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Australia Wants Nuclear Submarines. Does It Need Them?

Updated: Jun 23, 2022

AUKUS, the latest awkward acronym to grace the headlines, has seen no shortage of analysis. Announced on September 15th, the security pact between the US, UK, and Australia is, in principle, a broad commitment for the three nations to “significantly deepen cooperation on a range of security and defense capabilities.” Those capabilities are myriad, but one in particular has attracted significant attention: Canberra’s commitment to purchase nuclear-powered (not nuclear armed) submarines for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). In announcing this commitment, the Australian government simultaneously ended a multi-billion-dollar program to purchase conventional, diesel-electric powered submarines from France. The sudden cancellation has raised much furor in Paris, with president Emmanuel Macron going so far as to recall the French ambassadors from Australia and the USA.

Much has been said about the pact’s implications for Franco-American relations, Chinese defense planning, and even Iran’s nuclear ambitions (we’ll get back to that last one). But one question has been oddly absent from much of the discourse: why does the RAN actually want nuclear submarines? And is their acquisition a good idea?

To understand the ruckus over AUKUS, we have to begin over a decade ago. In a 2009 white paper, the Australian Department of Defence posited that a force of twelve submarines would be necessary “to defend [Australia’s] approaches (including at considerable distance from Australia, if necessary), protect and support other [Australian Defence Force] assets, and undertake certain strategic missions where the stealth and other operating characteristics of highly-capable advanced submarines would be crucial.”

That white paper, and the mission profiles it outlined, formed the basis of a 2015 procurement competition - which, notably, did not evaluate any nuclear-powered submarines. Indeed, the submarine that eventually won the competition was a variant of the French Barracuda-class submarine, modified to replace the nuclear reactor with conventional propulsion. The reasoning seemed obvious: Australia lacked a domestic nuclear industry, meaning its submarines would have to be built and maintained by a foreign nuclear power. This ran contrary to one of the secondary objectives of the submarine program; to revitalize the Australian shipbuilding industry.

And yet, at some point in the past half-decade, Australia warmed up to the idea of operating nuclear submarines. There are, of course, clear benefits to them: nuclear submarines can sustain much higher speeds than their conventional counterparts, don’t have to operate near the surface to recharge their batteries (“snorting”), and the only limit to their operational range is the need to restock food for the crew. The operational implications are significant - a conventional submarine deploying from Perth would only be able to remain “on station” (ready to engage in combat) in the South China Sea for 11 days; a nuclear-powered submarine, by contrast, could remain on station for 77. This added capability allows the submarines to defend Australia from much further away, giving the RAN much greater operational flexibility to deter, disrupt, and destroy adversaries before they come within range of Australia itself.

Nevertheless, all of the factors that pushed Australia away from nuclear propulsion in 2015 still exist in 2021. Under the terms of the AUKUS deal, the US will transfer information on naval reactors to Australia, but Australia still lacks the actual capability to construct or maintain those reactors. As such, it is very likely that the new submarines will not, in fact, be assembled in Australia, but instead in the United States - where they will also be forced to travel for emergency maintenance. As former Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, put it: “if you can’t maintain your own ships, you are not in full control of them.” This greatly reduces Australia’s military independence and increases their reliance on American military platforms, putting greater pressure on Canberra to subordinate itself to Washington’s Pacific strategy. Worse still, while the entire fleet of French- built conventional submarines were expected to be in service by 2035, the new nuclear submarines are projected to only begin hitting the water by the end of the 2030s, forcing Australia to enact a costly life-extension program to keep its aging Collins-class submarines in service.

Moreover, the implications of Australia’s purchase of nuclear submarines extend far beyond the Pacific. Australia is designated as a Non-Nuclear Weapons State (NNWS) under the provisions of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). This obliges it to accept safeguards (and International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of those safeguards) to prevent nuclear materials from being diverted from civil purposes towards nuclear weapons. Therein lies the crunch: naval reactors manufactured by the US and UK are fueled by Highly Enriched Uranium, which is essential for producing nuclear fission weapons. Under normal circumstances, any HEU stored in a NNWS is subject to safeguards and inspections. However, there exists a legal loophole: any state is allowed to withdraw nuclear material, including HEU, from safeguards, so long as it is used for a “non-proscribed military activity” - that is to say, anything that isn’t a nuclear bomb. While this means Australia possessing nuclear submarines wouldn’t breach the NPT directly, it would break convention. Currently, only countries recognized as Nuclear Weapons States by the NPT operate nuclear submarines. Some analysts fear that ending this convention could embolden some states, namely Iran, to secretly produce nuclear weapons with HEU ostensibly withdrawn to support naval reactor projects.

In summary, Australia’s decision to switch from procuring conventional to nuclear submarines was potentially a huge mistake. First, while nuclear submarines will provide Australia with improved operational independence and more effective defense-in-depth, they will undermine its strategic independence, as Australia will become reliant on foreign partners to operate its submarines. Secondly, the switch to nuclear will economically hurt Australia by denying it the revitalization of a domestic shipbuilding industry, as well as forcing it to spend money on a life-extension program for its current submarine fleet. Finally, by becoming the first NNWS to operate nuclear submarines, Australia will break a key international norm. This opens up the route for other NNWS such as Iran to follow suit, contributing towards worsening nuclear proliferation and de-grading global security.

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