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Australia’s nuclear submarine trade-off



Defence is a costly business, and few branches of defence are more costly, and questionable, than a country’s submarine capability. Since 2009, Project SEA 1000, the name for Australia’s Future Submarine program, has fascinated strategists and defence planners. In 2016, this resulted in an agreement with the French submarine company DCNS (now called Naval Group) to build an un-designed attack class vessel. Other contenders in the competitive tender — Germany and Japan, for instance — had existing models. 

Another thing stood out: the design for the 12 twelve Shortfin Barracuda Block 1A submarines would be based on a nuclear powered version without its primary attribute. As the late Gary Johnston of Submarines for Australia acerbically put it, the contract ‘dumbed down a nuclear submarine by removing the whole basis of its superior capability, and then charging at least twice as much for a far less capable submarine.’

As to when this new capability would come into force, at a predicted cost of $90 billion, no one could quite say. Optimists opted for a period in the early 2030s. But this did not reassure certain Australian politicians, including Senator Malcolm Roberts, who expressed his concerns in May last year. ‘In the middle of this pandemic we cannot afford to proceed with this contract. This money will be far better spent to support the Australian recovery from the economic pit that is caused by this pandemic. By the time these submarines are delivered, they will be obsolete.’

Problems for the program began to mount. Projected costs began to inflate. Disputes about how the labour should be shared became regular. Suspicions remained that this agreement was, at heart, a French driven enterprise benefiting French industry while being underwritten by the Australian tax payer. In May 2021, the dispute between the Australian Defence Department and Naval Group had become so acrimonious as to lead to a freeze by the company on hiring more staff in France while halting expenditure on aspects of the project in the absence of any reimbursement guarantee from Canberra. 

With the program shadowed by rumours that defence planners were considering a less expensive, revamped version of Australia’s existing Collins Class submarine as a viable competitor, terminal signs were showing. But even this did not prepare Naval Group, France or, for that matter, most Australians, for the joint statement by the governments of the United States, United Kingdom and Australia.

According to the statement, a new security grouping, AUKUS, ‘guided’ by the trio’s ‘enduring ideals and shared commitment to the international rules-based order’ would be an ‘enhanced trilateral security partnership’ that would ‘deepen diplomatic, security, and defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, including by working with partners, to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.’ Deeper cooperation was promised ‘on a range of security and defence capabilities.’


'As the dust settles, AUKUS and the nuclear submarine deal, reached without parliamentary or public scrutiny, provides succour for the hawks as Australia becomes increasingly militarised.' 


The first decision of AUKUS proved to be the eye-opener: ‘to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy.’ US-UK expertise would be brought to bear to create ‘an Australian capability into service at the earliest achievable date. Principles of ‘interoperability, commonality, and mutual benefit’ were stressed.

The statement served three purposes: to tighten security arrangements towards containing China in the Indo-Pacific; to assure Australia that it would receive prized technology only ever shared by the US with the UK in 1958; and to further militarise Australia as a forward base for containment as part of what US Secretary of Defence Lloyd J. Austin tepidly calls ‘integrated defence’.

The Chinese reaction was predictably harsh, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian claiming that the agreement ‘seriously undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race’. But France had every reason to feel a sense of genuine rage, however dubious the contract with Naval Group had been.  Neither Paris, nor the European Union, had been informed

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian thought it reminiscent of Trump-style politics. A relationship of trust with Australia had been betrayed; both the US and the UK had made off with their partner. It was particularly bitter for the minister, given his previous declaration that the Franco-Australian submarine deal was part of a ‘50-year marriage’. There is little doubt that Naval Group, and French diplomats, will be pushing for a hefty separation bill. The proposed figure of $400 million seems laughable.

One marriage may have been dissolved, but underlying problems remain with the new relationship. For one, no contract of supply has actually been drawn up. The horizon as to when these submarines will become operational is even farther than that of the Attack class, with assessments putting the year at 2040. As Sam Roggeveen of the Lowy Institute clarified, the 18-month consultation process announced by Morrison will not focus on the merits of the program but how it will be implemented.

