Shortcuts / 23 September 2021


Billed as one of the most significant security developments since WWII, Australia, the UK and the US have made a pact to work together in the Indo-Pacific region and share their top-secret technology. And under AUKUS, Oz will get its own nuclear-powered submarines. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we take you through:​​

• why submarines are such a big deal and why nuclear-powered subs are a thing,
• why France is super cranky,
• and our chequered history in the submarine game. 

Let’s get our sea legs. Why are submarines so important for our defence?
Australia is an island, we’re remote from the rest of the world, and we need the seas to be open. What submarines do is act as a deterrent to any hostile power that might block seaways that would stop our exporters from getting their goods to market. It’s about protecting Australia’s prosperity.

Not for fighting?
Sure, they could be used for that too. But that doesn’t happen a lot for us – to date anyway.

So what’s the attraction?
Submarines are all about invisibility. Once a submarine leaves port and dives, it’s essentially detectable only at short range and by sonar. To find them requires large and complex search efforts.

How long have subs been around?
Submarines were first widely used during World War I and they are now used worldwide, largely to keep the peace and for intelligence gathering. But they can also be used to devastating effects during times of conflict.

In what way?
Whether it be attacking ships, other submarines or launching land attacks with missiles, submarines are effective fighting machines. But to their powers of mystery, submarines can be used to quietly protect naval fleets, for military reconnaissance, and the covert insertion of special forces.

No wonder nations want ‘em…
Yup. That said, not all submarines can do all those things. There are different sizes and types for different purposes. The big differentiator is their propulsion method and how they’re fuelled.

So how are they fuelled?
There’s diesel-electric or nuclear-powered.

What’s the difference?
Nuclear offers several advantages over diesel – especially in speed and endurance. The fuel supply of a nuclear submarine can last for many years, and missions see them submerged for months, surfacing only for food and to give the crew shore leave.

And diesel-electric? 
Well, they need to snort.

They need to what now?
Snorting sees the sub rise to periscope depth to run the diesel engines and recharge their batteries. It’s noisy, and getting so close to the surface means a higher chance of being spotted.

So nuclear-powered subs seem to have an edge. 
But they are expensive, complex pieces of kit. And they make a whopping big statement.

Which is?
That you’re worried about your position in the world and you’re willing to spend up to defend yourself.

Which is precisely where Oz is at it seems?
Seems so. So the US and UK will share their technology and expertise with Australia to develop and build nuclear-powered submarines as part of a newly-announced defence pact known as AUKUS.

Remind me… 
Those are the initials of Australia, the UK and the US.

Why is it such a big deal?
It’s been viewed in the context of China’s rise. We have other Squiz Shortcuts that talk through China’s claim on parts of the South China Sea, the country’s broken deal with the UK over keeping Hong Kong free and then there’s their claim to Taiwan. And China has been a lot more aggressive in wielding its economic might in the world, including with Australia.

Back to subs and how it relates to AUKUS…
The first initiative under AUKUS is an agreement to help Australia build nuclear-powered subs. We will be just the 7th nation to have them after the UK, US, China, Russia, India and France. But there’s a long road from here to having them in operation.

How long?
The 3 nations will spend the next 18 months identifying how to build at least 8 of them. And that’ll include figuring out what they’ll call “requirements that underpin nuclear stewardship”.

Please explain…
Australia doesn’t have nuclear-powered anything, so there’s a lot of work to do to get into that mindset to find the people and develop the safety protocols that come with it.

Where and when is this build happening?
The new fleet is to be assembled in Adelaide. The plan is they will be commissioned in the late 2030s with the decommissioning of the existing Collins-class subs to start from 2038.

What if there’s a gap between the old and the new?
The short-term leasing of nuclear-powered submarines from the UK or the US is being considered.

So there must have been plenty of people who didn’t like it… 
The announcement has stirred up a ‘no-nukes’ backlash from the Greens. Leader Adam Bandt criticised the agreement as putting “floating Chernobyls in the heart of Australia’s cities,” saying it “makes Australia less safe.” Critics of that position say nuclear technology has advanced significantly since the Soviet era.

So now Oz is all for nuclear?
No. PM Scott Morrison make it clear that Australia was not seeking to develop a “civil nuclear capability,” which would include nuclear power plants. And these subs will not have nuclear weapons.

Don’t the Kiwis have an issue with nuclear?
Yes, and New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern was quick off the blocks reminding Australia of New Zealand’s long-standing ban on any nuclear-powered vessel within its territorial waters. That’s a policy dating back to 1984, which saw New Zealand partly suspended from the ANZUS treaty.

So getting our hands on these subs is a while away…
And because of that, there’s been quite a bit of commentary that we’ve bought a fight with China now for defence assets we won’t get for 15+ years. Others say subs aren’t the be-all and end-all of our defence. And regardless, the hope is all these things are last-resort measures, and diplomacy and cooperation is the way to sort out our issues with China and anyone else.

But it’s a big change in direction for Oz…
Indeed. And even more so given Australia’s difficult history with submarine procurement.

Go on…
It goes back to the 1980s when Kim Beazley was Defence Minister, and the government signed off on a plan to replace its ageing Oberon-class submarine fleet with an Australian built fleet. At that time, a Swedish company together with Australian partners were selected to build 6 Collins-class diesel-electric attack submarines.

But there were issues…
Yup. The project was plagued from the very beginning with allegations of espionage, technical difficulties and poor handling of design changes. And it took roughly 2 decades to iron it out. But after a lot of money, they have largely been fixed.

So why replace them?
‘Cos they’re ageing. So in 2016, the Malcolm Turnbull-led government selected French shipbuilder Naval Group to build a fleet of 12 new attack class Shortfin Barracuda submarines. That was to come at the cost of $50 billion to be delivered in the mid-2020.

So what’s the problem?
The cost rose to $90 billion, and delivery was delayed until the mid-2030s. Reports also say in recent months, there was a building concern that Naval Group would continue to miss milestones. And there were worries they would fail to deliver on what was promised on what would be built here in Oz.

I’m seeing a theme…
If it’s that building these subs in Australia has been a big deal to successive governments, you’re spot on.

But why?
It’s about boosting domestic jobs. But it also increases our naval defence capabilities by having people here who know how to build, maintain and run our defence assets.

But we’ve ditched the French connection? 
We have and the French Government says it was blindsided by the AUKUS partnership and the cancellation of that contract. Let’s just say they weren’t happy… France recalled their ambassadors from Australia and the US for talks, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described it as a “stab in the back”.

What are they really angry about? 
France is really annoyed that as an allied nation with a presence in the Pacific, it was cut out of the picture in secret talks between the 3 English-speaking countries.

So there’s some patching up to do?

What’s next?
China taking action? Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian described the agreement as “extremely irresponsible” while Chinese state media warned Oz that it was now an “adversary” of China and should “prepare for the worst.”

Yikes. What has Australia said?
PM Morrison says the security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region have grown significantly, and we’ve got to step things up.

And step things up we have.
You got that right…

Squiz recommends:

ABC Radio National: Submarines: ‘The history and future underwater warfare’

Vigil – available on Foxtel or Binge

Greyhound – available on Apple TV

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