Australia’s announcement that it will acquire at least eight nuclear-powered attack submarines came as a remarkable surprise. Especially as it was accompanied by another announcement of even more profound consequences: the formation of the AUKUS between the US, the UK and Australia itself.
It is true that for years there had been talk in defence circles that Australia needed nuclear-powered attack submarines. As early as 2009, the then Australian government ruled that the nuclear option to replace the nationally designed (highly problematic and poorly operational) Collins-class diesel-electric submarines was ruled out. Various studies on the future of Australia’s submarine weapon, such as this one by ASPI in 2012 entitled «Mind the gap. Getting serious about submarines’, explored three options, one of which was to have nuclear-powered Virginia-class submarines, although there were doubts that even the Americans would be willing to transfer the technology.
According to the Financial Times, it was the Australians who asked the Americans for technology for nuclear attack submarines. The very creation of AUKUS, a military technology-sharing partnership, is not some kind of new defence pact. According to the UK government’s statement, AUKUS “will enhance the development of joint capabilities and technology sharing, ensuring our people are kept safe from harm and reinforcing our shared goals. AUKUS will foster deeper integration of security and defence-related science, technology, industrial bases and supply chains”.
The Australian government’s desire for nuclear attack submarines reveals the grand strategy that Australia has finally taken to meet the Chinese challenge. A grand strategy that breaks very much with traditional conceptions of defence, alliance and force structure in Australia’s armed forces.
The advantages of nuclear-powered attack submarines
A priori, having large, large-displacement nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) is always much better than diesel-electric submarines (SSKs), so it might seem that the Australian government simply wants to have the best possible type of submarine weapon. However, the issue is of far greater strategic significance, revealing the kind of relations Australia will have with China and the US.
As the map below shows, nuclear-powered attack submarines have the advantage of being able to operate for many more days than their conventionally powered counterparts.
In addition, nuclear submarines can sail submerged at much higher speeds than conventional submarines (20 knots versus 6.5 knots according to the map legend, although it depends on each nuclear and conventional submarine). Conventional submarines must periodically partially surface with the snorkel to recharge the batteries with the diesel engines, while nuclear submarines can sail indefinitely fully submerged. The only limitation is the amount of food on board. In any case, since the space for the nuclear reactor and its fuel is much smaller than that needed to house the electric generators, diesel engines and batteries of conventional submarines, and their displacement is usually significantly greater, with few exceptions, nuclear submarines have much more space for food.
The issue of space is not a trivial one. Nuclear submarines, compared to conventional submarines, also have a greater capacity to carry torpedoes, missiles, and also much larger and more capable sensors. Furthermore, this includes a larger active sonar on their bow, which increases effective range and sensitivity to return sound. Submarines of much greater length also allow much larger passive sonars to be deployed along the length of the vessel. Passive sonars are of vital importance in modern submarine warfare, especially for detecting and hunting other submarines.
Turning to armament, the large size of the Virginia Block V SSNs allows space for 12 VLS with Tomahawk missiles from the previous blocks plus the VPM for 28 additional Tomahawk missiles (or a smaller number of ballistic missiles), plus space for 65 torpedoes or Harpoon missiles. The large conventional Attack class submarines to be acquired by Australia had space for only 28 torpedoes; the Collins class deployed only 22 torpedoes; the French Scorpene 18 torpedoes.
Hunter killer submarines are attack submarines designed to be able to passively detect other attack submarines while being able to deploy at speeds as high as 10 knots (the specific speed of each hunter killer submarine varies). In general, when a submarine reaches a certain speed in its advance, it reaches a point where the internal noise does not allow its passive sonar to detect other submarines, so it must slow down or stop. This is a tactical easement compared to a hunter killer, which can advance at 10 knots while being able to detect enemy submarines and can manoeuvre without going «deaf» as would happen to an attack submarine not optimised to hunt other submarines.
Since the last years of the Cold War, submarines have become so quiet that detection by passive means has become progressively more difficult. Hence, a submarine with large active sonars has a great advantage over those with smaller sonar receivers. In addition, the deployment of drones with their own active sonars offers the tactical advantage of being able to scan for the presence of other submarines without the SSN giving itself away.