And the how is significant. Australian naval personnel have no expertise in the field of managing nuclear submarines, and will require training. The country lacks a shipyard for constructing such vessels, meaning that any initial work and skills will effectively be outsourced to Anglo-American personnel. This fact has been camouflaged by Morrison, who calls South Australia ‘home to some of the most skilled shipbuilding workers in the world’ with ‘know-how, ingenuity, industrial knowledge and determination’.

The conclusion to reach here was that sharing some prized technology was a small price to pay for a further roping in of Australian real estate with a commitment to any conflict waged by the US in the Indo-Pacific. Australia’s Defence Minister Peter Dutton, speaking in Washington, painted a picture of a future garrison state, with Australia becoming the base of ‘rotational deployments of all types of US military aircraft’. He envisaged an increase in the number of US Marines to add to the current complement of 5,000 on rotation in the Northern Territory, including more bases and ‘the storage of different ordnances’. US Navy commanders are already getting giddy at the prospect of using Australia as a location for maintaining US attack vessels.  

As the dust settles, AUKUS and the nuclear submarine deal, reached without parliamentary or public scrutiny, provides succour for the hawks as Australia becomes increasingly militarised. Leaving aside the anger from Paris for a deal that was foolishly doomed and deservedly sunk, the submarines provide the camouflage for Australia’s official conversion to any future war with the Middle Kingdom.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Main image: Illustration by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, AUKUS, Naval Group, Australian Defence, nuclear submarines



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Existing comments

Written very much as an academic with possibly little/no real life experience of geopolitics and defence. I would not wish for the current world situation, which to me resembles those dark years of the Cold War, where what is called 'The Balance of Terror' existed. In fact, with North Korea, a genuine 'rogue state' possessing nuclear weapons, the situation to me appears far worse than then. I doubt Russia would've done what she did in the Ukraine if the latter had not given up her nuclear weapons. I am at a loss why we proceeded with the French diesel submarine option. It was daft. Aligning with the two nations - our traditional allies - who have the most up-to-date nuclear submarines seems a very good idea. I can understand why this strategy was conducted the way it was. If it had been conducted in Parliament under the eyes of the Fourth Estate it would've let leash so much hot air from the usual loudmouths and nutter fringe that it may well have been stillborn. We need strong defence. Trying to be a Sweden or Switzerland where we are would be silly, we are too isolated.

Edward Fido | 21 September 2021  
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Well, Edward; New Zealand manages to do that rather successfully, don't you think? Or, indeed, don't you?

Michael Furtado | 21 October 2021  

Maybe AUKUS should be renamed AWFUL (Australian War Funding Unbelievably Loony). If this was fiction I'd find it more believable. And I hope the French Ambassador returns soon, he looks like a nice man.

Pam | 21 September 2021  

Binoy, no disrespect to your considerable misgivings but I actually think its a good alliance. Of course I have sympathy for the French and their hand wringing divorce, but Im sure the AUKUS product will be cheaper and superior. As my son joined the Navy last week I'm sure all members of the amphibious arm of Defence will be excited.
China can whinge all they like, but as they already have 74 including 12 Nuclear, they cant begrudge us a dozen or so to counter their increasing belligerence in this region.

Francis Armstrong | 21 September 2021  

How much are you an expert to make these comments? I think you should leave it to those who do know and confirm that both major political parties have agreed on this.
The current virus is just another threat to world peace and there are many threats to Australia, not the least from those that theorize

PHIL VINCENT ROWAN | 21 September 2021  
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PHIL VINCENT RYAN: actual theorists subscribe to the Galilean principle that their theories have to be tested against reality. Pundits in the academic studies of defence, diplomacy and economics are not theorists but soothsayers of a more erudite, plausible sort - as some of the intellectually honest ones will concede.

