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Nuclear submarines. A Labor government. Cherbourg, here we come!

When Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton tore up the contract to buy conventional submarines from France, Emmanuel Macron’s wasn’t the only disapproving voice.

There was a chorus of comment and concern from startled defence and security experts who worried about both the practicalities of the nuclear option (when will they arrive, how will they be serviced, and do we need them?) and the broader geopolitical issues (losing even more sovereignty to the United States, and maybe risking Australia being dragged into a potential war with China).

The French Attack-class submarines.. back to the beginning?

 The AUKUS issue was a potential wedge for Labor, which it was determined to avoid. They have “offered support” on the nuclear submarines project – but what that support actually means remains open to question. In a speech to the Lowy Institute, Anthony Albanese was careful to point out some of the risks and shortcomings of the deal.

One risk is the ongoing chaos in Australia’s defence hardware procurement processes.

“Billions of dollars [have been] wasted on the French contract,” Albanese said. “After a production line of six defence ministers in this Government – and two goes at landing on a model – we now have no contract for any submarine, and a looming submarine-shaped capability gap.”

Penny Wong, the shadow Foreign Minister, has stressed the damage the AUKUS deal was doing to Australia’s standing. While confirming “conditional” support for AUKUS, she confirmed Labor had its doubts:

“Labor has three conditions for the support of nuclear-powered submarines, on which we have sought assurance,” she said. “Firstly, that there be no requirement for a domestic civil nuclear industry. Secondly, that there be no acquisition of nuclear weapons. And, thirdly, that this agreement would be compatible with the non-proliferation treaty.”

Wong also pointed to sovereignty issues, “such as how will we control the use of technology and capability that is not ours? What implications are there for the design, assembly, operation and maintenance of nuclear-powered submarines?

“These are in addition to our concerns about how capability gaps will be managed, timeframe, costs and the impact on Australian jobs.”

So now what?

The unmistakeable message is that, while offering apparent support for AUKUS, Labor’s position has been so hedged with objections that the way is left open to scrapping the deal altogether, or putting it so far on the back-burner that it never happens. Albanese and Wong have opened up loopholes so big that you could drive a naval battle group through them.

In operational terms, the biggest medium-term problem is that the ageing Collins Class boats are approaching the end of their useful lives, and their nuclear replacements will not be ready until at least the 2040s and perhaps later. The six Collins Class vessels are about to be refitted, and there are proposals to refit them a second time later on. But that would mean they would be over 50 years old by the time a replacement arrived.

Submarines are complicated kit. As time passes, maintenance gets more and more expensive and the basic boat becomes less capable and more vulnerable to likely opponents. Meanwhile, China is rapidly and massively expanding its fleet. No capability gap for them.

For an incoming Labor government determined to bridge that gap, there are relatively few options. To protect Australia’s defence shipbuilding capacity – and to maintain those highly-skilled jobs – substantial elements of a new submarine fleet will have to be built here. That rules out buying an off-the-shelf model from Germany, Sweden or Japan.

Adapting an existing design to include local elements would take time and money. Developing a new design of our own – which was done with the Collins Class – would take even longer and would be far more expensive.

But the French Attack-class option remains and could be revived without – formally, at least – discarding AUKUS. It was revealed by the ABC last month that ten Australian project team members remained in Cherbourg, headquarters of the Naval Group.

The ABC’s defence correspondent, Andrew Green, quoted “a defence insider, who spoke to the ABC on the condition of anonymity” as claiming “many of the families living in Cherbourg were not in a hurry to return home and were taking advantage of travel opportunities in Europe while still on their postings.”

Negotiations over ending the contract are dragging on and are unlikely to be concluded before the end of the year. But in two months’ time, Australia is likely to have a new government.

Eight reasons why nuclear subs are a bad idea.

A new government will undoubtedly look at all the options, including reviving the French deal. And they will be looking in still more detail about whether nuclear boats are appropriate for Australia at all.

