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Nuclear White Elephants: Australia’s New Submarine Deal

It does not get any messier or more chaotic than this. Since 2009, when Australia’s Future Submarine Program (FSP) known as Project SEA 1000, began to take shape, strategists and policy makers have been keen to pursue the next big White Elephant of defence spending. And few areas of an already wasteful area of public expenditure are more costly – often mindlessly so – than submarines.

The Australian effort here is particularly impressive. Pick a real winner by signing a contract for a yet to be designed attack class submarine, supposedly necessary in an increasingly dangerous region. Ensure that this design is based on a nuclear model and remove that attribute, aptly described as “dumbing down a nuclear submarine by removing the whole basis of its superior capability, and then charging at least twice as much for a far less capable submarine.”

Just to make things interesting, make sure the order is for 12 of these yet to be designed and built creatures. Make sure, as well, that they are only ready sometime in the 2030s, by which time they risk being obsolete in a field of other contending submarines with superior capabilities.

The dubious honour for this monumentally foolish contract, with an initial cost of AU$50 billion, fell to the French submarine company DCNS (now called Naval Group). It nudged out German and Japanese contenders with pre-existing designs. “The decision,” a government announcement in April 2016 explained, “was driven by DCNS’s ability to best meet all of the Australian Government requirements. These included superior sensor performance and stealth characteristics, as well as range and endurance similar to the Collins class submarine. The Government’s considerations also included cost, schedule, program execution, through-life support and Australian industry involvement.”

The contract warmed the French military establishment. It was praised as the “contract of the century.” Le Parisien’s editorial lauded the prospect of thousands of jobs. President François Hollande could say that he was also capable of pulling off a contract to aid the French military industrial complex, despite being a socialist. A “50-year marriage,” claimed French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian with honeymoon exuberance, had begun.

The post-nuptials were not promising. Rear Admiral Greg Sammut had to concede in an estimates hearing before Australian senators that another AU$50 billion would be required to sustain the submarines for the duration of their operating life. “Many of the detailed costs of acquisition and sustainment will be determined during the design process through choices made but at this point early estimation of the sustainment costs for the fleet are of the order of up to $50 billion on a constant price basis.”

Tiffs and disagreements over distribution of labour and further costs started to bite. How much of the work would actually be undertaken by labour based in Australia? Would the French company be keeping the lion’s share? With such problems, and the pace of development, another idea started to gain momentum in the halls of defence: a competing, cheaper design, based on a rejigged version of Australia’s existing Collins Class submarine, might be a suitable alternative. In the meantime, perhaps a German alternative might also figure, namely the Type 214 diesel electric submarine developed by Howaldtswerker-Deutsche Werft GmbH (HDW).

In May, Naval Group’s Transfer of Technology program manager Fabrice Leduc solemnly told his staff that the submarine project had been subjected to a “political timeline” following a change of minister in the Australian Defence portfolio. The new occupant, Peter Dutton, was biding his time because “he wanted to have some strong warranties from the industry and especially Naval Group in terms of cost and schedule.” The marriage had truly soured.

On September 15, the press gallery in Canberra was awash with rumours that a divorce was being proposed. In the early hours of the following day, the question as to whether Australia would be dissolving its union with Naval Group was answered. In place of that union would be a ménage à trois with the United States and United Kingdom, a security three-way with Australia as the subordinate partner. The glue that will hold this union together is a common suspicion: China. In place of the Attack Class submarine: a nuclear powered alternative with Anglo-American blessing, based on the US Virginia class or UK Astute class.

In their joint statement announcing the creation of AUKUS, a name deserving a place in a science fiction glossary, the joint leaders of the three countries “guided” by their “enduring ideals and shared commitment to the international rules-based order” had resolved “to deepen diplomatic, security, and defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, including by working with partners, to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.” AUKUS would be a new “enhanced trilateral security partnership” to further such goals.

The agreement is nothing less than an announcement to powers in the region that the Anglophone bloc intends to police, oversee and, if necessary, punish. The three countries will “promote deeper information and technology.” Security, science relating to defence, technology, industrial bases and supply chains will be further integrated. Deeper cooperation would take place “on a range of security and defence capabilities.”

The first initiative of the agreement stands out: “we commit to a shared ambition to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy.” Expertise to “bring an Australian capability into service at the earliest achievable date” from the submarine programs of both the US and the UK would be drawn on. AUKUS unmistakably ties the countries into the same security orbit, meshing them to principles of “interoperability, commonality, and mutual benefit.”

Australia’s submarine policy has previously eschewed nuclear propulsion. Now, as a dowry for receiving such largesse, Canberra is offering up Australia as a confirmed US asset in policing the Indo-Pacific. In any conflict situation, the wallahs of the antipodes are unlikely to say no to any request to do battle with the Middle Kingdom. US Navy commanders will also be smacking their lips at maintaining attack vessels in Australia as part of the arrangement.

