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AUKUS: Mirage or reality?



In his March 15 address to a Canberra press gallery, former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating was unsparing about those ‘seriously unwise ministers in government’ – notably Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Defence Minister Richard Marles, unimpressed by their uncritical embrace of the US war machine. ‘The Albanese Government’s complicity in joining with Britain and the United States in a tripartite build of a nuclear submarine for Australia under the AUKUS arrangements represents the worst international decision by an Australian Labor government since the former Labor leader, Billy Hughes, sought to introduce conscription to augment Australian forces in World War One.’

The bipartisanship extended to a meeting between Marles and Wong with their Coalition counterparts on September 15, 2021 just prior to the announcement of the security pact. Since then, questions loomed about acquisition, construction and delivery of the nuclear-propelled submarines. This month, the picture was made clearer, if troublingly so.

The scale of this project is staggering in cost projections, envisaging an outlay of $368 billion for up to eight vessels over three decades, with possibly more in the offing. Canberra will initially purchase at least three US-manufactured nuclear submarines while contributing ‘significant additional resources’ to US shipyards. Two more vessels are also being thrown in as a possibility, should the ‘need’ arise.

During this time, design and construction will take place on a new submarine dubbed the SSN-AUKUS, building on existing work undertaken by the UK on replacing the Astute-class submarines. It will be, according to the White House, ‘based upon the United Kingdom’s next generation SSN design while incorporating cutting edge US submarine technologies, and will be built and deployed by both Australia and the United Kingdom.’

The White House statement also promises visits by US nuclear submarines to Australia this year, with Australian personnel joining US crews for ‘training and development’. The UK will take its turn at the start of 2026. In 2027, a UK-US ‘Submarine Rotational Force-West’ (SRF-West) will be established at HMAS Stirling near Perth. It follows that Australia will be further militarised as a forward base in future US operations in the Indo-Pacific.

The agreement has been celebrated by a number of branches of industry as serving multiple purposes, with Prime Minister Albanese predicting somewhere in the order of 20,000 jobs. The national employer association Ai Group has called it ‘critical’ in not only protecting the country but delivering returns for ‘Australian industry and supply chains’.

'For all the salutes, flag waving and celebrations, the AUKUS balance sheet is looking increasingly bleak for the peacemakers, even as Australia enmeshes itself further within the US military apparatus and its lines of command and control.' 


The association’s Chief Executive Innes Wilcox saw the prospect of ‘extensive spill-over benefits in technological advancement and technology sharing including around artificial intelligence and quantum technology with its promise of major developments in weapons, communications, sensing and computing technology.’

This projection must be read alongside the expenditure required for each job created over the course of three decades. As Tilman Ruff, a founder of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons argues, this would be a poor return given the risks posed by a naval arms race, proliferation, nuclear escalation and a war in East Asia. Then comes the issue of whether Australia can overcome the human resource challenges of such an enterprise, something former Coalition Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is extremely doubtful of.

So far, all this remains hypothetical. Less hypothetical are the immediate benefits to flow to UK and US shipyards. In the absence of its own facilities to build such submarines, the Australian taxpayer is funding the naval industries of both countries. It was little wonder that British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was reported to be ‘buzzing about it when he told ministers, smiling and bouncing on the balls of his feet.’

There is also little getting away from the fact that Australia’s history with submarines, typified by the Collins Class program and the ditching of the Barracuda Attack-class contract with the French Naval Group, is sketchy at best. Keating’s preference for 40 to 50 Collins Class submarines to police the Australian coastline rather than having nuclear powered submarines lying in wait off the Chinese shoreline does not take that into account.

The Collins Class building venture was a nightmarish project marred by bungling, poor planning and organisational dysfunction within the defence establishment. At stages, two-thirds of the Australian fleet of six submarines was unable to operate at full capacity. Nor were crews available in sufficient numbers to run the vessels. The lesson here is that submarines and the Australian naval complex simply do not mix.

