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Everything wrong with Australia's nuclear submarine deal

Australia has entered into a new trilateral military alliance with the United Kingdom and the United States, called AUKUS.

Australia has entered into a new trilateral military alliance with the United Kingdom and the United States, called AUKUS.

The partnership was sealed with the announcement that Australia would, for the first time, construct and operate a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. 

The new deal has been criticised by former Prime Minister Paul Keating and national security experts. It’s also led to increasing tension between Australia and a number of other countries.

Today, Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University and contributor to The Saturday Paper Hugh White on why this new submarine deal puts Australia at risk, and what we should be doing instead.

 

Guest:  Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University and contributor for The Saturday Paper Hugh White.

 
Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

 

Australia has entered into a new trilateral military alliance with the United Kingdom and the United States, called AUKUS.  

 

The partnership was sealed with the announcement that Australia would, for the first time, construct and operate a fleet of nuclear powered submarines. 

 

The new deal has been criticised by former Prime Minister Paul Keating and national security experts. It’s also led to increasing tension between Australia and a number of other countries.
 

Today, Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University and contributor to The Saturday Paper, Hugh White on why this new submarine deal puts Australia at risk, and what we should be doing instead.

 

It’s Tuesday September 21.

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:
So Hugh late last Wednesday, these reports started emerging that the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was going to make a landmark announcement on national security and there was a lot of speculation about what that might be, whether or not we were about to go to war. What were you thinking, as you waited to find out what the actual announcement was? 

HUGH:
Well, there's been a little bit of whisper around Canberra that there might be something going on, the idea of moving to nuclear powered submarines. So when I heard those stories, I did think maybe they're going to make an announcement on submarines. But I'm going to say, you know, what might have been I didn't actually do anything about it. I just sat on that thought. And so I was in a way as surprised as anyone when I woke up Thursday morning and saw the stories that were starting to come out of the US about what was about to happen. 

 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“Well, good morning from Australia. I'm very pleased to join two great friends of freedom and of Australia, Prime Minister Johnson and President Biden.” 

 

RUBY:
And so on Thursday, we saw this early morning press conference, Scott Morrison alongside the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, U.S. President Joe Biden. Let's talk about that conference. How did it go? 

 

HUGH:
Look, it was a pretty strange affair. It's not often you see three heads of state or government lined up like that. And particularly with Morrison leading off, which was a bit strange. 


Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“We have always seen the world through a similar lens. We've always believed in a world that favours freedom, that respects human dignity, the rule of law, the independence of sovereign states.” 

 

HUGH:
And, you know, really, the three of them gave what you might say, are classic boilerplate speeches about the sort of deep links of history, culture, tradition and language between our three great countries sort of stuff. 

 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“And so Friends AUKUS is born, a new enhanced trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, AUKUS.” 

 

Archival tape -- Joe Biden:
“AUKUS, it sounds strange with all these acronyms but it’s just a good one. AUKUS, our nations will…” 

 

HUGH:
It was also kind of strange, poor old Joe Biden obviously forgot Scott Morrison's name and  referred to him as that fella from down under. 

 

Archival tape -- Joe Biden:
“That fella down under. Thank you very much pal, appreciate it, Mr. Prime Minister.” 

 

HUGH:
Which somewhat detracted from the dignity of the occasion. 

 

But the, you know, the punch line was the announcement. 

 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“The first major initiative of AUKUS will be to deliver a nuclear powered submarine fleet for Australia.” 

 

HUGH:
That the US and the UK were going to help Australia move to build a nuclear powered submarine. That is a very big deal. It's a huge policy shift on the part of America and Britain to allow another country access to that kind of technology. And, of course, it's a huge shift for Australia to go that way. 

 

Archival tape -- Joe Biden:
“I want to be exceedingly clear about this. We're not talking about nuclear armed submarines. These are conventionally armed submarines that are powered by nuclear reactors. This technology has proven, it’s safe.”

RUBY:
So can you tell me a bit about the background to this deal, why are submarines such a big and I suppose contentious part of our defence policy? 

 

HUGH:
Yeah, look, you know, the first point is that submarines are really important to a maritime country like Australia.  We are an island and submarines are really fundamental to maritime warfare, but they're really complex capabilities. They're very sophisticated machines. They're very expensive. They're easy to get wrong. They’re hard to get right. As we found with the old Collins class that we've been wrestling with for the last few decades. 

