Nuclear Submarines Transform Pandora’s Box into a Can of Worms

“To say the very least, the government’s decision to acquire a nuclear-powered submarine from the UK is problematic,” said Allan Behm, director of the international & security affairs program at the Australia Institute.

“For those Australians familiar with the role of submarines in Australia’s defence planning there is a kind of inevitability in the Morrison government’s decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. But make no mistake, it is a momentous decision with far-reaching, and as yet unknown, implications.

“What does it mean for the government to drop such a huge decision on an electorate that is totally unprepared? We have been told for decades that, without a civil nuclear industry, Australia cannot operate nuclear-powered submarines. What has changed – unless it is now acceptable to be totally dependent on a foreign supplier, retaining no autonomy whatsoever?

“The strategic implications of Australia’s acquisition of a nuclear-powered submarine are massive.
If the US supports Australia’s acquisition of a nuclear submarine, albeit without nuclear weapons, Japan and South Korea will be next in the queue. What does that mean for the strategic stability of North Asia? Where does it leave Indonesia, already emerging as a regional strategic heavyweight, in its approach to Australia’s bona fides as a strategic partner? Indonesia is already perplexed about Australia’s desire to host US Marines permanently in the Northern Territory, and what that means for Australia’s long-term intentions and force disposition.

“Does this decision, and the way in which it has been announced, result in a regional arms race? These are all questions on which the Australian public has the right to sound argument and convincing answers.

“The most fundamental issue for both the government and the electorate is Australia’s strategic autonomy is a world that is increasingly dominated by the contest between the US and China.

“The decision looks very much like a retreat into the Anglosphere where key Asian powers – India, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam and China – are of growing strategic relevance and weight. But more than that, it looks like a decision by three English-speaking nations to focus their submarine capabilities on China at a time when de-escalation makes much more sense.

“Without supporting analysis and a serious discussion with the Australian electorate, all of this looks like policy on the fly. Let’s hope that the Parliament is able to give the proposal full and proper consideration.”