Fred Green | 22 September 2021  

Both main parties may well agree to this, but one party in particular signed us up to the French diesels and a short while later trashed this countries reputation by having a rethink. But we'll all get over that trauma. What is missing so far is: what has changed? The "new" technology in nuclear propulsion cited by Morrison is nonsense. Don't even suggest this is inspired strategising by our PM either. The only thing that could have changed is a policy shift in the US allowing for transfer of this technology outside of UK/US. I believe we are being played.

SP | 21 September 2021  

We are a young adolescent nation. Understandably we have relied on more powerful nations as we have been growing up. But it is time to give Mother England and Uncle Sam the independent flick and go it alone. They are both faded glory and aged, now decidedly unhealthy. One respondent said we are not Sweden nor Switzerland so cannot be neutral, but forgot New Zealand who got out of ANZUS years ago. Sadly we have been sold the ritual of war as a constituent of our identity. Anzac day commemorates a terrible failure in taking orders from England,but it is rebadged as a sign of national manhood. If you were looking round for a strong, sane ally you would not chose the USA after Korea, Vietnam,Iraq and Afghanistan would you? France is painted as a rejected suitor;while our perfidy is OK because it is in our interest. Confected fear of outsiders is the age old weapon of politicians. And as usual the beneficiaries are the shareholders in the military industrial complex.

Michael D. Breen | 22 September 2021  

Excellent summary and analysis, Binoy. Thank you.
The stark reality that the mainstream media desperately strives to conceal is that the Coalition has seldom, if ever, been able to procure military hardware effectively.
Witness the disasters with the F-111s, the MRH90 Taipan helicopters, the Hunter class frigates, the Boxer combat reconnaissance vehicles and the current submarine debacle – which has lost $3.5 billion and counting – with nothing whatsoever to show for it after eight years.
Successful procurements have all been accomplished by Labor.
Witness the Black Hawk helicopters, Collins class submarines, the F/A-18F Super hornet strike aircraft and most of the other military assets now in service.
It is vital the alternative media – including Eureka Street – make this reality more widely understood.
Looking forward to your further analyses, Binoy.

Alan Austin | 22 September 2021  

One has to ask who the hypermasculine 'we's and 'I's, who splatter these pages with their da capo Cold War drum-beat, imagine they are: some kind of Colonel Blimp rehash of Captain Marvel? Get real, chaps! The days of gunboat diplomacy are well and truly over, whereas Dr Kampmark is a Commonwealth Scholar of the highest standing, whose investigative reporting on Australia's defence strategising and double-dealing with the French spills the beans on how this country is being dudded to the greedy new advantage of one 'long-since-has-been' foreign power and another current great power on the unstoppable economic decline. The question has inevitably to be asked yet again: what about critical collaboration with our neighbours to advance and secure world peace by opening up talks with China, instead of abjectly demonising her?

Michael Furtado | 22 September 2021  
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Michael do you realize that China has declared they will nuke us and Japan if we aid in the defense of Taiwan? No one can be sure which way Biden will jump on Taiwan but Xi is becoming increasingly strident about forced reunification. That they have also effectively torn up the Antarctic treaty they signed in 1985 by unilaterally declaring the Antarctic is frontier territory. Which means up for grabs. It is ludicrous to think China would not also invade Australia if we did not have the US alliance.

Francis Armstrong | 08 October 2021  

Speaking as someone very proud of his West Country roots and with cousins in England, Michael D. Breen, let me assure you I don't think of the Old Dart as 'Mother England'. Since WW 2 Australia's main alliance has been with the USA, which actually saved us by defeating the Japanese in the Pacific. The Founding Fathers were mostly Anglo-Saxon, with some very distinguished Irishmen among them. The US-UK alliance was often seen as a WASP alliance, although the US was much more cosmopolitan. Its leaders were mostly WASPs. I can understand the French being disgusted at being blindsided and I think we are just beginning to see the consequences. The problem was, if the French had been told it would've gotten into the media and the nutter fringe would've done their best to destroy AUKUS. As it is, there is a perpetual anti-nuclear activist in Adelaide starting to talk about 'the dangers' to this capital of the bankrupt state if the nuclear submarines are built there. I don't think any sane person in the UK wants the Empire to come back. We are their equal partner.