In the meantime, neighbours will be troubled, despite assurances that the vessels will only have a conventional weapons capability. Nearby Indonesia is unlikely to be glowing in admiration.

The dissolution of the union with Naval Group will also be costly, with the defence company bound to push for a generous compensation package. (AU$400 million is a suggested figure, though this is unlikely to satisfy either Naval Group or the Parisian overlords.) To this can be added AU$2 billion already spent.

As the divorce costs are sorted, some Australian politicians have pledged to make dissenting noises, with the Greens leader Adam Bandt already warning that the decision promised to “put floating Chernobyls in the heart of Australia’s cities.” Protests from anti-nuclear activists and advocates are in the offing.



Then arises that enduring problem of actually building these naval beasts. US lawmakers will be rooting for the construction of the submarines on home soil, a situation which promises to mirror the headaches caused by the Naval Group contract. Australia also lacks a shipyard able to build or maintain such vessels.

In playing its part in the creation of AUKUS, Canberra has exchanged one white elephant of the sea for another. But in doing so, Australia has done so in manner more threatening, and more significant, than anything associated with the Naval Group Contract. The small space Australian diplomats might have had in keeping Canberra out of any foolish conflict in the Indo-Pacific has become miniscule. The war mongers will be dewily ecstatic.


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  1. Terence Mills

    Interesting that this type of deal could never have happened when Trump was in office and unlikely that the UK could have participated had Brexit not have happened.

    It is still a possibility that Trump will resurface in 2024.

    Whilst Morrison has said that these submarines will be built in South Australia we had better get him to show us the contract confirming that as he will be long gone probably before the construction actually commences.

    Commentators had been saying that Jobkeeper was the most expensive bungle made by this government but submarine bungles will cost us much, much more.

  2. Jack Cade

    I didn’t know we were getting ‘nuclear’ subs. Scott Morrison distinctly said – many times – it’s NUKULAR.
    Are they the same thing?

  3. New England Cocky

    Ho Hum ….. once again the Liarbral Nazional$ demonstrate their inability to make decisions that benefit Australian voters.

    This AUKUS submarine deal is simply Australia financially propping up the US NE Military Industrial Complex for no good reason, and if past output is considered, another way for Australia to be the dumping ground of third rate military hardware. The nice thing for the Yanks is the COALition misgovernment is silly enough to pay for it with Australian taxpayer money!!

    Once again we have conservative politicians propping up their strange idea that Australia is a major player in world events. However, world politicians are well aware that thia misgovernment has an egp tremendously bigger than its ability.

  4. Canguro

    So, as existential threats to mankind in the form of environmental stressors – global warming, ice melts, risks to food production, ecocides etc. etc. – continue their progressive encroachments on the cosy fantasies enjoyed by first-world nations of continuing privileged lifestyles, three of the biggest boofheads currently occupying positions of political influence, Biden, Johnson & Morrison, put their collective neuronal capacities into the blender, stirred vigorously for ten seconds, and came up with a daft plan to spend billions on underwater war machines as a survival strategy for their roughly 400 million citizens.

    A bunch of troglodytes doing the the caveman shtick, swapping their clubs for nuclear reactors and cruise missiles.


    No point in pointing out what better alternatives to building killing machines those yet to be spent billions could be put to, but the list is long.

    And our own local boofhead, the liar from the Shire, is no doubt feeling very chuffed that the other two amigos may have just managed to save his political arse.

  5. Harry Lime

    Everything this arsehole touches turns to shit,and however this happened,there’s every chance we are all going to be buried in shit by this towering outrage.Realpolitik eh? Morrison is devoid of anything outside his twisted ego,Johnson constantly risks being recaptured by the circus he escaped from,and Biden has his pulse checked hourly for signs of life.Fuck me.

  6. RomeoCharlie29

    There must surely be one Liberal prepared to cross the floor to ensure this deal is dead in and under, the water. Does Morrison actually, really think this deal is an election winner? I hope he does, and pulls one on quickly, because I so want Australia to show him what we
    think about his latest brain fart,.

  7. Mark

    Can’t see this nuclear deal going ahead because Deputy PM Barnaby won’t agree to any deal that isn’t fully planned and costed. And to date, all that’s been announced is certain pie-in- the-sky waffle by a PM whose name hasn’t yet registered with the US President Biden. Lol.

    Or was that fundamental Principle of fully planned and costed only to be applied to climate change initiatives?

    Confident that the MSM will swoop on this glaringly anomaly in the morrow.

    The option of another Khaki election is now also on the table. Dutton strikes again.

  8. GL

    Scummo is rapidly turning into a tin-pot dictator.