Having said all this and understanding the advantages that nuclear submarines will bring to the country, the fact that Australia asked for help to build nuclear submarines that can operate for many days in distant areas of operations indicates Australia’s intention to abandon a strategic posture focused on defending the country from direct military aggression. This military posture, sometimes referred to in Australian circles as «continentalist», does not need large nuclear attack submarines, but smaller conventional submarines are sufficient to defend Australia’s coasts. The Australian submarine debate therefore signals a radical shift in Australia’s strategic and military posture, not simply the acquisition of a superior weapon (nuclear submarines) over an inferior one (diesel-electrics).
The submarine debate on Australia’s grand strategy
For years, the strategic debate in Australia revolved around the very scale of China’s rise (the size of its economy and military), the extent of relative US decline, the threat of the scale of China’s rise (a benign rise versus an aggressive and threatening China), the type of political relations Australia should subsequently have with China and the US, and, finally, the type of military Australia should deploy.
For example, if the scale of China’s rise were not sufficient to eclipse American power and were a threat to Australia, close relations with the United States would be desirable. Conversely, if China’s rise were superlative, in the economic interest and because it could not expect to be defended by the Americans, political relations should involve distancing itself from the Americans. In such a case, if China did not represent a serious threat, there would be no need for a dedicated armed force to defend Australia’s bastion.
The strategic shift in Australian defence policy came to a head in 2020 with the publication of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and 2020 Force Structure Plan, which envisaged a strategic environment in which China posed a serious threat to Australia. Accordingly, Australia’s armed forces should move from a traditional defensive continentalist posture and begin acquiring long-range strike weapons, moving from a deterrence strategy of denial to retaliatory deterrence capabilities.
There is a wealth of literature exploring these issues, from which I have selected excerpts from the following two to frame this debate.
The 2016 study ‘Australia’s Strategic Culture and Asia’s Changing Regional Order‘ outlines the four main strands of opinion that Australian security and defence specialists hold about the future strategic context and the type of alliances and defence policy Australia should adopt to deal with the rise of China.
The first, an optimistic liberal position, believes that the region’s economic interdependence, and in particular the Sino-US relationship, is likely to continue to provide the basis for a stable future. The mutual economic interests of China and the US will ensure that competition between the two regional powers will be limited, and that Australia will not need to make a significant shift in its strategic policy.
The second position, still liberal but more pessimistic in outlook, sees the prospect of China’s dissatisfaction with the prevailing international order as real. Australia’s strategy must therefore focus on integrating China into the existing US-led order. There are various ways to do this, including through incentives and socialisation as well as restrictions. Australian policy would therefore support institutional and normative means of shaping China’s policy preferences. Besides, it would make significant contributions to efforts to raise the costs China would have to pay if it attempted to deviate from the prevailing environment.
The third approach is more realistic in the sense that it considers the prospect of a military dispute between the US and China plausible, if not likely, and advocates what has come to be known as a hedging strategy. That is, Australia should be able to support regional efforts to deter China from destabilising the status quo by bolstering its own military capabilities while at the same time engaging diplomatically with China to offset the damaging consequences of a hedging strategy.
The fourth approach is the most pessimistic and would represent a significant shift in Australian strategic policy. This view sees China’s scale, wealth and ambition as ultimately incompatible with the prevailing regional order. Consequently, Australia and others will need to develop a new way of structuring the Asian strategic framework. The best-known representative of this approach, Hugh White (in his book The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power), argues that a concert of powers, in which the region’s major states share power and influence to manage Asia’s international relations, would be the optimal way forward and that Australia will need to develop a significantly greater independent military capability to navigate this new world.
However, while this debate has become heated and, at times, surprisingly personal, it has not captured the public imagination and remains the focus of a fairly small group of policy analysts, journalists and academics.
The 2013 CSBA study ‘Gateway to the Pacific. Australian Defence Strategy and the Future of the Australia-U.S. Alliance” proposed a taxonomy of the different Australian strategic positions regarding the magnitude of the Chinese rise, the threat posed by that rise, the U.S. position, the capabilities Australia’s military force should have, and the type of alliance with the Americans. It also set out the capabilities that Australia’s military force should have, and the type of alliance with the Americans.
