Deterring at a distance: The strategic logic of AUKUS (2024)

SSNs are central to the DSR’s ambitious vision of denying an adversary’s access to Australia’s direct approaches and denying them free movement within that area. With almost unlimited range and armed with Tomahawk missiles that can hit targets 1500 kilometres away, AUKUS submarines will be the “apex predators of the oceans”. [28]Fast, concealed, silent, and highly survivable, they will be the ultimate deterrent, other than the nuclear umbrella provided by the US alliance. Their purpose is to deter an adversary from considering attacking Australia, to strike from any direction while an enemy is staged to attack, and to strike back from the sea if an enemy has hit Australian forces, bases, and cities.

Aside from advantages in range and firepower, it is the stoic independence of the SSN that makes it such a qualitative leap from the Collins-class submarines, which must surface every three days to recharge their batteries, telegraphing their position to an enemy. SSNs are also less discoverable because, after discharging their weapons, they can vacate the area faster. They are less predictable because they do not need to return to port regularly to refuel, and they are only limited by crew endurance and food supplies. The Collins are great boats, but there is no comparison. “There is no nation or system that can prevent a determined attack by a nuclear submarine,” concludes retired Rear Admiral David Oliver, who operated both diesel and nuclear boats. [29]

The claim that AUKUS secretly commits Australia to joining a future war in Taiwan is false.

Still, even where operational considerations favour SSNs over buying or building more conventional boats, legitimate questions persist about the political and technical feasibility of the AUKUS plan.

A common argument against AUKUS is that it reflects a tacit quid pro quo with America, signing Australia up to support it in any effort to defend Taiwan against China. Former prime minister Paul Keating framed AUKUS as an effort to support US containment of China. Former foreign minister Bob Carr depicted the deal as “signing up to a war over Taiwan”, as did former Liberal opposition leader John Hewson. For former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, AUKUS “subordinated” Australia’s sovereignty to America.

But does AUKUS really give Australia “little choice” but to follow America to war, as John Mearsheimer, a leading political scientist from the University of Chicago, has argued? [30]

The claim that AUKUS secretly commits Australia to joining a future war in Taiwan is false. The truth, confirmed on the record by Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, is that the United States never sought and Australia has never provided a Taiwan commitment in exchange for AUKUS. [31]The deployment of Australia’s SSNs would be up to the government of the day. This capability will in no way force Australia to sign up to any future war, which remains a sovereign decision.

But would not Washington be confident that the Virginia-class submarines, which it must take out of the American order of battle to transfer to Australia, thus degrading an already squeezed US Navy’s capability until as late as 2052, will be available to them in an Indo-Pacific war? [32]This view does have supporters in Washington. Under one proposal, AUKUS could be tweaked such that, instead of selling Australia submarines, American SSNs could undertake Australian missions. [33]This departure from the AUKUS optimal pathway would have serious implications for Australia, potentially opening the whole agreement up to debate going all the way back to first principles. Such a proposal should never be entertained by Australia, which must maintain a sovereign submarine capability.

Deterring at a distance:The strategic logic of AUKUS (1)

Some argue that America’s AUKUS legislation will give the United States sway over Australian sovereign choices. An early draft of the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act specified that a US president must certify that these submarines “shall be used to support the joint security interests and military operations of the United States and Australia”. [34]But the “joint” requirement was softened in the final draft to ensuring the sale did not degrade US undersea capabilities and was consistent with US foreign policy interests. [35]America is perfectly entitled to assess its own interests in the Virginia sale even as Australia has a clearly stated policy that they will unambiguously be a sovereign capability.

A better question is not whether AUKUS submarines pre-commit Australia to war in Taiwan under pressure from Washington, but whether having the ability to project force as far as Formosa will increase Australian decision-makers’ temptation to use it in Australia’s own national interest. This is a subtly different problem, going to Australia’s self-restraint in how it marshals the threat of force. When considering deploying SSNs to a sea dominated by another navy, Australia must carefully analyse whether such a move serves its interests, independently of alliance considerations. It is easy to foresee a scenario in which Australia’s newfound strength injected a fatal hubris into its calculus.