Edward Fido | 22 September 2021  

All this furore over who makes or who has the best killing machine... but now the really vexed question is will the vessels be christened with a bottle of genuine French "Champagne" or a sparkling white wine as a final insult. Hopefully our sizeable security investment will be as futile as the broken bottle or our Collins class subs; wholly symbolic, ultimately irrelevant and never fire a shot in anger...

ray | 22 September 2021  

Thank you Binoy for a great analysis of the recent announcement of the AUKUS submarine project.

The scuttling of the French submarine construction project and its replacement with the AUKUS nuclear submarine plan is a knee jerk reaction by the Morrison Government into hoping that a fear of China will get it re-elected in the coming federal elections despite its record of ineptitude and corruption. 

Too many young Australians have died because Australian governments have sent them to fight in many unnecessary wars since WW2. - not to mention the millions of civilians in the countries that were attacked. More recently we have seen US leaders - Trump and Biden -  claim that China is a threat to world peace and that we have to do something. 

Peter Dutton is telling us that war with China is inevitable and Scott Morrison has scuttled off to the US to have emergency talks with Joe Biden.

 We should asking why that there was no caucus with the Federal Parliament or the Australian people about the AUKUS plan. 

An before we  join Dutton's march to war there re several things we need to consider.  The fact is that the US (largely following the demands of the Military Industrial Alliance has been the largest threat to world peace since 1945. The US is responsible for over 90%  of the wars since WW2 and China has invaded 2 - Korea when it was afraid that US forces would invade China and in 1979 it invaded Vietnam to teach it a lesson for overthrowing the Pol Pot regime. However, it was the Chinese who were taught a lesson .

In addition, Prof. David Vine of the American University has shown that the US has about 800 bases in 70 countries while China has one in Djibouti. 

We need to stop supporting the US war machine.

Andrew Andy Alcock | 22 September 2021  

I see the hand of the present Defence Minister, and his senior minion, in this; the Prime Minister may conceivably be an egomaniac, but he is no megalomaniac. Otherwise, why the gratuitous, not to say fatuous, sabre-rattling in recent parliamentary hearings? Everyone seems to have forgotten that France has direct presence and thus interest in the Indo-Pacific; New Caledonia,Tahiti and more are status-equivalent to the regions of metropolitan France and the "exclusive economic zones" surrounding them far outstrip those of France proper. The submarine deal was a botch, and I do not dispute the need for capable submarines. But who is more to blame, the French or the DoD experts who seem have eyeballs bigger than their brains? At any rate: (a) why do we need vessels capable of navigating up to Taiwan waters (and to Vladivostok, maybe?); (b) is France's direct civil and security interest in the Indo-Pacific a mere bagatelle that we need not have tried to "leverage" to mutual defensive advantage - instead of running behind the skirts of an increasingly desperate and erratic Auntie Samantha?

Fred Green | 22 September 2021  
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Not, as it were, to tell tales out of school (as indeed one shouldn't as a rule of thumb), Fred, but I taught that senior minion, Greg Moriarty, Politics in Yrs 11 & 12. (And he'd have a sobering tale or two to tell about me in return, I'm sure). However, while he was wonderfully polite, extremely clever and industrious, as well as a superlative debater, his skills, I feel, were better served as Ambassador in Djakarta, than in his currently highly partisan and ethically-compromised role, which illustrates for me the continued debasement of the Commonwealth foreign and defense service. I suspect that the facility with which the Executive arm of government does this is as much owing to the morally-dampening influence of diplomacy as the easy elision, if one is not very careful, from that to so much belligerent war-talk.

Michael Furtado | 15 October 2021  

If there is to be nuclear waste in the future will it be disposed of, dumped in South Australia and include nuclear waste from both the USA and the UK?

Kay McPadden | 22 September 2021  
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Right now it includes nuclear waste from France and India.

