Shortcuts / 16 March 2023

The AUKUS submarine deal

This week, PM Anthony Albanese got together with US President Joe Biden and UK PM Rishi Sunak to unveil one of the biggest Australian defence announcements in decades. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we’ll take you through why we’re getting nuclear-powered subs, how it’s going to play out over the next 30 years, and whether we can actually build them on Aussie shores.

What’s been announced?
In a nutshell, it’s that Australia’s going to spend up to $368 billion over the next 30 years either buying or building nuclear-powered submarines.

When will we be getting the first of those?
We probably won’t get the first few off the US until the early 2030s. Those ones are nuclear-powered subs called the Virginia class. We’ll get 3-5 of them and they’ll either be new or secondhand. It probably won’t be until the 2040s that we are going to get any of our own off a production line in Adelaide.

The term ‘nuclear’ has a few people rattled…
It’s a word you don’t hear often in Oz, but both US President Joe Biden and PM Albanese emphasised that this deal is about nuclear power, not nuclear weapons. These subs will be propelled by nuclear power but they’ll carry conventional weapons, not nuclear ones. Albanese has emphasised to our Pacific neighbours that he’s firmly committed to the Treaty of Rarotonga which is about keeping nuclear weapons out of the Pacific region.

But nuclear power still means nuclear waste right?
It does… The federal government has committed to dealing with any nuclear waste in Oz but they reckon there won’t be any nuclear waste to deal with until the 2050s because the nuclear reactors to power the subs will be built overseas.

Submarines seem kinda old fashioned… Why are they such a big deal?
Don’t be deceived by their clunky looks… They’re important for us because to state the obvious, we’re an island, we’re remote from the rest of the world and our strategic interests mean we need the seas to be open.

So they’re about protecting the economy as much as defending us?
Exactly – they’re a really good deterrent. Once a submarine leaves port and dives, it’s essentially detectable only by a relatively short range via sonar and to find them requires large and complex search efforts. What the experts say is it’s the element of uncertainty aids in deterring an enemy.

Sure, but why do we need a deterrent?
Simply, it’s to do with China. It’s been rapidly building up its military capability and expanding its influence into the South Pacific and the US, the UK and Oz have all called it out as a great threat to peace and stability in the region.

Is there an advantage to having nuclear-powered subs?
So Australia’s existing submarine fleet is the diesel/electric-powered Collins Class, so one of the main benefits of getting into the AUKUS agreement with the US and UK for us was getting a hold of their nuclear sub technology – that gives us big advantages in speed, stealth and endurance. A nuclear sub can stay submerged for months – it really only needs to surface for food and to give the crew a break on land.

So it can go on longer missions?
Yep, and they are a lot quieter than the diesel/electric subs, too. That’s why getting these nuclear subs sends a clear signal to our would-be adversaries that we are serious about protecting our interests and the defence of the region.

Does anyone else have these fancy nuclear subs?
We will be just the 7th nation to have them after the UK, US, China, Russia, India and France – so we are really in a pretty exclusive club…

There’s a while to wait until we get them, though…
There sure is, and Defence does have a track record of overpromising and under-delivering on big infrastructure projects so it will be a real challenge to get it all rolled out on schedule.

So will our current sub fleet make it to the 2040s?
The short answer is no. At the moment we have 6 of these diesel/electric Collins class submarines but most of them have been operating for more than 20 years and they have been plagued with problems. The experts say with some more upgrades they can get us through until 2038 – so another 15 years.

What happens when they cark it?
This is what they call in the defence trade a ‘capability gap’ – but the good news is the US says we can buy 3-5 of theirs in the early 2030s. These are those existing Virginia-class nuclear subs we mentioned before. They’ll cost $15-20 billion apiece.

Hasn’t there been a bit of chat about a possible war in the next few years?
That’s true – some analysts say there’s a possibility of war breaking out in our region in the next 2 to 5 years if China were to invade Taiwan. But this announcement is a signal from the US, the UK and Oz that we will do what it takes to defend our interests in the region.

Is anything else happening in the short term?
From this year we will see a lot more ADF personnel working with the navies of the US and Britain. Then as early as 2027, both the UK and US plan to permanently rotate up to 5 subs through the HMAS Stirling naval base near Perth. The federal government will spend $8 billion upgrading that base just to accommodate that extra traffic.

So I hate to ask but are we really capable of building subs here?
Look, given the chequered past Australia had with the Collins-class subs that were built in Adelaide in the 90s, there’s no doubt it’s a massive undertaking. But to be fair, a lot of those issues in those subs were to do with an untested design, not the quality of the industry in South Oz.

Have we learnt lessons since then?
We certainly have, across government, defence and industry. The key thing in this AUKUS agreement for Australia – before a single sub rolls off our production line in Adelaide – is that the UK will be about 5 years ahead in the first build of this new class of sub which will be known as the SSN-AUKUS.

So the Brits can iron out the early issues?
Pretty much. They’ve already been doing a lot of design and development to replace their Astute-class submarines with this new class. The idea is the UK is going to share that work with us and both nations will use American combat systems in those subs.

And those US subs will prop us up through the 2030s?
That’s the idea, and then by the early 2040s, we’re planning on rolling one submarine off the local production line every 2 years through to the late 2050s when we’re on track to build 8.

It all seems so far into the future…
But things have to start moving now in order to make it a reality. Just the designing and building of submarine construction yards in South Oz alone will require 4,000 workers.

So Adelaide’s going to be the home of this project?
It’s at the front and centre of things. But there’s a big role for Western Oz too with its naval base, and the location of a base on the east coast is yet to be decided. Port Kembla near Wollongong is firming up as the most likely location – it’s got deep water access and a lot of existing facilities.

What’s been the reaction to this new announcement?
It’s received bipartisan support – Liberal leader Peter Dutton said the Coalition would support tough budget cuts in order to fund those submarines. But some aren’t Aussies happy about the idea of stumping up more than $300 billion for the subs.

I’m guessing Beijing isn’t happy about the turn of events…
You got it – Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece The Global Times said the subs deal is a “time bomb for peace and stability in the region” and Beijing has responded by announcing plans to step up its own military capabilities. Former PM Paul Keating is another critic – he said it was “the worst deal in all history” and that Oz has misjudged China’s intentions.

Another classic Keating zinger…
And just think, there’s decades-worth of more subs debate to look forward to…

Squiz recommends:

I’m On a Boat – The Lonely Island

China’s Submarine Fleet Is Huge. The U.S. Navy Plans To Whittle Away At It With MinesForbes

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