A number of senior experts argue strongly that they are not. One of the most cogent and damning assessments has come from Dr Albert Palazzo (pictured), a former Defence Department analyst, now an academic and independent defence specialist. While supporting submarines in principle for Australia, he listed eight reasons why AUKUS and nuclear submarines were very bad options indeed. Here they are, in brief:

Strategy: Capability must fit within an appropriate strategic requirement if it is to be truly useful. You don’t buy a powerful, oversized speed boat when your needs are best met by a canoe. I find it highly unlikely that China is going to be intimidated 20 years from now by the presence of a handful of Australia submarines when its own underwater fleet is huge, expanding rapidly and improving in quality. In addition, Australia seems intent on operating its submarines within China’s robust anti-access/area denial zone, where they will have to avoid mines, surface hunters, sensors and various strike platforms, not to mention the enemy’s more numerous submarines. Sailing in these waters would be like sticking one’s head in a noose and handing the rope to an enemy.

Culture: The ADF cannot fight a war as if it was mini-America. Instead, like all small powers it must pursue its own way of war and, like all countries, its own national objectives. To try to mimic a great power is to suffer from delusions of grandeur while setting up the ADF for destruction by a more powerful opponent. Instead of playing to China’s strengths, the ADF must find the means to compete but not in ways that will expose Australian forces to rapid destruction.

Escalation: today’s military leaders and defence thinkers seem to have forgotten this important lesson of the Cold War — a war that starts conventionally risks becoming nuclear. Even a modest nuclear exchange is likely to set off a nuclear winter which will see the suicide of the human species, as the global temperature drops 20 degrees Celsius or more and remains low for months or even years.

Competence: Acquiring a helicopter or building a frigate is child’s play compared to the expertise and judgement required for the design and construction of a nuclear powered submarine … Nuclear submarines are much harder to operate and maintain than diesel-electric ones, and Australia does not have an existing nuclear power industry to fall back upon for expertise. For the RAN, finding sufficient sailors for the larger crews and growing the requisite skills will be a challenge. After all, it takes at least 16 years to produce a single nuclear rated chief engineer.

Climate: Nuclear powered submarines will be useless in a more disruptive security future that is driven by climate change induced instability. They will not be of any assistance in managing mass migration events, checking the spread of instability or helping desperate people recover from natural disasters. The key question to consider is whether or not it makes sense to invest resources, money and capability on a second order risk while ignoring the primary one.

Cost: Nuclear powered submarines are expensive, particularly when they are manufactured in a country that has never built one, and with a work force lacking experience and necessary skills. The cost starts at $100 billion for eight boats, but what the final cost will be is anyone’s guess, other than that it will be significantly more … The nuclear powered submarines will absorb so much of the future defence budget that the ADF will not have the opportunity to obtain appropriate stocks of more relevant capabilities.

Sovereignty: The government has claimed that the nuclear powered submarine program, and the superseded Attack Class build, will further develop Australia’s sovereign ship building industry. Frankly, there are a host of worthy industries that would provide a better case for development of our sovereign capability … However, if the Government truly wants to establish sovereign industries that would pay dividends for the welfare of all Australians, it would focus its attention on microchips. As we all know, microchips are in everything from toasters to cars to the missiles that the ADF plans to acquire with which to defend Australia. They are also in nuclear powered submarines, meaning that our boats will never truly be sovereign, but remain dependent on the good graces of overseas microchip suppliers for their most important component — as will as virtually every other piece of kit fielded by the ADF.

Contradiction: Australia's highest political levels insist that the nation is facing a great crisis and that time is short to meet it; yet the key plank in their proposed solution to this urgent situation will not arrive for another 15 years. This represents a contradiction that undercuts the entire rationale for the acquisition of these platforms in the first place. A further cloud over the wisdom of this acquisition is that we have openly given China at least 15 years to counter our submarines. In 15 years, advances in sensor technology may well be such that the sea is effectively transparent and a 10,000 ton warship has nowhere to hide.




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