 

Archival tape -- Reporter 1:
“Australia's ageing Collins class submarines are to be given a multi-billion dollar life extension. It's a sign of the ongoing problems with the nation's future submarine fleet.”  

 

HUGH:
And there'd been this long, painful and oft delayed process to replace the old Collins, which are coming to the end of their life with new submarines. And after a lot of stopping and starting, they'd opted for what turned out to be a very contentious deal with the French.  

 

Archival tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:
“It will be designed in partnership with DCNS, the French naval ship building company. These submarines will be the most sophisticated naval vessels being built in the world and they will be built here.”

 

HUGH:
To buy what was eventually a French nuclear powered submarine, but to take the reactors out of it and put diesel engines in to make it a conventionally powered submarine. 

 

And that project had been going wrong pretty steadily, almost since it began back in 2016. 

 

Archival tape -- Reporter 2:
“But it has since been plagued by cost blow outs, schedule slippages and disagreements around the French contractors' other commitments.”  

 

HUGH:
And the costs were going through the roof. 

 

Archival tape -- Penny Wong:
“Why did the people think that it was fine to not tell taxpayers that the cost had gone from 50 billion to nearly 80 billion for three years?”

 

HUGH:
Got to the point it was estimated that the through-life cost of the submarines would be something like 80 billion dollars, which is even by submarine standards, an eye watering sum of money. So there's been a lot of sense around Canberra for the last year or so in particular, that the government was starting to realise just how badly this project was going and looking for alternatives. But as we said, the idea of it moving to a nuclear powered option was still not something that people had really taken very seriously. So that's why the Thursday announcement was such an interesting surprise. 

 

RUBY:
Ok, so now we have this new deal with the US and the UK, which will replace our current partnership with France, and this new deal involves building nuclear submarines. What are the main differences between these new submarines compared to what we were building with the French?

 

HUGH:
Well, most submarines in the world, including submarines Australia's operated in the past and the ones we were planning to buy from the French are powered by diesel engines that drive electric generators. A big disadvantage of that, of course, is every so often you have to stick your masts up above the surface of the water to run the diesel engines, to get the air into the diesels and get the exhaust out. And that's a kind of moment of vulnerability. 

 

What makes submarines so special as a capability is that underwater they're very hard to detect. And so the first thing about moving to a nuclear submarine is you avoid that problem. 

 

The second thing is that they can go a lot faster, particularly a lot faster underwater. But the technology is very complex, very sophisticated and very sensitive strategically. 

 

For decades, really, ever since they started building these things themselves, the Americans and the British have been extremely reluctant, well have not been willing to share that technology with anybody else. For them to make this decision, to share it with Australia is a very big deal. 


I was never a fan of the French deal. I thought the old French deal was frankly crazy, that we were buying such a big and expensive and complex submarine. 

 

So that deal was crazy. 

 

But I think this one's worse. 

 

RUBY:
We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:
Hugh, you said you think this new submarine deal with the US and the UK is even worse than our previous arrangement with France. Why is that?

 

HUGH:
Well, I think there's two aspects to that. The first is, you know, I don't think they're the right boats for us anyway. The propulsion system on a nuclear powered submarine is a nuclear reactor. So this is a very demanding, dangerous, difficult thing to run. In order to keep them safe, you have to be really careful. And it takes a lot of very sophisticated knowledge, very detailed procedures and so on. And Australia has no expertise in this. 

 

We have a relatively weak nuclear engineering capabilities, we have no expertise at all, of course, of running as a propulsion system on a submarine. The engineering challenges are immense. The maintenance and operational challenges are immense.

 

And our Navy, frankly, has had trouble running ordinary diesel submarines for a long time. So the idea that they can now step forward and operate these very complicated vessels seems to me to be extremely demanding. And the idea that the Australian engineering industry can start building this sort of capability seems to me to be extremely demanding. 

 

So I think it makes the acquisition of a viable operational submarine capability, which I think is very important for our security, that much harder and makes it that much more delayed. One of the problems I see with this deal is that we're not going to get the boats in the water until well after 2040 in terms of them being actually operational. And the last one won't come into service until probably sometime in the 2050s. So it's an immensely long delay. 

