines until 2040.

Morrison said this lengthy gap would be covered by the already announced life of class refurbishment of the Collins class submarines (at a cost of some billions of dollars).

One can of course only speculate on the reasons for this policy change. It would seem that two strands must have come together: firstly, increasing disillusionment with the French project within the navy and defence; and secondly, a wish held more broadly within the government to intensify military and defence cooperation with the United States in the face of China’s increasing defence capability.

A concern to counter that capability is no doubt held by the US as well, with the media reporting on Thursday that a Chinese four-vessel naval taskforce is patrolling US waters off Alaska, in a way matching the arrival of the US carrier Carl Vinson and accompanying ships in the South China Sea.

Press reports indicate that our government has an extensive wish list for access to US defence technology, and it is noteworthy that the US is prepared to make its nuclear propulsion technology, up to now very closely held, available to us. What will the US expect in return?

Access and bases come to mind, and Dutton has already spoken positively about them. Biden and senior US officials have spoken frequently about US alliances as one of its great advantages in its contest with China, and enabling one of its allies, Australia, to become more militarily capable fits with that.

What are the disadvantages, if any, for Australia? Two practical ones that come to mind are cost and capability.

We are used to being numbed by the cost of defence acquisition projects, but before we even begin on the new submarines there will have to be a settlement with France’s Naval Group, which has by now been working on the Attack class for years.

And there are many questions about the practicality of Australia engaging in a nuclear propulsion venture of this kind when we have no nuclear industry or trained work force to support it.

Morrison stressed that there is no intention to establish a nuclear industry, and in his remarks Albanese said that that had been one of the pre-conditions for Labor support for the project. There will be plenty for the planned 18-month initial study group to examine.

What about other considerations, for example China’s reaction?

The only Chinese reaction reported so far in the media has been from the Chinese embassy in Washington, which apparently more in sorrow than in anger has called on the AUKUS parties not to persist with Cold War attitudes. Of course there may well be a sharper reaction later from Beijing.

Another concern already voiced by commentators is that the formation of AUKUS is a backward step for Australia’s stance in the region and the world, setting up a group with two other Anglophone countries — reminiscent of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangement — and focusing on the military dimension of the competition with China when that is the area in which the US continues to have superiority. After decades of “engagement with Asia” this clubbing together with the US and the UK alone has odd connotations.

Of course we can claim, as the PM did in his statement, that we value highly our regional associations with groupings such as ASEAN, and assert that our relations with and relevance to the countries involved will be helped, not hindered, by this new arrangement. The recent visits by Dutton and Payne to Jakarta, Delhi and Seoul no doubt were designed to promote this assertion.

But in the end it is the other countries of the region, not us, who will decide whether the assertion is correct or not.

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