Originally published in The Canberra Times on September 17, 2021

To say the very least, the government’s decision to acquire the technology to build nuclear-powered submarines is problematic.

For those Australians familiar with the role of submarines in Australia’s defence planning – and there are more people involved in that arcane world than you might think – 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.

There are four interlocking dimensions to this problem: the practical engineering issues relating to the operation and maintenance of submarines; the domestic political implications of dropping such a major decision on an unprepared public; the strategic implications of being the first non-nuclear-weapon state to acquire nuclear-propelled submarines; and the implications for Australia’s strategic autonomy that flow from a decision to acquire a capability that is totally dependent on the US, and perhaps the UK, for its acquisition, operation and sustainment.

First, the easy bit. There are plausible technical arguments to support the acquisition of nuclear propulsion for Australia’s next-generation submarines. Setting aside for the moment the human factors (how long can people remain at sea submerged?), a nuclear-powered submarine has much greater endurance (the time it can spend at sea without refuelling) and can operate at much higher speeds underwater (important if you want to get away quickly). A nuclear-powered submarine is also much more habitable for the crew spending two months or more at sea. One can argue that, from an engineering perspective, nuclear propulsion makes sense. Just as no one would think of flying from Britain to Australia in a biplane, as Parer and McIntosh did a century ago, so conventionally powered submarines are obsolescent in today’s complex strategic world.

The decision to join Britain’s Astute program is fraught. The program has experienced extended delays and significant cost overruns. It is a very large vessel, more than twice the size of the Collins submarine and with a complement almost twice the size of the Collins crew. But currently Australia does not have enough submariners to man its existing vessels. So while nuclear power fits in well with the pipe dreams of naval planners, the engineering and crewing issues associated with the delivery of a nuclear-powered submarine are formidable. There is no indication the government has thought this through.

More importantly, what does it mean for the government to drop such a huge decision on an electorate that is totally unprepared? Is the electorate simply being taken for granted by a government that has a poor record for accountability and transparency? The government is aware there are strong opinions entertained within the Australian community, some supporting the development of a nuclear industry and just as many, perhaps even more, strongly opposed on environmental and moral grounds.

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? Why has the French submarine program, which has already cost some $2 billion (and the exit penalties could add another $400 million to that) been dumped when an alternative to diesel power might have been the French Barracuda? The French government will be understandably offended, and the reputational damage to Australia in Europe will be considerable – if that matters at all to the Morrison government. Australia’s long-term relationship with France is important, just as the relationship with New Zealand is important. Yet the Ardern government was evidently just as blindsided as the Macron government. How is the Australian community to consider the regional and global strategic consequences? Is this decision designed to lock Australia into US force dispositions in its contest with China? And to what purpose?

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 to which the Australian public has the right to sound argument and convincing answers.

Perhaps the most fundamental issue for both the government and the electorate is Australia’s strategic autonomy in a world 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 would surely prove to be a wiser course if long-term peace and stability is to be maintained.

To decide that the key component of Australia’s strategic strike capability, the submarine, should be totally dependent on US and UK support is to confirm a strategic dependency that narrows the nation’s strategic autonomy without protecting the advantage that independence affords. Australia runs the risk of creating for itself an enormous capability millstone that will consume vast capital resources while distorting its military posture. While the power of the US may or may not be in decline, it is certainly changing. There is no doubt the formation of AUKUS will be seen by Australia’s neighbours, and by China, as a pre-emptive move that creates risk for Australia, without strengthening its agency as a constructive moderating force in regional and global affairs.

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

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