 

RUBY:
So essentially what you're saying is, because this is the first time that we've had nuclear powered vehicles as part of our military arsenal, there are big questions about whether or not we can actually build them and if we can, whether we have the expertise to be able to operate them. 

 

HUGH:
Look, I think there's a real question about that. And I think whatever happens, we will end up depending very heavily on Britain and I think particularly on America in order to operate them. 

 

And that does carry a strategic risk of its own, because although we might say, as the Prime Minister said on Thursday, that these are forever partnerships, the fact is nothing's forever. We can't be sure that 20 or 30 years from now, Britain or America are going to see things the same way we do. And it means that we are going to depend on them to be able to operate our submarine capability. And if their interests don't align with ours, that's an added vulnerability. Now, the government talks a lot about the need to have a sovereign submarine capability. But what we've actually done by taking this step, by going for such sophisticated and complex submarines that are going to require us to depend so much on them for their support as well, we’re lessening our sovereign control over our submarine capability. 

 

RUBY:
So, Hugh, what is underpinning all of this? Why is the US giving us this technology? What's in it for them? 

 

HUGH:
Look, This is all about China. 

 

America's strategy in that context is to try and deter China from pushing America out by threatening to go to war if they push any further. And America's reasons for wanting us to have nuclear powered submarines as they want us to be willing to send our submarines up to support their submarines if there's a war.

 

Now, I think that's a bad approach to China, because I don't think the Chinese are going to be deterred. And if they're not deterred, I don't think the Americans can win that war, whether Australia has the submarines there or not. 

 

The Americans are only doing us this huge favour of allowing us access to their nuclear propulsion technology because they want us to be there alongside with them.  

 

RUBY:
Hmm. So given all of that, then, do you think that it is in Australia's interests at all to align ourselves this closely with the US in this particular way? 

 

HUGH:
Well, I'm a great fan of the United States and I've been a great fan of the United States alliance for a very long time. But I think when one’s got to be very unsentimental about these things and I think the United States alliance is less and less valuable to us as the challenge of maintaining its strong position in Asia grows as China's power grows. And I think the risk for Australia is that we'll find ourselves. In fact, we already find ourselves in a situation where by clinging more and more closely to the United States, we're relying on the United States to solve our China problem for us. And if the United States fails to do that, either by withdrawing or by going to war with China, then we're going to be left in a very bad position. And there is an alternative.

 

RUBY:
What's the alternative then Hugh? 

 

HUGH:
Well, I've argued for a long time that there are two things we ought to be doing. The first is we should be building defence forces, which are optimally designed for Australia to defend itself in a region in which the United States is no longer the dominant power. So instead of moving us, we are at the moment, and particularly with this new subs deal to depending more and more on America and shaping our armed forces more and more to support the United States rather than to operate independently, we should be going in the opposite direction and building forces more and more oriented around trying to defend Australia independently as best we can. And I think if we played our cards right, if we spent our money very wisely, for example, spent it on, not on nuclear powered submarines or crazy French submarines, but on a range of other options that are available to us, then I think we could start to build a really a genuinely self-reliant defence posture. 

 

And the other thing we should do is to start working not with the United States and Britain, but with the other countries in our region to work together to see how best we can manage the problem of China. And that involves, amongst other things, acknowledging that whether we like it or not, we are going to have to live with a powerful China. That's not something that's going to go away. 

 

And working out again with our neighbours who have more experience of dealing with China over the centuries than we do. How best to do that is much smarter, I think, than trying to return to clinging to Britain and America, which is kind of a bit of a return to the old Bob Menzies approach to foreign policy. 

 

RUBY:
Hugh, thank you so much for your time. 

 

HUGH:
That's my pleasure. 

 

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[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
Also in the news today,

 

The New South Wales premier Gladys Berijiklian has warned that the state needs to brace itself for a surge in Covid deaths and hospitalisations, warning that October will be “the worst month.” 

 

On Monday the state recorded 935 new cases, the lowest daily number in almost a month.

And in Victoria, more than 300,000 Moderna vaccines are being delivered to pharmacies across the state this month, with more expected to arrive in October and November.

 

According to health authorities, there will be 1,800 pharmacies nationally this week receiving the vaccine to administer.

 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

[Theme Music Ends]

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