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The definitive case against nuclear submarines for Australia

Australia needs submarines, but conventional ones are more than adequate for the nation’s security. Australia’s north is archipelagic, which means smaller, shorter-ranged submarines can close maritime avenues of approach.

Australia needs submarines, but conventional ones are more than adequate for the nation’s security. Australia’s north is archipelagic, which means smaller, shorter-ranged submarines can close maritime avenues of approach.

The Saturday Paper, Albert Palazzo -adjunct professor at UNSW Canberra. He was a former director of war studies for the Australian Army. November 12, 2022

It’s more than a year since Australia scuttled its submarine deal with France in favour of the nuclear-powered submarine arrangement Scott Morrison announced as part of the AUKUS agreement. There’s been a change of government and more announcing, yet any real detail on why we need such boats, how we’ll get them, which ones they’ll be and how much they’ll cost remains unknown. What has become increasingly clear, however, is that these warships are a massive boondoggle for which there is little strategic justification.

Australia maintains its defence forces to provide for the nation’s security. Every capability the Australian Defence Force acquires undergoes a detailed decision process that includes an examination of how the weapon meets national security requirements. With the nuclear-powered submarine program, however, Australia’s starting point was an announcement confirming the acquisition and the AUKUS agreement, an order of proceedings that conveniently bypassed the messy and challenging aspects of justification for the purchase.

Perhaps skipping this phase was necessary because the rationale given for the acquisition is unsound. At best, it is a desire to be seen to be supporting the ANZUS Treaty. What is not being asked is whether support for the alliance should be the main basis for the acquisition of such expensive platforms with such narrow utility.

Like a kid in a lolly shop, Australia has been given permission to buy the biggest treat on display … What is missed, however, is that being in the inner sanctum generates a massive obligation – and some day that bill may fall due.

What does Australia intend to do with its fleet of nuclear-powered submarines? The answer seems to be that we’ll project power into the East and South China seas, in order to deter our largest trading partner, China, from taking actions inimical to Australian and American interests.

If China is a threat today, why is the government planning to acquire a platform that will not be available for 15 years or more? Shouldn’t the priority be on more readily available weapons? These would include off-the-shelf conventional submarines, additional long-range strike missiles, and drones of all kinds.

Even once Australia has acquired its entire fleet of eight submarines, only two or three are likely to be available for operations at any one time. Deterrence necessitates the ability to intimidate one’s opponent. China is a large country with great industrial depth and a population accustomed to hardship. It also has 66 submarines of its own and more on the way. It is hubris to expect Australia will be able to intimidate a great power, at least on its own.

More worryingly, the seas in which Australia aims to operate are within China’s anti-access/area denial zone, an area guarded by missiles, mines, aircraft and ships, and of such lethality that even the United States is unsure it could penetrate without massive losses. Even if our future submarines did get inside this defensive zone, they would not last long. Essentially, these submarines should not be expected to return home.

Survivability is an important criterion for such an expensive purchase. Enthusiasts point to the better survival potential of nuclear-powered submarines because they remain submerged for longer periods, thereby making detection harder. By contrast, conventional subs must periodically surface to recharge their batteries. But this is an advantage that is fast becoming irrelevant. Sensor technology is improving and becoming pervasive, as demonstrated daily in the war in Ukraine. It is a very big gamble to act on a presumption that sub-surface sensors will not improve in the 15 to 20 years before Australia’s submarines become operational. In fact, a study from Australian National University’s National Security College expects that before 2050 the oceans will become fully transparent to hunters from above. 

Any defensive advantage currently possessed by nuclear-powered submarines will be gone.

More questions need to be asked: What is the strategic benefit of being able to operate off the Chinese coast? How do nuclear-powered submarines improve Australia’s security? And are there better options for the nation’s defence?

The answers to the first two questions are: “There is none” and “They don’t.” The third answer is: “Yes, there are indeed better options.” Australia needs submarines, but conventional ones are more than adequate for the nation’s security. Australia’s north is archipelagic, which means smaller, shorter-ranged submarines can close maritime avenues of approach. …………

Supporters of the nuclear-powered submarine pay too little attention to the project’s opportunity cost. According to experts at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the eight planned submarines will cost at least $116 billion, and likely much more – upwards of $200 billion, according to some analysts. Australia needs submarines, but conventional ones are more than adequate for the nation’s security. Australia’s north is archipelagic, which means smaller, shorter-ranged submarines can close maritime avenues of approach………………………….. more https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/opinion/topic/2022/11/12/the-definitive-case-against-nuclear-subs

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November 11, 2022 - Posted by | AUSTRALIA, weapons and war

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