Minimising alliances: Alliance minimalists believe that Australia is at great risk of being caught in the middle of the increasingly tense US-China rivalry. They also have serious doubts about the ability of the US to preserve its favourable position as a credible long-term security provider in Asia. Their vision of the future is underpinned by a firm belief in the inexorable nature of China’s rise and the inescapability of US decline. As a result, they argue, the US should learn to adapt to Chinese ambitions, and Australia should seek to develop a more autonomous security policy. Hugh White, a leading proponent of this school of thought, has argued that the United States will inevitably be forced to share power with China in Asia and should therefore accept that large swathes of China’s maritime environs will eventually fall under Beijing’s sphere of influence. Echoing the injunctions of the classic naval theorist Sir Julian Corbett, Hugh White paints a pessimistic vision of Asia’s future maritime landscape becoming a «no man’s ocean», where no single power could truly exercise control of the sea. Australia should therefore concentrate first and foremost on remaining on the periphery of Sino- US competition, avoiding any engagement that could lead to entrapment while implementing a vigorous sea denial strategy.
White’s declinist perception is shared to some extent by figures such as Peter Leahy, former head of the Australian military, who has expressed strong reservations about the future of US primacy in the region and questioned the need to deepen military ties with the US for fear of unnecessarily antagonising China. Several business groups with vested interests in China, particularly in the mining sector, have also shown a strong reluctance to move closer to the US.
Maximising alliances: On the opposite side of the spectrum are alliance maximalists, who believe that in the face of growing Chinese assertiveness, strengthening Australian security rests on deepening ties with the United States. By more proactively signalling Australia’s strategic solidarity with the United States and taking steps to strengthen its own defence contributions to the US-Australia alliance, Canberra can better encourage the United States to maintain its regional security commitments and enhance the alliance’s durability and credibility as a deterrent. Alliance maximalists argue that this can only happen if Australia acquires the capacity to make significant contributions in the event of a regional crisis or conflict. Ross Babbage of the Kokoda Foundation, for example, has argued that Australia should acquire the military means to ‘rip an arm off any Asian great power seeking to attack Australia’. Moreover, he added that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) should not only defend Australia’s shores, but also take the fight to the enemy and play an active role alongside US forces in the course of a protracted campaign (see his book ‘Australia’s Strategic Edge in 2030‘). Paul Dibb has also argued that Australia should strengthen its relationship with the United States to maintain its security commitments in the region to counter China. Alliance maximalists tend to believe, in particular, that the ADF should adopt a policy of ‘deterrence by punishment’, rather than simply a policy of ‘deterrence by denial’, partly as a hedge against uncertainty. As Babbage has written: «the assumption that, in the event of a major security crisis in the Pacific, Australia could count on rapid and personalised military resupply from the United States is almost certainly invalid».
Incrementalists: Somewhere in between are the incrementalists, who hold a strong belief in the value of the US-Australia alliance, but harbour residual concerns about US policies or strategies that they believe could be destabilising or a trap for Australia. Benjamin Schreer of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, for example, has argued in a recent report (see his study ‘Planning the Unthinkable War: ‘AirSea Battle’ and its Implications for Australia‘) that while Australia should seek to gain additional insights into the operational details of the Pentagon’s newly coined AirSea Battle concept, it should avoid registering publicly in any way, shape or form with the concept, lest it provoke Chinese wrath.
Regarding the type of structure of the Australian armed forces, the study posits the following four alternatives.
Sanctuary support: Taking advantage of its advantageous geographic position, strategic depth and highly developed infrastructure, Australia can play an indispensable role in providing access, training opportunities, logistics and repair facilities to support allied military forces.
Indo-Pacific Watchtower: Australia’s unique geography and decades of close intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) cooperation with the United States provide the basis for expanding its role in the Indo-Pacific reconnaissance, space and cyber domains.
Green Water Guardian: Australia’s proximity to key Southeast Asian waterways and its considerable experience in conducting challenging amphibious and littoral operations make it ideally placed to work alongside Indonesia in protecting the Sunda and Lombok Straits.
Peripheral launch platform: Australia’s extended coastline and position make it an ideal location from which to conduct peripheral campaigns in the Indian Ocean, such as maritime interdiction operations, in the event of a conflict in the western Pacific.
