Albert Palazzo
The definitive case against nuclear subs

It’s more than a year since Australia scuttled its submarine deal with France in favour of the nuclear-powered submarine arrangement Scott Morrison announced as part of the AUKUS agreement. There’s been a change of government and more announcing, yet any real detail on why we need such boats, how we’ll get them, which ones they’ll be and how much they’ll cost remains unknown. What has become increasingly clear, however, is that these warships are a massive boondoggle for which there is little strategic justification.

Australia maintains its defence forces to provide for the nation’s security. Every capability the Australian Defence Force acquires undergoes a detailed decision process that includes an examination of how the weapon meets national security requirements. With the nuclear-powered submarine program, however, Australia’s starting point was an announcement confirming the acquisition and the AUKUS agreement, an order of proceedings that conveniently bypassed the messy and challenging aspects of justification for the purchase.

Perhaps skipping this phase was necessary because the rationale given for the acquisition is unsound. At best, it is a desire to be seen to be supporting the ANZUS Treaty. What is not being asked is whether support for the alliance should be the main basis for the acquisition of such expensive platforms with such narrow utility.

What does Australia intend to do with its fleet of nuclear-powered submarines? The answer seems to be that we’ll project power into the East and South China seas, in order to deter our largest trading partner, China, from taking actions inimical to Australian and American interests.

If China is a threat today, why is the government planning to acquire a platform that will not be available for 15 years or more? Shouldn’t the priority be on more readily available weapons? These would include off-the-shelf conventional submarines, additional long-range strike missiles, and drones of all kinds.

Even once Australia has acquired its entire fleet of eight submarines, only two or three are likely to be available for operations at any one time. Deterrence necessitates the ability to intimidate one’s opponent. China is a large country with great industrial depth and a population accustomed to hardship. It also has 66 submarines of its own and more on the way. It is hubris to expect Australia will be able to intimidate a great power, at least on its own.

More worryingly, the seas in which Australia aims to operate are within China’s anti-access/area denial zone, an area guarded by missiles, mines, aircraft and ships, and of such lethality that even the United States is unsure it could penetrate without massive losses. Even if our future submarines did get inside this defensive zone, they would not last long. Essentially, these submarines should not be expected to return home.

Survivability is an important criterion for such an expensive purchase. Enthusiasts point to the better survival potential of nuclear-powered submarines because they remain submerged for longer periods, thereby making detection harder. By contrast, conventional subs must periodically surface to recharge their batteries. But this is an advantage that is fast becoming irrelevant. Sensor technology is improving and becoming pervasive, as demonstrated daily in the war in Ukraine. It is a very big gamble to act on a presumption that sub-surface sensors will not improve in the 15 to 20 years before Australia’s submarines become operational. In fact, a study from Australian National University’s National Security College expects that before 2050 the oceans will become fully transparent to hunters from above. Any defensive advantage currently possessed by nuclear-powered submarines will be gone.

More questions need to be asked: What is the strategic benefit of being able to operate off the Chinese coast? How do nuclear-powered submarines improve Australia’s security? And are there better options for the nation’s defence?

The answers to the first two questions are: “There is none” and “They don’t.” The third answer is: “Yes, there are indeed better options.” Australia needs submarines, but conventional ones are more than adequate for the nation’s security. Australia’s north is archipelagic, which means smaller, shorter-ranged submarines can close maritime avenues of approach. Moreover, modern long-range missiles that the army is acquiring can interdict the northern approaches, or even deploy forward, thus extending Australia’s defensive zone. Nautical mines and uncrewed submersibles should also be on the agenda as Australia builds an anti-access/area denial zone of its own. To support the alliance, Australia still has the option of deploying forces in support of the US or, perhaps even more usefully, taking responsibility for the protection of the southern flank in a war with China.

Supporters of the nuclear-powered submarine pay too little attention to the project’s opportunity cost. According to experts at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the eight planned submarines will cost at least $116 billion, and likely much more – upwards of $200 billion, according to some analysts. Money is finite and Defence will have to make decisions on what it does without because the subs have consumed such a huge chunk of the budget. The result will be gaps in other important capabilities, including ones far more useful and far more urgently needed than nuclear-powered submarines.

Too many security officials hold to the mistaken belief that China is the most significant threat Australia faces. In fact, climate change deserves the top spot. Climate scientists, United Nations officials and military commanders themselves, including current US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, consider climate change an existential threat to survival. Any threat posed by China is much more limited. At worst, China’s challenge to the US-led world order could result in America’s withdrawal from the Western Pacific. Climate change could lead to the end of the human project and take countless other species down with us.

China represents, at most, a second-order threat, but it is China that draws the obsessive focus of much of the current generation of security thinkers. It does not make sense for Australia to invest so much in a weapon system that has no utility against the nation’s most dangerous threat, yet this is what is happening.

Advocates of nuclear-powered submarines also propose that constructing these vessels in Adelaide will help sustain a sovereign shipbuilding industry. In fact, the opposite is the likely result. Once in service these vessels will actually increase Australia’s dependence on the US and foreign contractors. This is because many of the sub’s critical components, weapons and systems will be made by foreign parties. Australian sailors might even need shadow US sailors to co-staff technical positions until Australia generates enough nuclear-savvy personnel of its own.

The government has announced it will invest between $168 billion and $183 billion in what it has called a national naval shipbuilding enterprise, with the goal of sustaining and growing a domestic shipbuilding capability and securing Australian jobs for the future. Such a capability is a noble goal, but what has been left unexplained is why it should be such a priority compared with foreign-dominated industries that are more critical to the nation’s future wellbeing.

Last summer, for example, Australian transport risked grinding to a halt as a result of the urea crisis, which led to a serious shortage of AdBlue, a vital diesel fuel additive. Without AdBlue, the nation’s fleet of long-haul trucks would have stopped moving, resulting in supermarkets running out of food, farmers not harvesting their crops and the mining industry coming to a halt. Yet there has been no talk of taxpayer-supported AdBlue production in Australia. Similarly, many medicines are imported, as are a host of important everyday items, such as baking powder and matches. Unlike shipbuilding, these industries apparently warrant no support.

If one wanted a truly sovereign defence industry, then the product that might mandate the level of support proposed for the subs is microchips. Virtually all military and civilian technology contains chips, yet Australia is happy to remain fully reliant on overseas suppliers for this most important of components. Establishing a domestic industry would require a huge subsidy, as well as additional investment in tertiary education and precursor manufacturing processes. Without these chips, however, no weapon system is truly sovereign.

So why the nuclear-powered subs, if they make so little sense? The obvious answer is to support the alliance. Instead of aiming for self-reliance, Australia has always preferred to seek the protection of a great power. But there is another reason: like a kid in a lolly shop, Australia has been given permission to buy the biggest treat on display. Nuclear-powered subs are one of America’s most closely guarded technologies. If Australia gets them, it will be a clear sign that, like Britain, we have been admitted to a very exclusive club, the inner sanctum of US security. What is missed, however, is that being in the inner sanctum generates a massive obligation – and some day that bill may fall due.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 12, 2022 as "The definitive argument against nuclear subs".

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