Multiple points of failure are built into this program, coupled with the deep flaws in its strategic logic. AUKUS will become an embarrassing memory, if it is remembered at all. By Hugh White.

Hugh White
The AUKUS submarines will never happen

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak unveil the AUKUS plan at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego on March 13, 2023.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak unveil the AUKUS plan at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego on March 13, 2023.
Credit: AP Photo/Denis Poroy

You might call it the First Law of Engineering: the more moving parts there are in any system, the more likely it is to fail. It is a sobering thought as we evaluate the AUKUS announcement that was made on Tuesday morning. We have learned that Australia is going to try to buy and operate not one but two classes of nuclear-powered submarines over the next two decades – first the Virginia class in the 2030s, and then the Anglo–Australian AUKUS class in the 2040s. That means there are twice as many moving parts in this system as we expected, which doubles the chance that the whole thing will fall over.

There were already very powerful arguments against the decision to buy nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) to replace our Collins-class boats. It has never been clear – despite colourful talk from the admirals about SSNs being ‘apex predators’ – that expensive and complex SSNs would be more cost-effective in achieving our operational objectives than conventionally powered submarines. And it has always been clear that the risks involved in delivering, operating and crewing SSNs were going to be much higher.

Why, then, are we buying two different boats? The reason is simply bad timing. It is an awkward fact that neither of our AUKUS partners – the United States and the United Kingdom – have an up-to-date SSN on the shelf for us to buy. This problem apparently was not recognised when the AUKUS plan was first unveiled back in 2021. At the time, the admirals promised that we’d be buying an established design that was already in production with one or other of our partners. But both countries’ current models – the American Virginia class and the British Astute class – are old designs, and they are both now developing new designs to replace them.

However, these new designs are still decades away from being built and delivered, and we can’t afford to wait because our Collins-class boats are running out of time. So, we faced a choice between committing to an old design that would be obsolete before it entered service or waiting for a new design that would not be delivered until long after the Collins were withdrawn.

I guess it seemed easiest to escape this dilemma by doubling down and doing both. Now we are planning to buy between three and five of the old Virginia-class boats in the 2030s, and then replace them with at least eight of a new class – the AUKUS class – designed jointly by the three partners for Australia and Britain in the 2040s.

What could possibly go wrong? Let me count the ways. First, America might well change its mind about selling us three or more of its subs. The US Navy already has fewer subs than it needs. The more tensions rise with China and Russia, the more reluctant Washington will be to reduce their fleet to help us out. It is all too easy to imagine a future president – especially one like Donald Trump – nixing the deal, or Congress pulling the plug. Second, Australia might not be ready to operate these complex boats in a decade’s time. The new plans require our navy taking command of SSNs much earlier than originally expected. It will be a huge rush to get ready, and success is not assured.

Third, the joint UK–Australian AUKUS design might not be ready in time to take over from the Virginia-class boats. The schedule for their design is very ambitious and delays are virtually certain before a workable, capable design is finalised. Then there is the risk of construction delays, which is multiplied by the Albanese government’s determination to build all of our subs here in South Australia. These risks are enormously compounded by the fact that we are trying to build nuclear-powered rather than conventionally powered subs.

You can get a feel for how much more complex this task is from Anthony Albanese’s revealing but imprudent boast that it will take twice as many people – 20,000 rather than 10,000 – to build our SSNs than would have been needed to build conventional submarines.  That’s a big worry in itself.

Finally, the whole thing depends on three governments in three separate countries maintaining their commitment to this complex, demanding, expensive and risky project over three decades and beyond, through countless election cycles and despite whatever strategic crises and transformations the future might hold. The strategic situation in Europe might deteriorate further, refocusing our partners on the North Atlantic. Britain’s dire fiscal position might get worse, driving them to cut their submarine ambitions. A future US administration might balk at the proliferation risks of AUKUS.

Above all, we must recognise the possibility that the rising costs and risks of confronting China in Asia could outweigh the imperatives for America to remain a key regional player. Then America might simply tire of the contest and pull back from Asia, and from its alliance with Australia.

Any of these would rupture the AUKUS program as it has now been presented. That adds a whole strata of risk and uncertainty, which we would avoid in a more purely commercial transaction involved in buying a conventionally powered design from a company in say France or Germany.               

Of course, there is no low-cost, low-risk way to buy submarines. It was never going to be easy or cheap to find a replacement for the Collins class, even if we stuck with conventional diesel–electric propulsion. But by opting for nuclear propulsion we have multiplied the risks and costs exponentially, for a modest increase in performance, which is more than offset by the massive increase in cost. For the price we are looking to pay for an eight-boat fleet of SSNs under the AUKUS program – around $300 billion – we could build and operate a fleet of fifty conventionally powered submarines, and there would be much less risk of it all going wrong. Now that would be a serious submarine force, far more capable than eight SSNs for the roles we need.

So here is my prediction. The multiple points of failure built into this Heath Robinson program, coupled with the deep flaws in its underlying strategic logic, make it a very fair bet that Australia will never operate nuclear-powered submarines, while AUKUS will become an embarrassing memory, if it is remembered at all. And if Australia is to retain a submarine capability, it will have to go back to square one and look for a conventionally powered successor to Collins.

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