More recently, Hugh White, labelled an ‘alliance minimalist’ in the above classification, published a highly controversial book in 2019 entitled ‘How Defend Australia‘. The book’s strategic setting paints a picture in which China will be the predominant power in the Pacific. That the US, Japan and other traditional allies will be the dominant power in the Pacific. Japan and other traditional allies will no longer be trusted. Australia’s military defence should therefore be based on 22 SSK submarines of about the size of the Collins class, amphibious LHD aircraft carriers, Hobart frigates and only a few ANZAC frigates. The air force should be optimised to destroy an amphibious force that threatens to invade Australia (hence also the 22 SSK diesel submarines) and a light army and territorial defence force. In addition, Australia should have ballistic submarines with nuclear warheads, to deter China or any other hostile power.
Australian Prime Minister Morrison’s cabinet appears to have opted for a maximalist alliance strategy, and the nuclear-powered attack submarines indicate that Australia’s force structure adheres to the «peripheral launch pad» strategy. With nuclear-powered attack submarines (nuclear-powered, not armed with nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles), the Australian armed forces will be able to campaign against Chinese lines of communications and execute a distant blockade against Chinese commerce (retaliatory deterrence strategy). Furthermore, nuclear submarines will be anti-submarine platforms to hunt down and destroy Chinese nuclear attack submarines in the future.
The rest of the long-range strike capabilities specified in the «2020 Defence Strategic Update» document, such as ISR platforms, LRASM missiles, F-35A fighters, etc., are in line with the strategic line of acquiring nuclear attack submarines. It should be noted that the aforementioned document ruled out the acquisition of nuclear submarines. As for the characteristics of the new submarines, there are still no details available, nor whether the design will be based on the Virginia class, the British Astute class or whether it will be a new design of its own.
Australia’s 2020 strategic shift takes into account that China is currently its largest trading partner, but that China is using trade relations as an instrument of war and geo-economic pressure. China is imposing de facto embargoes on a number of Australian products on phytosanitary grounds and is trying to manipulate tourist and student arrivals to Australia (which bring in a large amount of foreign exchange and are a mainstay of many Australian universities).
It also assumes that the scale of China’s economic boom will be limited. The signs that China’s economic and industrial growth is reaching its peak and will not be able to overtake the US and the coalition of Western and Asian states it leads cannot be reeled off in these pages, although we will discuss them in the future. In any case, Australia’s grand strategy vision assumes a future strategic landscape in which China will not overshadow the US. However, China will be a major threat, with considerable military capabilities and aggressive behaviour. Therefore, it is optimal for Australia to deepen defence relations with the US-led coalition of states, as it is feasible to confront and defeat China militarily. Moreover, Chinese direct investment in Australia has plummeted, so economic interdependence will not turn into economic dependence.
As the images below show, Australia has the advantage of being far enough out of range of most Chinese long-range weaponry. At the same time, Australia is relatively close to the naval bottlenecks through which Chinese trade routes flow, so it can attack that maritime traffic without suffering a large number of direct attacks.
However, from China’s southernmost positions, Darwin and Tindal Air Base would be within range of DF-26 IRBMs and DF-17 hypersonic missiles. For this reason, in the 2020 Australian defence architecture document, significant resources are dedicated to missile and hypersonic missile defence (A$23 billion). The 2020 force structure plan estimated that new capabilities worth 187 billion US dollars would be acquired over 10 years. The annual defence budget would thus increase from 29 billion US dollars to 51 billion US dollars in a decade.
Conclusion: AUKUS, much more than nuclear submarines
Australia’s acquisition of nuclear attack submarines has not been as simple as acquiring the best possible platform but addresses far more complex strategic deterrence and grand strategy issues, which only a few years ago were under debate in Australian defence and international policy circles.
Australia, as we can see from AUKUS, has moved away from continental defence and stabilisation missions to strategic competition between great powers and deterrence against China. Moreover, it is committed to deepening relations with the United Kingdom and the United States, failing attempts to try to strike an equidistant balance between China and the Americans. The institutional inertia of expensive procurement projects and industrial engagement with the Americans and the British also indicates that these changes will be structural and will continue beyond the Morrison administration.
The employment concept and operational plans for nuclear attack submarines are likely to parallel Australian defence policy with those of the US fleet in the Indian Ocean and Pacific to fight China. As recently as 2020, it was leaked that the general in command of Australia’s special forces instructed his subordinates that a war with China is highly likely. In April 2021, the Australian defence minister also said that a war against China over Taiwan could not be ruled out.
- AUKUS, nuclear submarines and Australia’s Grand Strategy - 19/09/2021
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