Francis Armstrong | 08 October 2021  

You’d think all the singlets and thongs and Big W stuff Australia could ever need could come from factories in PNG and Timor, and in fact all the undershirts and flipflops and Walmart stuff the US could ever need from industrious elves in Indonesia, the Christian South Pacific (which, basically, is all of it but for pagan A and NZ) and Africa (which, cheek and jaw, is pretty much Christian too). Perhaps to gawk at the Confucianists is to obscure some use of the imagination. After all, back in 1978 when it all began, the Confucianists were barely better than coolies.

roy chen yee | 22 September 2021  
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Its the unaffected proletarian singlets, shorts and thongs that mildly endear, splendid Roy ;) and surely not the self-conscious red-necked & pumped-up muscle-flexers, beer=bellied with bow-legs akimbo, who spoil all the innocent fun with their bellicose fight-club posturing; no?

Michael Furtado | 15 October 2021  

‘self-conscious red-necked & pumped-up muscle-flexers, beer=bellied with bow-legs akimbo, who spoil all the innocent fun with their bellicose fight-club posturing; no?’ You could be right. The unaffected people of Timor and PNG would produce unaffected goods for the unaffected Australian. Grievance industry products such critical race theory and racial pugnacity are imported from the US by chatterati with affectations.

roy chen yee | 16 October 2021  

Dr Kampmark is correct that the ridiculous French submarine deal was “deservedly sunk.”
The AUKUS deal is in response to China’s aggression towards its neighbours, including:
Militarization of the South China Seas and its rejection of the international ruling in favour of the Philippines; Takeover of Hong Kong.
Threat to “nuke Japan continuously” if Japan supports the US in protecting Taiwan from Chinese invasion, and a similar threat of a ballistic missile strike on Australia.
President Xi Jinping’s direction to his military to begin “preparing for war” and that China would “lead the reform of the global governance system”.
China’s explosive growth in its nuclear and conventional armed forces and construction of nearly 300 new missile silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Cover up of the likely leak of Covid from Wuhan causing a worldwide pandemic.
Winston Churchill wrote of how, in the face of German militarism in the 1930’s, a “Delight in smooth-sounding platitudes [and] refusal to face unpleasant facts…though free from wickedness or evil design” played a definite part in unleashing the horrors of WW2.
Freedom is never free. And beware those who cry, “War is peace, Freedom is Slavery.”

Ross Howard | 23 September 2021  
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Well said Ross Howard. And MF as usual, the politically correct leftwing apologist for China's racially superior sneering callous treatment of Tibet and the wholesale rape and plunder of its timber, gold, silver, animals- destruction of its forests. Murder of its citizens and forced sterilization of its women. China has no justification of its presence in Tibet other than invasion based on treachery. Not to be forgotten is China's intrusion into Antarctic mainland where they have built 6 bases with no permission in Australia's territory and are on the 7th. These bases have 6km runways- military runways and they are installing advanced observation satellite monitoring systems. We'd all have to be blind Freddie's to think they wont weaponize those bases so we are threatened from both north and the south.
Yes Taiwan is in danger. Hong Kong is a place of daily violent arrests and imprisonment. In the Gulf of Carpentaria Chinese fishing trawlers in their wolfpacks fish Australian stocks flying the Taiwan flag because they say they own Taiwan. Their blockade of Thitu Island? And how many concentration camps does China have in Xinjiang?
"There is space to detain 1,014,883 people across Xinjiang. That figure does not include the more than 100 other prisons and detention centers that were built before 2016 and are likely still in operation" . Buzzfeed. MF the answer to your question might commence when China withdraws its 20bn of unjustified tariffs, heeds the World Court and reopens diplomatic ties.

