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Advertising Gimmicks: Australia’s Nuclear-Powered Submarines

Never trust anything that comes out of a politician’s mouth in an election year. Pledges are made to be broken; promises are made to seduce, not convince. When the subject matter involves fictional submarines, even greater care should be taken.

The prolonged, costly nightmare of Australia’s submarine policy took another turn on March 6. The Defence Minister Peter Dutton could barely contain his excitement with the announcement that the Morrison government would soon be unveiling which nuclear-powered submarines it would acquire. “We will have an announcement within the next couple of months about which boat we are going with, what we can do in the interim.”

To the ABC’s Insiders program, Dutton oozed unsubstantiated hope. “Both the US and UK understand the timelines, they understand what is happening in the Indo-Pacific, and they are very, very willing partners.” The minister was even willing to wager that the submarines would be operational before 2040, when his career and those of his colleagues will be confined to the dust of history. “We are going to acquire the capability much sooner than that.”

The Labor Opposition defence spokesman, Brendan O’Connor, found the details thin and the secretive conduct of the government questionable. “Despite claiming they would keep Labor updated, we haven’t had a single update from the Morrison government on this strategically important decision which is, quite frankly, appalling.” He demanded a furnishing of “a detailed plan in the national interest […] as to how it will rectify delayed and over-budget defence contracts.”

The original understanding was that the government would spend some 18 months examining its options on how best to deliver technology it has never had, nor had any aptitude or expertise in. But we are in an election year, and timelines wax and wane with elastic will.

To this is an added frisson: the war in Ukraine and Beijing’s own foreign policy. In advanced notes given to media outlets on Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s speech to the Lowy Institute, a dark vision is conjured up. “A new arc of autocracy is instinctively aligning to challenge and reset the world in their own image.” That image seems strikingly one Morrison himself resembles: “the spectre of a transactional world, devoid of principle, accountability and transparency.”

All this suggests a hurrying up that has little basis to it. Morrison has, for instance, promised “more than $10 billion to meet the facilities and infrastructure requirements” for the move to the nuclear-powered submarines. The effect of this promised splash remains to be seen, given the absence of Australian skills, which will have to be made up in US-UK training, and the total absence of any facility to host, let alone build nuclear-powered submarines.

Nothing to fuss over. Australia’s burghers are assured that this will be rectified by the construction of a new base at either Brisbane, Newcastle or Port Kembla (minds remain indecisively woolly on the subject of location) which will “enable the regular visiting of US and UK nuclear-powered submarines.”

These arrangements are being pursued as part of the AUKUS security pact, announced last September to much fanfare and controversy – at least to those in Paris. While it advertised to the world that Anglosphere nostalgia lingers with corrupting influence, it left the government of Emmanuel Macron seething.

The AUKUS agreement effectively scuppered France’s own submarine contract via the Naval Group with the Australian government. The original agreement to build 12 diesel-powered attack class submarines, valued at AU$90 billion caused moments of salivation in Paris. French military industry would, or so it was thought, be raking in the cash and prestige.

But even before its termination, the doomed contract already looked like submerging without a trace. There were the predictable delays. There were questions about when the submarines would be operational, by which time they would be obsolete. Then came squabbles over the intellectual content of the project, which was, primarily speaking, a French rather than Australian matter.

For Beijing, AUKUS merely confirmed suspicions that Washington, Canberra and London were keen on encircling a boisterous rival in the Indo-Pacific. As Professor Li Haidong of the Institute of International Relations of China Foreign Affairs University put it, “The US is using the same approach employed to contain Russia in Europe after the Cold War to contain China in the Asia-Pacific region.” To that end, the United States was “building a NATO-like alliance in the region, with AUKUS at its core, and the US-Japan and US-South Korea alliances surrounding it”.

The AUKUS alliance continues Australia’s idiosyncratically disturbed approach to submarine policy. The mutilated French design was a monster without teeth: a nuclear blueprint with its nuclear propulsion removed in favour of diesel power. The AUKUS proposal is not much better, being yet another mangle that contemplates the expenditure of AU$116 billion on a fleet of eight submarines. In whatever form it takes – and the question is serious enough – the submarine in question will have nuclear propulsion without nuclear weapons, a situation manifestly absurd and unlikely to last long.

The balance sheet of this enterprise is a poor one, and risks becoming more wretched. Tangibly, AUKUS has shown Australia’s diplomacy to be subservient and shoddy, alienating its European Indo-Pacific ally while also being laughed at by the United States. (President Joe Biden showed much contrition to Emmanuel Macron by suggesting, disingenuously, that the Australians should have told France earlier.)

Even if these plans firm up in time for electoral exploitation, it will not clarify when these beasts of the sea will actually emerge from the cocoon of the imagination. In decades, the armchair strategists and naval cocktail circuit will be feasting over other prototypes and ways to burn money from the public purse. The Australian nuclear-powered submarine will be a comical relic, the butt of many a joke.

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12 comments

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  1. GL

    Breaking news: Peter Dutton has been stopped after trying leave a major US naval base with the discovery of a nuclear powered sub stuffed down his trousers. “It was just a morning stiffy,” he told naval staff as they removed they removed the sub. “I was leaving because I didn’t want to embarass myself.”

