The following article is the first in a series of APLN analyses by experts and members assessing the implications of the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) deal.
Australia’s announced decision to build nuclear-propelled submarines has already generated many criticisms from nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament activists, but I do not believe APLN should be among them. It would be a go-to-the-wall issue for our Network if it was in any way a prelude to Australia acquiring its own nuclear weapons, but that would be totally unconscionable and has been totally ruled out on all sides. It would be a matter of real non-proliferation concern if we are planning to produce our own fissile material but we are not, and I have no doubt that complete safeguards discipline will be maintained. Maybe I’m missing something, but I can’t see that Australia going down this narrowly defined path will in itself encourage problematic behaviour by allies or anyone else in our region or elsewhere.
The decision is all about building more credible Australian defence capability for many decades ahead, something that every country with any kind of potential vulnerability needs to do. And submarines that actually meet our needs must be a core part of that capability. Any submarine purchase decision is premised on potential adversaries’ capability, as every defence acquisition must be. But it is not premised on any particular state’s presumed intent, now or in the future, and certainly should not be seen as yet another Australian over-reaction to recent Chinese behaviour, as problematic as some of that may have been. Beating the drums of potential war has been, and will remain, stupidly counterproductive.
The bottom line is that the French submarine project was careering off the rails in terms of time-line and cost, forcing its complete rethinking. And there has always been a strong argument that Australia’s geography needs submarines with real capability in terms of speed to station and on-station durability – needs that nuclear propelled submarines are much better placed to meet than any conventional counterparts. And the only way we can acquire such boats is through a cooperative arrangement with the US and UK. I acknowledge that there are counter-arguments from defence analysts whom I respect, like Hugh White who argues that we would be better off militarily with a much larger number of smaller, quieter conventional powered submarines – and it is fair that those arguments be exhaustively tested before new contracts are signed. The fact that any announcement like this is not likely to be helpful in reducing current bilateral tensions with China is regrettable. But it should certainly not be decisive if the case for nuclear propelled submarines otherwise stacks up on long-term national defence needs grounds, as I for one, on information currently available, am prepared to believe it does.
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