Francis Armstrong | 23 September 2021  

MF. Chamberlain also believed in appeasement in dealing with Hitler who couldn't hold a candle light to this Chinese mob.

john frawley | 25 September 2021  
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‘mob’ Without democracy, minorities rule. The ordinary Chinese in the street is no less able to become democratic as the ordinary Taiwanese, South Korean or Japanese. The ‘mob’ is the nomenklatura of perhaps a few hundred oligarchs concerned with magnifying the glory of personal and family interests. It’s the selfishness of these self-chosen few that’s making the world less safe. When ever have two real democracies gone to war against each other?

roy chen yee | 26 September 2021  

It's funny how people of faith forget to mention God when it comes to issues of war and peace! Something to do with boys and their (military) toys, perhaps?
Allow to to quote from St Johnny Cash in his song "The Wanderer" which he performed with U2:
"I stopped outside a church house
Where the citizens like to sit
They say they want the kingdom
But they don't want God in it"

AURELIUS | 09 October 2021  
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Welcome back again, Aurelius. There are four sectors of sin which cry to Heaven for vengeance. Those who overdose on some to the neglect of others are just cherry picking. The difference is that for some sectors, the Church has already made up our minds for us, for others, it expects us to apply our brains to the riches of its Tradition to come up with something.

roy chen yee | 10 October 2021  

roy chen yee, as far as I know the Vatican (to whose teachings I subscribe, being a faithful Catholic) has not yet approved the Fourth Rite of Confession ie via online forums, but I'm reading between the lines and presuming you think I am "cherry-picking" my morals.
Not that it matters, but let me assure you roy, that my personal and interpersonal morals/ethics are just as scrupulous and Christ-centred as my expectations of nation states and politicians who make moral decisions on our behalf. I invite you to indicate otherwise.
May I suggest you reflect a bit more deeply before making rash judgments.
Epilogue To "A Judgement In Heaven" by Francis Thompson:
"To wisest moralists 'tis but given
To work rough border-law of Heaven,
Within this narrow life of ours,
These marches 'twixt delimit-less Powers.
Is it, if Heaven the future showed,
Is it the all-severest mode
To see ourselves with the eyes of God ?
God rather grant, at His assize,
He see us not with our own eyes!"

AURELIUS | 11 October 2021  

The idea of the ‘four sins which cry to heaven for vengeance’ has been around for donkeys’ years, and so has the idea that a believer needs to comply with all of them simultaneously. If, in an impersonal statement of what is, you see a lance pointed at you, that’s for you and your inner psychologist. Meanwhile, the four sectors exist and nobody is adequately in all of them simultaneously. We know, because somebody said that only God is good.

roy chen yee | 13 October 2021  

To begin with, the very idea of a 'non-
nuclear' nuclear submarine is a matter
of faith, not fact. How do you tell a
nuclear submarine seemingly without
vertical launchers from one with those
(standard) launchers, especially if it's
built to exactly the same design?…

Should a threat of a nuclear exchange
between China and the U.S. ever arise,
China will be greatly advantaged by
having the option of kicking the dog,
first. And between the Yanks and the
Chinamen, it's Australia that's the dog.

And yet this poor canine is expected
to cough up well over $90 billion for
the fancy nuclear kit that can only
earn it a devastating kick in the ribs.

Imagine PLA's designating Sydney's
geographical centre – the Central West –
as ground zero. This would be doubly
unfair, as that's not where the neocon
vermin with its multimillion-dollar
mansions is to be found.

Perhaps the Australian people could
take a leaf out of Gen. Milley's book –
and do themselves a favour by
petitioning Peking to do the right
thing by both countries – and put
Canberra at the top of its hit list.

Google: Hymie Rickover and General
Dynamics, the crooks that robbed
the American taxpayers of billions
of dollars.

John | 10 October 2021  

Interesting, in case some of the readers here are worried about supposed 'warmongers' in the military, is the current fracas in the US about General Mark Milley's steps, in the last days of the Trump presidency, to actively prevent The Donald from unleashing a nuclear war against China to help his campaign. No sane person, civilian or military, wants a nuclear war. It is the rogue states, like North Korea, we need to be concerned with.

Edward Fido | 13 October 2021  

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