    The naval officers gave him a decommissioned torpedo to stick down his trousers after seeing the size of his tiny todger during the strip search. “We felt sorry for him,” said a Captain to reporters as he held up two fingers about three centimetres apart. The very popular politician in Australia left with a red face and scurried off to his car.

  2. Greg Pocock

    I thought the US will have to change an act of congress to share nuclear technology , certainly if any reactors are in any submarine australia ends up with , they will only be operated by approved US personnel as what occurs on US submarines – the reactor and it personnel are cordoned off from rest of the crew

  3. New England Cocky

    By the time the submarines are built, delivered, tested, commissioned and operational, any invading force will have gone home with the spoils of war leaving Australia with the pock-marks of missile explosions, cemeteries of military personnel killed by drones (as happened to civilians in Iraq & Afghanistan thanks to US war materiels) and a surviving civilian population in chains slaving for the new overlords taking whatever they want.

    Scummo & Duddo seem to believe in fairies and the previously empty promises of the US NE military industrial complex to supply lethal weapons on time and on budget. There is a better chance of flying to the moon on water-wings or drop kicking the Sydney harbour Bridge to Melbourne.

  4. Canguro

    NEC, by the time the submarines are built, delivered, tested, commissioned and operational, the planet will be roiling in acute distress due to the impact of human-induced global warming; there will be massive social upheavals as a function of rising sea levels, desertification, crop failures as a function of eco-shifts outside of the homeostatic viability range of the major commodity food sources – wheat, rice, corn – as well as opportunistic fungal and other predatory ramifications, along with the planet-wide insect failures to adapt, bringing global failures in plant pollination and all that that implies; ecocide refugees will dwarf anything we’re currently experiencing, the masses will have lost all confidence in any government of any political stripe to manage, let alone cope with the challenges that beset them, and it’s entirely likely that, at a minimum, the severe social distress, unconfined to any particular region or grouping, will objectively be entitled to be labelled as mass insanity due to the unremitting stress and inability to envisage any solution.

    The cynical will take to drink and repeatedly utter, ‘I told you so’.

    The faithful will weep and gnash and implore their gods to appease their suffering.

    The fundamentalists will cheer the horror and welcome the armageddon as a predicted return by their Christ.

    The objectivists will say, ‘Fuck, I wish we’d done more while we had the chance’.

    The fossil fuel consortia will flee for their lives, as they’re targeted as being the ones responsible, whilst the uncountable billions who’ve benefitted from the use of fossil fuels will defer their own individual contribution to the planetary meltdown.

    And the likes of Dutton, Morrison, Taylor et al will be mere dust in the wind, by-lines in the history of the planet.

  5. Terence Mills

    The French had, at our request redesigned the Nuclear propelled Barracuda submarines to fit our requirement of diesel-electric propulsion.

    We then decided that we wanted nuclear propulsion and we turned to the USA/UK.

    What a stuff up and we still don’t know what penalties we have to pay the French for early termination of the contract.

    Dutton needs to stick with chook raffles at his local on a Friday night : surely he can’t make a mess of that !

  6. Jack Cade

    Greg Pocock Yes. Nobody in Australia has the nerve to point out that almost all of our ‘defence’ equipment (nb: ‘defence’ is yet another English word of which the US has changed the meaning, like ‘fanny’, and ‘fag’. ‘Defence’ in American lexicon actually means ‘attack’). Nothing we buy from Uncle Sam can be used without Uncle Sam’s permission and connivance. Fair enough – we only use our armaments on US ventures anyway.
    By the way – the word I used above, which we use as a slang word for ciggies and to people like Boris Johnson means ‘little boys In public schools’, apparently falls foul of autocorrect, which insists on changing it to ‘gag’ .

  7. corvusboreus

    Canguro,
    You left out an increasing preponderance of jellyfish biomass within the ever-more tepid, acidic & ecologically impoverished oceans, but yeah, methinks that’s pretty much a spot on assessment.

    Of course, given the escalating levels of aggressive stupidity currently occuring in Eastern Europe, you could also plausably throw potential thermonuclear exchange in as an exciting wildcard.

  8. Ai Khan Singh

    I’ve just watched Friendly/Jordie’s allegations about the peregrinations of out would be PM, LNP strongman salamander lookalike Peter Dutton.
    It is – truly – beyond belief.
    But I’m tempted…

  9. Jack sprat

    The only arc that Smirko should be afraid of is the one that he struck with his welding mask up as he attempted to do some welding which blinded him. Maybe it was a metaphor for his inability to see his own incompetence.

  10. New England Cocky

    @Canguro, corvusboreus: Thank you for the edit. I had overlooked the likely consequences of present government policies destroying the planet.

  11. wam

    Everything scummo touches has a flawed future.
    Why the idiot hasn’t put a few $s into firefighting planes is beyond me.
    But for this post, my rabottians have convinced me that for all practical purposes nuclear submarines are superior to diesel at all level of operation. Their requirement is the poms and the septics sell us recent equipment. My belief is, we will pay top dollar for out of date technology and be no less ‘screwed’ than we were by the french.
    The slimest pollie of them all, pynut, was paying $50b for frog subs some time in the future rather than $20b for japanese or german diesel subs to be built in SA starting immediately.

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