The Australian Nuclear Submarine project, assisted by the US and the UK under the AUKUS agreement, has been dogged with controversies. In a new row, the former Australian Defense Minister has shockingly revealed the Conservative government’s plan to acquire nuclear submarines.
The AUKUS pact was signed last year amid heightened tensions between the West and nuclear-armed China, which has been steadily gaining ground in the Pacific, a region that Australia considers as its traditional area of influence.
In March, Canberra announced that the project for acquiring nuclear propulsion technology had entered its first phase.
However, in new controversy, former Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton recently revealed that he had devised a plan before the election to buy two American Virginia-class submarines by 2030, stating he had “formed a judgment the Americans would have facilitated exactly that.”
Dutton wrote in The Australian that by 2030, he planned to buy two Virginia-class submarines from the US and build eight more, bringing the fleet’s total strength to ten.
In an article ostensibly geared at persuading the new government to accept his proposal, he said it became “clear” to him as the Defense Minister that US submarines were the preferable option. It has long been assumed that Australia could either buy the British Astute-class or the US Virginia-class submarines.
However, the former Minister’s remarks drew an angry retort from the newly-elected Labor Government. Labor has accused Peter Dutton of “rank politics” and undercutting the AUKUS Agreement for announcing that he planned to buy US nuclear submarines to meet an impending capability vacuum.
Dutton’s comments, now opposition leader, were “damaging to Australia’s national interest,” said the new Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Richard Marles.
“The government has not decided on the preferred submarine. All options are on the table,” he said in a statement.
The Looming Capability Gap Against China
Australia ripped up a $90 billion submarine contract with France in September 2021 for conventional diesel-powered submarines in favor of nuclear-powered subs, owing to its security needs and threat perceptions. To that end, it signed a strategic pact with the United States and the United Kingdom, a move that was termed a “stab in the back” by France.
The French contract’s unexpected termination sparked a diplomatic crisis, prompting France to recall its ambassadors from Australia and the United States. The US President, however, claimed later he assumed France knew that Canberra was planning to scrap the deal in favor of a new one.
The Ambassador begins by describing the future submarine program which was scrapped by Australia. He says the program was "unprecedented" and a hugely significant expression of trust because it involved the sharing of technology which was a "core national defence capability" 2/ pic.twitter.com/KJuB07wy5v
— Stephen Dziedzic (@stephendziedzic) November 3, 2021
The cancellation of the deal has created a looming capability gap, necessitating upgrades and life extensions for the Collins-class submarines until the first nuclear-powered submarines could be built in Australia. Only six Collins Class submarines are currently in service with the Australian Navy.
This capability gap faced by the Royal Australian Navy and the rising threat from China in the Pacific has given way to widespread speculation that either the submarine will be built overseas or purchased from either of the two AUKUS partners.
As part of AUKUS, Australia’s former government pledged to acquire nuclear-powered but conventionally armed submarines from either the United States or the United Kingdom.
As part of the contract, an 18-month study is being conducted “to seek an optimal pathway to deliver” nuclear propulsion technology to Australia. The research is said to be in its early phases, with the specifics still being ironed out, as previously noted by EurAsian Times.
Many analysts have speculated that the main goal of the task force involved in the study is to provide a recommendation on which submarine to build — the Virginia class or the Astute class.
This morning I met with UK High Commissioner Victoria Treadell and US Chargé d’Affaires Michael Goldman to sign the AUKUS Exchange of Naval Nuclear Propulsion Information Agreement. This Agreement formalises Australian access to highly sensitive nuclear submarine technology. pic.twitter.com/UtKYRl6PwS
— Peter Dutton (@PeterDutton_MP) November 22, 2021
However, a lot depends on selecting a strategic partner based on the extent to which it is willing to share critical inputs with Canberra, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank.
Furthermore, even a smaller fleet of eight submarines, Australia’s original proposal, would cost an “absolute minimum” of 70 billion Australian dollars ($50 billion) before inflation.
If Dutton’s claims are anything to by, America’s Virginia-class submarines will make the cut over British Astute-class submarines, marking a closer integration of the Australian military with the military of the United States. This argument could make sense given the cooperation of the two armies in the Pacific.
A Snub To Britain?
The US submarines can shoot missiles vertically and be built on a “mature design,” wrote Dutton. According to him, the British Astute-class alternative entailed a new design with “inevitable” cost overruns and design flaws.
He argued in his article that nuclear-powered submarines are needed to compete with China since they are stealthier than Australia’s diesel-electric vessels and do not require surface replenishment of batteries.
The British Astute class has a length of 97 meters and a displacement of 7,800 tons, while the Block V Virginias have a length of 140.5 meters and a displacement of 10,364 tons. A crew of roughly 90 people is required for Astutes, whereas a crew of around 130 is needed for Virginias.
Furthermore, the Block V Virginias have a much greater payload than Astutes, with the added feature of being able to ripple-fire dozens of Tomahawks and supporting likely future payloads.
Dutton said he hoped to buy two of the US submarines “this decade” to avoid a gap in replacing Australia’s aging fleet of six Collins-class submarines, while another eight US submarines would be built in South Australia under the scheme.
This plan would obviate the need to wait until 2038 for the first submarines designed in the United States to be built in Australia, he said. Dutton claimed he would have ordered more Hunter-class frigates or other defense equipment from Britain to “honor and respect” the British side.
Furthermore, the former Defense Minister expressed concerns that the incoming government is “on the cusp of making a very dangerous decision,” such as the construction of a new class of diesel-electric submarines and abandoning the AUKUS agreement.
The revelations made by the former Defense Minister have been negated by the Labor government. However, it could have an undesirable impact on the alliance. When the Scot Morrison government was in talks with the US and the UK for the acquisition of nuclear propulsion technology, Britain was the most eager to get started.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson even assured Morrison that the UK would be willing to build Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines. It was one way he could demonstrate that Britain was broadening its horizons beyond Europe post-Brexit, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.
While the UK has not officially commented on Dutton’s revelations, it would come as a spoiler for London if Canberra was to go ahead with the former government’s plan.
It might as well be a snub to the UK which has been building on the momentum of tensions in the Indo-Pacific to expand its presence in the region and the reaches of its defense manufacturing.