West Australian Labor backbencher Josh Wilson, echoing the concerns of regional powers such as Indonesia and Malaysia, has also raised the issue of how ‘we can adequately deal with the non-proliferation risks involved in what is a novel arrangement, by which a non-nuclear weapons state under the NPT (Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty) comes to acquire weapons-grade material.’

To this can be added the problem of how to dispose of nuclear waste; for decades the Australian government has failed to identify and build a deep storage facility for low- to intermediate-level waste. Currently, the controversial selection of the Kimba site in South Australia is being litigated in the Federal Court by the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation (BDAC). The proposed facility does not cover the issues surrounding high-level waste typical from such submarines, which are bound to be even more contentious.

A gaggle of former senior Labor ministers have also emerged with questions and criticisms. unanswered questions. For former foreign minister, Gareth Evans, there were three questions to be answered on viability and operation: whether the submarines are actually fit for purpose; whether Australia retained genuine sovereignty over them in their use; and, were that not the case, ‘whether that loss of agency is a price worth paying for the US security insurance we think we might be buying.’

Kim Carr, who had previously held ministerial positions in industry and defence materiel, revealed that AUKUS had never been formally approved in the Federal Labor caucus, merely noted. Various ‘key’ Labor figures – again Marles and Wong – endorsed the proposition put forth to them on September 15, 2021 by the then Coalition government.

He also expressed deep concern ‘about a revival of a forward defence policy, given our performance in Vietnam’. For Carr, the shadow cast by the Iraq War was long. ‘Given it’s 20 years since Iraq, you can hardly say our security agencies should not be questioned when they provide their assessments.’

For all the salutes, flag waving and celebrations, the AUKUS balance sheet is looking increasingly bleak for the peacemakers, even as Australia enmeshes itself further within the US military apparatus and its lines of command and control. Tubagus Hasanuddin, a senior member of Indonesia’s ruling Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) has made the pertinent observation: ‘AUKUS is created for fighting.’




Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University. 

Main image: Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (L), US President Joe Biden (C) and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (R) hold a press conference after a trilateral meeting during the AUKUS summit on March 13, 2023 in San Diego, California. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, AUKUS, Australia, USA, UK, Submarines, Defence



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Existing comments

So what do you suggest we should actually do Binoy? Do, rather than not do. We could have had the French subs with nuclear propulsion using non-weapons-grade fuel long before the AUKUS deal will deliver, but for the paranoid lobbying against all things nuclear. Had we had a viable local nuclear industry we would not have become so dependant on burning fossil fuels for energy production. We might even have become specialists in manufacturing, deploying, and exporting small modular reactors (SMRs). But we haven't, and while the Henny Pennys have carried on about the dangers of nuclear reactors, we've got ourselves into a much more precarious position by burning fossil fuels.

Ginger Meggs | 28 March 2023  

If Australia spends $368 billion to buy nuclear-powered submarines this is what we will get for our money: “For nothing less seemed worthy of the scene./The darkening imminence hung on and on,/Till suddenly, with lightning-stroke and rain,/Apocalypse exploded, and was gone..” (“One Tuesday in Summer” James McAuley)

Pam | 28 March 2023  

The old Latin saying "Si vis Pacem, Para Bellum"--If you want peace, prepare for war--is a fairly universal concept going back to Plato and Shi Ji. In other words, it must appear obvious to any would-be aggressor that they will pay a price for aggression. Prevention is the key.
Appeasing Hitler didn't work, nor does displaying ineptitude, such as the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan leaving billions worth of military equipment for the Taliban. It was a green light for Russia to invade Ukraine.
President Xi has instructed advisors that he wants to take Taiwan by 2027. China's defense budget increased by 7.2% this year. Yet a war would destroy Taiwan's manufacturing base which produces 90% of the world's advanced semi-conductor chips, essential to the global economy. A serious global financial crisis would result.
AUKUS is but one plank in a united effort with our neighbours to prevent a war. At the same time, it would be prudent to avoid provocations such as demanding full independence for Taiwan.

