The way that Defence Minister Richard Marles thinks about it, a nuclear-propelled submarine is a way of putting a question mark into the mind of an adversary.
But the announcement of the AUKUS subs plan on Tuesday also puts a number of questions into the minds of the Australian electorate.
Chief among them is whether this is real or merely the fourth edition of Australia’s traditional game of “Fantasy Subs”? In that game, the government pretends to build submarines and we pretend to believe them. The enormous sums of money involved certainly have a fantasy feel to them.
As for the question mark in the enemy’s mind, it’s a big one when a nuclear-powered sub is deployed against it.
“Your imagination is your biggest nightmare” as a lethal craft prowls the ocean unseen, former US Chief of Naval Operations and retired Admiral Jonathan Greenert put it. “What could they be doing?”
Nuclear-propelled submarines “are fast, they have stamina, they bring a whole spectrum of weapons, and if you are China, how are Australian and US forces working together?” poses Greenert.
“They can reposition fast, 25 knots [46km/h] for a full day,” he tells me, meaning it could cover over a thousand kilometres in 24 hours.
“If an adversary says, ‘I’ve got a detection of a nuclear sub’, great – when? Two days ago. Then you draw a circle on the map and see where it might be. It’s a big circle.”
The planned Australian submarines would have one critical difference from the US ones. America’s are nuclear armed. They are designed to be Doomsday machines, the last line of defence.
Even if an enemy pre-emptive strike wiped out US land-based and airborne nukes, its so-called Boomers would survive, undetected in the depths, to deliver annihilation to the enemy. By guaranteeing “second strike” capability, they are supposed to deter any adversary from even thinking about launching a first.
Australia wants only nuclear power, not nuclear weaponry. Canberra would continue to operate under the US “nuclear umbrella”. The Australian submarines would be armed with conventional torpedoes and missiles.
Still, because it can stay underwater for up to three months at a time, a nuclear-powered sub would give Australia for the first time the ability to put China’s mainland under direct threat of cruise missile attack.
China already can strike most of Australia with long-range missiles. If Canberra were able to threaten China with sub-borne cruise missiles, it would go some way to changing the balance of coercive power in Australia’s favour. That’s the brutal, unspoken calculus behind the plan.
For Australia to acquire that ability would be an “inflection point in history”, said US President Joe Biden at Tuesday’s announcement. The three-way US-UK-Australian collaboration would be “enhancing deterrence and promoting stability” for decades to come.
Beijing objected to the arrangement. It claims it’s an act of nuclear proliferation. But, under this deal, the nuclear reactor of any atomic sub supplied to Australia would arrive in a sealed unit and remain sealed until retirement.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has pronounced itself satisfied with safeguards so far. Beijing’s claim is a furphy.
“China is angry,” interpreted the former Australian defence and intelligence official Paul Dibb, “because it understands how bloody good the Virginia-class submarines are. They are the Rolls Royce of submarines.” Under the plan, Australia will buy at least three and up to five from the US.
But there are real concerns about the AUKUS pact. First, will it happen? Recall that it was 14 years ago that an Australian government first set out a plan for replacing the six ageing Collins class submarines with 12 new “Son of Collins” boats.
Son of Collins turned out to be a Labor phantasm, never started. Then there was the Japanese Soryu commitment from Tony Abbott. That died when Malcolm Turnbull embraced a recommendation to buy the French Short-Fin Barracuda. Morrison dumped that in pursuit of AUKUS. The six Collins-class boats are still there, 14 years older.
Now there is AUKUS. Why will this materialise when the last three came to naught? The AUKUS subs plan is actually three plans in sequence, from most achievable to least.
Part one is supposed to cover the next decade. The US and UK will step up the number of Australian port visits and “forward rotations” by their nuclear subs. That’s eminently achievable so long as Australia builds the port infrastructure needed. But it’s hardly an Australian capability.
Part two is supposed to cover the 2030s. The US will sell Australia three to five Virginia-class subs, if Congress agrees to do so. Three subs in hand means only one can be deployed at any one time. Even with five, Australia could only manage to put an average of one-and-a-bit on mission at any one time.
This would not be a serious capability. The US has more than 70, all nuclear-powered. China was estimated in 2021 to have 58, a dozen of them nuclear-powered.
So part three would be necessary, yet it’s the most complex. Australia and Britain will jointly build a whole new class of subs, eight each, based on a UK design, part-manufactured by each. Australia would take possession of its first so-called SSN-AUKUS in the early 2040s. Its likely first skipper probably hasn’t started learning high school algebra yet.
The sense of fantasy is compounded by the cost. The government estimate of an average cost equal to 0.15 per cent over the next 30 years is a rough guess. The government translated that into the equivalent of $268 billion to $368 billion mostly to be able to fend off media demands for a dollar figure for the total project.
It’s so unreliable, over so long a span, that senior members of the government consider it to be “rubbery” verging on “meaningless”. And there are so many other questions which are today unanswerable.
For instance, we learned on Tuesday that Australia has agreed to accept the radioactive waste from spent reactors. But where would it store the waste? The government says only that it will be on Defence Department land, with a short list of potential sites available in a year. In other words, we have no idea.
But, so long as it puts a question mark in Beijing’s mind, Australia’s government and opposition are committed to grappling with all these questions. Now they need to find answers.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull tore up a contract with Japan. The article has been updated to reflect the change.
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