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Nuclear Submarine Doubts: US Lawmakers and AUKUS

The policymaking apparatus behind the AUKUS security pact was shoddy from the start. It has raised questions about the extent US power will subordinate Australia further in future conflicts; it has brought into question Australia’s own sovereignty; and it has also raised the spectre of regional nuclear proliferation via the use of otherwise closely guarded propulsion technology.

The other feature of this whole enterprise, as it always is regarding the procurement of submarines, is their rate of production. The US Navy’s fast attack submarine program, the Virginia-class, is under pressure. A mere 1.2 vessels have been delivered, on average, per year over the last five years.

The corollary of that problem is whether Australia would simply buy a US nuclear powered submarine, the classic off-the-shelf approach to defence procurement that thrills some while aggravating others. This, according to a number of voices in Congress, is a fanciful prospect to be stomped upon. “That’s not going to happen,” Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va) of the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower committee bluntly told Breaking Defense in December. “I just don’t see how we’re going to build a submarine and sell it to Australia during that time.”

Washington’s less than humble servant in Canberra, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, echoes the line of their masters. “The US doesn’t have spare submarines it can sell to Australia,” confirms Marcus Hellyer, “and it won’t have them anytime soon.” To give Australia submarines needed by the US Navy “particularly when its own numbers are flat-lining, is just not an option that the US political leadership will consider.”

The dreaded alternative is one that entails an Australian built SSN, which sounds rather close to another white elephant candidate awaiting its spot in the museum of failed defence ventures. Wittman, still smelling a buck for US national interests, suggested that Australian submariners or shipbuilders spend time in the US “for a full build cycle” to understand the process. The next Virginia class submarine that is built could then be designated to the Australian AOR [area of responsibility], be operated by a dual US-Australian crew, with a dual command function. “So it’ll be a submarine that operates in their AOR like an Australian submarine.”

Wittman’s observations lit a fire of scepticism. In a letter of concern to US President Joe Biden, Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and James Inhofe (R-Okla) dated December 21 last year, the lawmakers are clear that “current conditions require a sober assessment of the facts to avoid stressing the US submarine industrial base to the breaking point.”

It must come as something of a supreme irony that Congress is concerned that the US will suffer its own challenges to sovereignty by committing Virginia-class vessels to Australia under the AUKUS agreement. This, from a country that has clearly, unequivocally and seamlessly taken control over Australian military and operational independence in any functional sense. “AUKUS options that would have the US transfer or sell Virginia-class submarines prior to meeting [the Chief of Naval Operations] requirements would make the US Navy less capable of meeting sovereign wartime and peacetime requirements.”

The lawmakers then go on to show that characteristic candour absent in Canberra’s provincial and ferociously reticent circles. “Make no mistake, we recognize the strategic value of having one of our closest allies operating a world-class nuclear navy could provide in managing long-term competition with an increasingly militaristic China.”

The Australian government, taken aback by these rumbles, has released a number of statements that do little to scotch growing doubts. Defence Minister Richard Marles ponders Australia’s own contribution to the agreement, believing it to be worthwhile and able. “We have said we will build the capacity in Adelaide to build nuclear-powered submarines.”

Details as to how this will be done are woefully skimpy. It is simply not clear whether Marles has any concept about the complexity of the project, observing that nuclear technology experts from universities across the country will be co-opted as part of the enterprise. “This is a really exciting opportunity for Australia.” He will have to do somewhat better than that to convince the likes of Reed and Imhofe.

The result of such concerns has turned Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese into an energetic lobbyist deserving a corner office on The Hill. One report from The Australian (paywalled) noted how he was “lobbying members of US congress to hold the line in supporting the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal as it comes under criticism in America, calling the pact essential in strengthening Australia’s defence capabilities.”

His statements of late, despite their bold confidence, do little to suggest that the nuclear submarine idea is not sinking. “We’re very confident that it’s in the interests of Australia, but also in the interest of the United States and the interests of the United Kingdom.” He has spoken about the “optimal pathway”, which was “not just the issue of what is built, but how it is built, as well as the optimal pathway in building a capacity of skills in the Australian workforce.”

Such statements do little to arrest the hard-nosed sceptics in Congress, who see little merit in splashing out in such endeavours if there is no safe, assured return for US military and business interests. The issue of improving Australian skills in the area is a distant, secondary consideration. It seems that the nuclear submarine aspect of AUKUS may sink before it gets off the assembly line.


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  1. Arnd

    Thank you, Dr Kampmark.

    One question: how much money has been sunk so far into planning, concept development and revision, tenders, “competitive evaluation processes”, contract cancellation reimbursements etc. etc. for the successor to the troubled Collins Class submarines.

    Also: would it not be a lot cheaper just to pretend that the Australian Navy has a highly efficient class of submarines in its possession? So efficient and stealthy, in fact, that no sight nor sound has ever emanated from the bloody things, and we just have to take the word of politicians and defence officials for their existence. Maybe claim that it was one of the new Aussie subs which blew up the Nord Stream gas pipelines?

    Generally, just keep pressing the “Alt” and “Reality” keys simultaneously. Who would know any different?

  2. Claudio Pompili

    Can’t help but feel that it’s wishful thinking. Canberra’s defence establishment long ago was bought by US interests including the US Pivot to Asia, or whatever it’s called today. The US will never willingly allow Australia to be neutral and will go fighting…the last time PM Whitlam tried, the US staged a coup d’etat. Ever since PM Gillard, Australia has gone not only in lockstep with the US but also ever more strident in its belligerence towards China, Russia etc (aka not belonging to the collective West and ‘rules-based order’). It was telling that the first act of the ALP PM Albanese was to attend the Japanese-revitalised QUAD. Similarly, Marles opening ASPI Washington office, and Wong trying desperately to consolidate Pacific Ocean nations against the China. By contrast, compare the meek and weasel word statements regarding Julian Assange.

