Without a clear strategy, Australia will not have a submarine navy. Part 2

Sep 27, 2021
submarines us australia collins class
Australian Collins-class submarines join a US Navy Los Angeles-class submarine in a 2019 exercise. (Image: US Navy)

We should be pleased to see the previous submarine contract cancelled, but not without a clear replacement program in place.

Notwithstanding a barrage of criticism since Australia’s submarine contract announcement in April 2016, the project office maintained that everything was on track.

The $90 billion cost is the estimated value at the delivery of the twelfth submarine, and we were assured that the few months’ schedule delays of some design milestones would be recovered.

Design of major equipment was underway as was the site-mobilisation adjacent to the ASC yard in Adelaide. Walking away from the future submarine contract with France’s Naval Group after committed expenditures exceeding $2 billion plus $400 million in contract cancellation fees would destroy the Defence Department’s credibility.

Apart from creating a major diplomatic rift with France, there is no obvious candidate for a plan B. Naval has a five-year head start with the design. They remain “committed to delivering a truly exceptional class of new submarines, made in Australia that will underwrite security for generations”.

But with the replacement on March 30, 2021 of defence minister Linda Reynolds with former police officer Peter Dutton, Morrison has appointed a hard-nosed minister to the government’s troubled Defence Department. In his first media statement on Sky News as defence minister, Dutton warned Naval Group that he expected the $90 billion submarine contract and the $45 billion Hunter-class frigates awarded to BAE Systems would be delivered on time and on budget, and that the government was determined to ensure Australia’s small and medium-sized defence firms benefited from the huge investments being made.

Three months later, on September 16, Morrison and Dutton dropped a bombshell.

Submarines. Gross mismanagement, confusion and waste: Part 1

“As leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, guided by our enduring ideals and shared commitment to the international rules-based order, we resolve to deepen diplomatic, security, and defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, including by working with partners, to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

Without first advising the French of the decision to cancel the submarine contract, the three leaders announced “the creation of an enhanced trilateral security partnership called ‘AUKUS’ — Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States”.

Not surprisingly the French feel betrayed by Morrison and the Biden governments, and the Australian Parliament and people remain uninformed about the strategic, environmental, commercial, and political ramifications and consequences of a nuclear-powered attack submarines force.

It is important to fully appreciate the issues and complexities associated with the design, assembly, operation and maintenance of nuclear submarines powered with highly enriched weapons-grade-uranium.

Canberra must be aware that the acquisition of HEU-235 fissile material would challenge the spirit if not the letter of the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and that the International Atomic Energy Agency requires that non-nuclear weapon states declare their materials for inspection. While nuclear-powered submarines are excluded from this inspection regime, the concern would be that other non-nuclear weapon states like Iran and Brazil (Israel, India and Pakistan have not signed the NPT) may follow Australia’s lead.

The Royal Australian Navy needs to be satisfied that it has capacity to develop and deploy the management systems and procedures necessary to safely operate and maintain these vessels at sea and in port.

And, if the new arrangement will proceed there may be no transfer of technical know-how to Australia. The submarine propulsion train — not just the reactor — will be a black box accessible only to US- and possibly UK-cleared personnel. Notwithstanding this, an earthquake and tsunami — nuclear-safe — site will have to be identified. A concerned population will have to agree to the warehousing, installation, launching and pre-commissioning of submarines that include HEU-235 reactors.

By 2040 the Virginia-class submarine will be an outdated design, no longer built for the US Navy, nor will the Astute-class be built for the Royal Navy. In the second half of the 21st century, traditional nuclear-powered submarines are unlikely to be relevant in warfare.

By then, algorithmic warfare will operate autonomous systems via artificial intelligence. Thus, behind closed doors Beijing will be unfazed by Australia’s intended switch to a nuclear-powered but not armed submarine capability; they will view it as no more than a Potemkin village defence.

The People’s Republic of China will be concerned, though, when Australia becomes a fully manned and armoured US garrison.

Xi Jinping is no Mikhail Gorbachev and Joe Biden no Ronald Reagan.

Washington was successful with its strategic defence initiative to bring down the Iron Curtain in 1991 thus ending the Cold War.

Will today’s leaders in Beijing and Moscow believe Biden when he pledges that his administration will pursue “relentless diplomacy” rather than exercise military might to solve global crises?

In 2002 President G. W. Bush terminated the Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty of 1972, and in 2018 Donald Trump announced his intention to terminate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty first signed by Reagan and Gorbachev in December 1987.

With Vladimir Putin and now also Xi Jinping in the chair, the arms race is back and more intense than ever. An emboldened China will use her voice in Asia, Russia and western Europe to prevent the installation of intercontinental missiles in north-west Australia, not unlike President John Kennedy’s reaction to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s stationing of nuclear armed missiles on Cuba in October 1962.

For the Royal Australian Navy to operate nuclear boats in 20 to 30 years will not solve the current predicament. Leasing decommissioned nuclear submarines from the British navy or US Navy seems unrealistic. Updating the current fleet will be more complex, more time-consuming and more expensive than the government or the Royal Australian Navy expects, leaving the navy without submarines to train submariners let alone fight a war.

We should be pleased to see the Attack-class contract — which is neither fish nor fowl, neither nuke nor conventional submarine — cancelled, but not before a replacement program is in place for the Collins-class.

If the government doesn’t expedite the procurement of modern diesel-electric attack submarines ‎for operational availability by the 2030s save for a few aging Collins boats, the Royal Australian Navy will no longer be a submarine navy.

Last week there was a magnitude 5.9 earthquake near Melbourne: the troika of Biden-Johnson-Morrison have set off a tremor that shakes the bilateral relations between century-old friends, the future of NATO, the EU, the ANZUS alliance, and our already shaky relationship with Beijing.

While these problems will be painted over by diplomacy in time, our very own fledging naval defence industry will not survive in the absence of a consistent and predictable naval procurement strategy.

This is the second part of a two-part series. Read the first article here.

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