  9. Jack sprat

    Look over here ! Look over here ! the commies are coming and so is the election ,so forget about our fuck ups and let’s unite with the declining Anglo powers whilst waving our flags to halt the spread of the Asian hordes now that we are armed with our new beaut nuclear subs . Looks like its going to be another three years of Morrison .

  10. Josephus

    Never mind a sub we are in thrall to a ship of fools , plus the photo of our nukular sic twerp in chief shows him as though wearing a fools hat on his head which is just perfect . We don’t need any subs whether run by nukular or rickshaw pullers. All the yellow peril devils need to do is destroy from afar ie disrupt our communications, water , electricity and we are helpless. We will soon run out of food and fuel and will fight one another first while the wicked chinks wait then turn up for some mysterious reason on our shores. Dear god worse than fools these people are bloody dangerous .

  11. Fred

    We may have had disputes with the French, but at least we had a 50% local build requirement. Two faced SlowMo shafted Macron and the French, ‘cos this deal has been months in the making, without parliamentary oversight. This is going to cost upwards of $200 billion and most of the money will go overseas. Wait for it, expect the announcement in the next year or so that they will be built in the USA, as they are not going to build their front-line technology in Australia.

    Just as much as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) will dominate the aerial battlefield going forward so too Underwater Unmanned Vehicles (UUV) will dominate the marine battlefield. The F35 jets we have signed up for are camels. An aircraft with a human in it has to have a lot of systems just to keep the human alive and also has G force limits. UAVs and UUVs can be built without human centric limitations.

    The challenge with subs or UUVs is communicating with them. Apart from one-way ELF or VLF, to use usual high speed communications or spy on radio traffic, either they surface (in which case they are highly detectable) or send up an antenna on a buoy (vis. “relatively” easy to detect compared with sitting under an inversion layer 1,000 ft down). It’s nice that a nuke sub doesn’t need to surface until it runs out of food, but without regular comms they are effectively on holidays. Don’t think that China hasn’t already installed underwater monitoring equipment in the disputed South China Sea to detect all vessels. The subs will be approaching obsolete by the time they are built.

  12. Geoge theodiridis

    … and our Albo waffles on and on as if the deal is between long black and cupucino…

  13. George Theodoridis

    President Bush (mission accomplished!) used to say “nukular” and i used to wonder how could he be so ignorant.
    Now our Prime Minister says “nukular”.
    Makes one wonder how abject morons like these two could put the whole planer at risk of annihilation.
    Perhaps i’m the one with the mental deficiency. I shouldn’t wonder but i should expect.
    Every candidate to that job should be asked to pronounce the word and if they don’t pronounce it probably, we shouldn’t let them in the office.
    i mean how hard can it be for Zeus’ sake? new…clear!

  14. George Theodoridis

    Scomo: a man whose every fantasy includes an Armageddon.

  15. BB

    And still issues of uncertainty continue in Australia. There is still confusion on which is better, black or white coffee? FFS!
    Some folk will carry on till they are black in the face. Sadly the end result is that they will white wash the stupidity.

    I mean how difficult can it be, the new way is clear. We need the ALP to win government so they can start to put an end to all the madness. Slowly slowly catchee monkey. Because if the L/NP win a 4th term then Australia will remain a White Elephant.

    Morrison believes in the miracle of The Rapture, for him not just a fantasy. The rest of humanity can die in a nuclear inferno.

  16. Jack sprat

    2.4 billion dollars blown by Govt by reneging on French nuclear sub deal ,didn’t they realize with that sort of money the Govt could have locked up a extra 2182 refugees escaping from Afganistan on Manus island for a whole year .

  17. Pingback: It doesn't get messier than Morrison's submarine deal - The Big Smoke

  18. skip

    Well with ‘friends’ like the u$a who really needs enemies:

    “Now some people say there’s an alternative: you can go with China,” said Mearsheimer. “Right, you have a choice here: you can go with China rather than the United States. There’s two things I’ll say about that. Number one, if you go with China you want to understand you are our enemy. You are then deciding to become an enemy of the United States. Because again, we’re talking about an intense security competition.”

    “You’re either with us or against us,” he continued. “And if you’re trading extensively with China, and you’re friendly with China, you’re undermining the United States in this security competition. You’re feeding the beast, from our perspective. And that is not going to make us happy. And when we are not happy you do not want to underestimate how nasty we can be. Just ask Fidel Castro.”

    Australia Continues Plunge Into Military Brinkmanship

  19. Peter F

    With a little bit of luck, one might even be ready to star in a remake of the 1959 film, ‘On the beach’.

  20. calculus witherspoon.

    And they had this on their minds for eighteen months without putting the concept up for public inputs, discussion etc?

    As for “nukular”, Dubya is the one most responsible for this atrocity directed against the English language.

    No, it is also about shoehorning in nuclear power and uranium, like the big TNC’s want.
    No solar or wind for enviro for domestic use, what ever the cost, the arrogant c—s.

  21. I Turner


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