  3. Harry Lime

    Something that not a few of us wondered,
    on forums like this,is that a change of government,though highly desirable and overdue, would revert to business as usual,despite the promising rhetoric.The bullshit emanating from everywhere on these never gonna happen submarines is embarrassing.Why wouldn’t China ,and everybody else ,regard Australia as a client state of the war mongering Uncle Sam,hypocrite par excellence? I don’t know who’s running the US,because Biden ,with his obviously waning faculties, isn’t.Closer to home,Marles is fucking hopeless,and Albanese continues to disappoint.Looking elsewhere.

  4. ajogrady

    Australia’s National Security and Defence strategy over recent years has become problematic and unfit for purpose.
    Who remembers when Labor parliamentarians were vocal advocates in the Australian Peace Movement? If so, you are probably part of the Whitlam /Hawke / Keating generation when there were lively foreign policy debates within the parliament, the ALP and trade unions. We questioned the American alliance because many of us had watched the consequences of the Vietnam War. We were influenced by “People for Nuclear Disarmament”, because our generation understood the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the first nuclear bombs devastated the people of Japan.
    Now Labor stands for war and does not question America. Albanese needs to reconnect with what made Labor a principled and dynamic political party it once was.
    Australian politicians and MSM have a lot in common with boiling frogs.Albanese and Marles have proven to be total US lapdogs who have, like Morrison and Dutton, sold out Australia’s sovereignty to the US. When will Australian politicians and Australian media act in Australia’s best interests and not those of a failed empire coloniser, Britain, and as the 51st state of a failing empire, USA?
    Despite the best endeavours of Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, to put the relationship with China on a more even keel, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, seems determined to destabilise it.
    Who is in Albanese’s and Marlese’s ear? It would seem many of the people Morrison employed, such as Shearer of ONI, ASPI, so beloved of Marles, and Kennedy, Sinodinos, and a raft of faceless people representing the US Industrial/Military complex.
    Why hasn’t Albanese looked to a new advisers? Why run with Morrison’s discredited team? Why hasn’t Albanese pushed back against this right-wing pressure? After all he is ostensibly a member of the Labor left. He is aware of the Vietnam narrative, a narrative that is being replayed with his consent. Did his left-wing
    ideals die when he went to ground over East Timor at the time of the Beazley/Brereton dust up? The audacity and arrogance of the US is mind blowing. And Albanese has shown he is not the man to take this on. Once again, we are being or rather have been sucked into an American war. This time of likely horrendous outcomes. It will be Australia that pays the price. America will slink away whilst we will be hostage to war reparations and possible occupation.
    Australia’s neighbourhood is Asia and this is the Asian century that China will dominate. Australia’s Asian neighbours do not have the same illogical and short sighted view of China as Australia’s politicians and Australia’s media do. Australia’s Asian neighbours see opportunity and prosperity. Instead of politicians and media advocating for peace with China, they both push that war with China is inevitable and a foregone conclusion..
    Fair and open trade with China is Australia’s best weapon to protect Australia.
    The US hasn’t changed and neither have we. Australia is sycophantic even when jilted by the US. Australia is a vassal state which neither China nor the US respects.

    Defence Strategic Review – Read all about it

    God save Australia because America will not er-threat-from-within-aukus-puts-australia-in-danger/

  5. Clakka

    Oh to find a way from of the jibber jabber!

    Beware the Jabberwok! its eyes, jaws, claws and head!
    But the Aukus sword, goes snicker-snack!

    Might you come to our arms, my beamish boys?
    Have you rested by the Tumtum tree?
    That you might go galumphing back?

    What of the Jubjub bird?
    And the frumious Bandersnatch?

  6. Stephengb

    Aukus is a carrot on the end of a long stick, the stick is held firmly by the USA whilst on the back of a puny donky island continent who’s ego is as big as Australia itself.

    In the distance is a huge pile of military dollars USD’s, enabling a a compliant country where war can be waged for centuries without a single risk to the USA.

    China can see through this bullshit.

    The reality is simple

    China has a military might (soldiers, sailers and airmen) of ~2.5 Million.
    Australia has a military might of ~60,000.
    The USA has a military might of ~1.5 million.

    Yes there is a matter of military equipment but that is a very hard matter to compare.

    The point is that Australia cannot possibly believe that the USA would commit all of its military manpower to the defence of Australia.

    That kind of delusion is indicative of Australia’s idea the they are important, when what is important is the capacity of the Australian continent to both feed and resource the needs of an aggressor.

    Yes and that means that the 25 million occupants of this land are of absolutely no interest to any aggressor including China or the USA.

    I am a British/Australian – I would not discuss what Britain would or would not do for Australia, Britain is absolutely finnished.

  7. Jack sprat

    A Swedish submarine using stirling hot air engines (a two hundred year old technology) and costing the same as two aircraft carrier jets has consistently defeated a US fleet and scored several hits on the USS carrier Ronald Reagan durring war games. So successful was the Swedish sub that the US now leases one to learn it’s secrets. nuclear subs are noisy expensive and use vast amount of water which leave a radioactive trace which the Soviets have been able to use to detect them since the sixties

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