Ross Howard | 29 March 2023  

Ginger Meggs' comments on this article make real sense to me. French nuclear submarines are lower technology than the US and UK ones and we would be able to come up to speed on this much more easily. These submarines are much more suited to patrolling our shores rather than attacking China. France has interests in the Pacific and is a member of NATO but has no intention of attacking China. We are a very small power militarily and need to concentrate on our independence and self-defense. The antinuclear cabal, including the ACTU are Luddites.

Edward Fido | 29 March 2023  

A threat to Australia greater than a perceived regional military threat, is the "energy crisis" here, that is driving the price of goods, utilities and services.
The exhorbitant cost of energy flows through every sector of the economy from producer to consumer. The prior two terms of LNP government, rather than ordering nuclear submarines and assuming fossil fuels are here to stay without taking action to find reliable and affordable alternative energy sources, should have set this amount aside in the budget a decade ago, for the construction of at least one nuclear reactor power plant to feed into the national energy grid.
Such a reactor could work on enriched uranium (not highly enriched weapons grade) and waste re-spun and re-enriched rather than stockpiled in a landfill somewhere. Because the energy crisis has not been satisfactorily resolved, the consumer continues to bear the cost of going carbon neutral. Soaring and unaffordable power prices, the need to buy an electric car ($42k) by 2035 when fossil fuels are no longer available, and going roof top solar plus battery ($25k) may be at the forefront of concerns for many. at a time when most people are struggling to afford housing and put food on the table. How in the world is this carbon neutral utopian vision, possible for Australians???. I think we have got wrong, our national priorities.

Cam RUSSELL | 31 March 2023  

An important and timely, even essential article with Dr. Binoy Kampmark's usual clear insight and factual knowledge which is an important asset to Eureka Street. Much appreciated
It can be frightening that the leadership of the Popes, notably John 23rd and Francis for peace rather than war have such a long way to go to convince a number of their church followers.
Also that even the disasters of Chernobyl, Fukushima and now the everyday risk of the Ukraine Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station under Russian control does not dim the fascination of a number of Australians - including obviously Parliamentarians- with things nuclear. Nor the astounding costs certainly in a country that the Smith Family recently notes has 1.2 million children living in poverty.
Oh dear - the fact that there are so pitiably few workable (if any) SMRs outside of nuclear powered submarines seems to be no barrier to them being often quoted as the saviours. The massive costs of nuclear energy and the vast amounts of water needed seem not to be counted as other drawbacks by proponents.

Michele Madigan | 31 March 2023  
Show Responses

Michele, what you call 'the disasters of Chernobyl, Fukushima' (and you may as well add Three Mile island) have caused much less damage to life, property, and the environment than have the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. There are risks associated with whatever we do and they need to be managed. Demonising the civil nuclear industry is not the solution.

Ginger Meggs | 03 April 2023  

Ginger Meggs asks what does Dr Binoy Kampmark suggest that Australia might do? Well, Ginger Meggs does have a point, as Dr Kampmark seems focussed on the enmeshment of Australia's defence into the U.S. military machine, and doesn't offer alternatives. . What other solutions ARE THERE?
Wel, for a start, as the purpose of the submarines is supposed to be Australia's own defence of its shores, we could start by getting APPROPRIATE submarines. As former submariner and senator Rex Patrick has argued, Australia could have 20 modern, off-the-shelf submarines built in Australia and enhanced by Australian industry, for $30 billion. By contrast, the eight nuclear-powered boats may cost up to $368 billion. The nuclear-powered subs are not suitable for monitoring our coastline, nor in fact China's shallow-water coastline, but could be later suited for attacks, (later supplied with weapons) .
Hardly radical lefties - the Productivity Commission and the Grattan Institute have expressed concern about the huge cost and the lack of scrutiny on the AUKUS submarine project.
By the time that the nuclear submarines are finally in operation, they will be obsolete. China has already developed small drones capable of detecting them, and by 2040, almost certainly capable of destroying them.
A practical suggestion is to buy the local construction of the South Korean KSS-III Batch 2 design – now owned by Hanwha – which could see boats in the water from 2030.

Noel Wauchope | 31 March 2023  

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