Australia acquires nuclear submarines, with American and British help

ONLY SIX countries in the world – America, Britain, China, France, India and Russia – currently operate nuclear-powered submarines. Australia could become the unlikely seventh. In a statement and a joint television appearance on September 15, Joe Biden, Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison, the leaders of the United States, Britain and Australia, announced what they described as an “enhanced trilateral security partnership”, awkwardly named AUKUS . His first initiative, and the jewel in his crown, will be a collaboration on future nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. The pact, which will be formally signed in Washington next week, reflects their shared concern over China’s growing power and the U.S.’s eagerness to bolster the military capabilities of its Asian partners.

AUKUS is based on an Australian idea. It will cover diplomatic, security and defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. It includes joint work on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and “additional underwater capabilities”, such as underwater sensors and drones. Yet its most eye-catching element is the sub-agreement, which is considered the most significant international collaboration on defense capability in decades. Australia previously signed a $ 90 billion contract with Naval Group, a French company, to build a dozen advanced diesel-electric submarines, but became frustrated with the company’s inability to invest enough in it. local suppliers. He is now tearing this deal apart.

Instead, it will buy nuclear submarines and its partners will be America and Britain, both of which have operated such ships for decades. “We will take advantage of the expertise of the United States and the United Kingdom, building on the submarine programs of both countries to bring an Australian capability into service as soon as possible,” the joint statement promised. Some Australian newspapers have reported that America may be operating attack submarines from HMAS Stirling, an Australian naval base in Perth, in the meantime.

The acquisition of nuclear powered submarines would greatly strengthen the Australian Navy. They’re bigger and more expensive, but they’re also faster and can stay underwater much longer than diesel-electric submarines, like Australia’s current Collins-class submarines (pictured), which must periodically surface. They can also last longer without being replenished, a big factor in the sprawling Pacific. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a US think tank, calculates that if a diesel-electric submarine departing from Perth could remain “parked” for 11 days in the South China Sea, a nuclear submarine could do it for more than two months.

The proposed new ships would thus provide “real strike power,” says Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), “what we need to deter and respond to a growing challenge from the Chinese PLA. [People’s Liberation Army]”. Australia’s relations with China have become increasingly frigid. Last year, China imposed bans on various Australian products in response to its calls for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

The new partnership also comes at an opportune time for Mr Biden. Its withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent collapse of the Afghan government raised concerns among many allies about America’s reliability. In theory, this withdrawal was part of a larger reorientation of US diplomatic and military resources to Asia. In practice, many allies were skeptical about it. “The Biden administration’s approach to the Indo-Pacific has so far lacked focus and urgency,” lamented a report from the United States Studies Center (USSC) at the University of Sydney last month.

Ashley Townshend, co-author of this report, says Mr. Biden’s willingness to share highly advanced defense technology – “something the United States has rarely been willing to do,” he notes – is a good surprise. “It suggests a more strategic approach to collective defense.” On September 24, Biden is also due to host the first-ever in-person summit of the leaders of the Quad, a burgeoning diplomatic bloc that includes America, Australia, Japan and India.

Yet nuclear cooperation between America, Australia and Britain is not without its problems. The US Navy is “constantly short of submarines at the moment, and the situation is likely to deteriorate before it gets better,” said Phil Weir, a naval expert. The American and British ability to build nuclear reactors is also limited, he says. Building additional capacity to support an Australian program will take years. The leaders’ statement of September 15 indicated that an “initial scoping phase” would last 18 months. In 2017, Marise Payne, then Australian Defense Minister and now Foreign Minister, recognized that a “sovereign” nuclear fleet would take “much more than a decade” and come “at a very high cost relative to our conventional fleet “.

Nuclear power also has broader strategic implications. Although the nuclear non-proliferation treaty prohibits non-nuclear-weapon signatories from making bombs, it allows them – which amounts to a loophole – to shield nuclear material from formal international surveillance if it is of a submarine. The enriched uranium in submarines, however, is the same as that used in a bomb. Worse yet, the fuel used in British and American submarines is enriched to particularly high levels.

While Australia is unlikely to want a nuclear bomb itself – it gave up its pursuit of nuclear weapons in 1973 – other nuclear-curious countries may see a submarine as a convenient way to bomb. fuel. Brazil is working on its own nuclear submarine, which it hopes to commission in the 2030s, and Iran has played with the idea in the past. South Korea, which this week tested a ballistic missile launched by a submarine from a conventionally powered submarine, will also be watching closely. Meanwhile, Australian submariners will pop corks and pull out their physics textbooks.

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