American politics are often held up as another potential showstopper for AUKUS. Some analysts worry about the possibility that a second Trump presidency could imperil the project. But my most recent visit to the United States gave me confidence in the bipartisan support for AUKUS in Congress. Because it is in the overriding interest of the United States to bolster Australia’s contribution to Indo-Pacific deterrence, this consensus is strong enough to weather any change of government. Though Australian observers often frame US processes as determining AUKUS’s pace, Canberra will need to demonstrate progress against its own defence spending, basing infrastructure, defence export controls, and nuclear waste disposal plans to give Washington confidence in Australia’s ability to operate and sustain SSNs.

It is easy to foresee a scenario in which Australia’s newfound strength injected a fatal hubris into its calculus.

Some argue that AUKUS will increase the ADF’s threat profile because a regional rival of the United States would perceive Australia’s SSNs as a threat to their security, whatever Australia may say about it. In other words, AUKUS makes Australia a bigger target. The Lowy Institute's international security expert Sam Roggeveen has argued that nuclear-powered submarines are inherently more threatening since they can hem in an adversary’s navy in home waters, operating much further from Australia’s shores for 77 days rather than the Collins’ eleven days, putting at risk their ships, submarines, ports, even landmass. [36]Why would Australia risk antagonising any country that, in a crisis, would be capable of hitting harder than Australia could hit back?

This possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand but must be seen as part of a wider cost-benefit analysis whose payoff is effective deterrence. Being able to hold an adversary at bay with SSNs carries risks, but these are worth it if they deter acts of aggression that can lead to regional war. The potency of this capability, and the risk Australia takes in signalling its readiness to use it, is exactly what gives it its deterrent power. But to call AUKUS escalatory is to flatter it too much. Ultimately, Australia is seeking to restore equilibrium, alleviating its worsening strategic position. Australia is a status quo power, not a revisionist one.

When strategists and politicians say Australia faces its most dangerous strategic circ*mstances since the Second World War, they mean it faces the possibility of war not just in the distant 2050s but this decade.

I understand the fears that AUKUS has a great many points of failure. An ambitious number of overlapping processes need to work seamlessly for it to succeed. The plan is to first host one UK and up to four US nuclear-powered submarines at HMAS Stirling in Western Australia by 2027. For eight boats to be seaworthy by the 2050s, each of the AUKUS countries will need to solve pressing workforce challenges today. Congress needs to approve the sale of up to five Virginias to Australia in the 2030s to avoid an ADF capability gap. UK shipyards will have to deliver the first SSN-AUKUS boats concurrently, followed by Adelaide’s Osborne shipyard building its first SSN in the early 2040s.

AUKUS should not end there. After the Virginias enter service, it would make little industrial and strategic sense to have set up an entire Australian production line to build three boats over ten years. A future Australian government should seriously consider building SSNs continuously from the 2050s, possibly of an evolved design. Beyond avoiding a shipbuilding “valley of death” and locking in economies of scale, the advantage of maintaining a sovereign SSN capability indefinitely cannot be overstated, particularly in wartime, when parts will be at a premium. How many should Australia acquire in total? A force of twelve SSNs, with six stationed on each coast, would give Australia a credible two-ocean submarine force. [37]Two deployable boats in each ocean could protect all the key northern chokepoints at any one time, doubling Australia’s patrol coverage. This difference could well be decisive in a battle for Australia.

Even if everything in this plan does work out, will the submarines not come too late to make a practical difference in a crisis that could occur any day? When strategists and politicians say Australia faces its most dangerous strategic circ*mstances since the Second World War, they mean it faces the possibility of war not just in the distant 2050s but this decade. And if that is true, would Australia not rather have Professor Hugh White’s suggested 24–36 conventional submarines, former prime minister Tony Abbott’s 10 Japanese boats, former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s 12 French boats, or 20 “son of Collins” boats sooner than the planned 8 nuclear-powered submarines? [38]

But those are not live options. The French deal was canned in part because there was too great a risk of those submarines being obsolete on delivery. AUKUS promises to deliver the regionally superior Virginias at the same time as the French submarines would have entered service, in the 2030s. If the ADF intervened in a crisis before the 2050s, it would field a mix of extended Collins, Virginias, and possibly AUKUS boats. Maintaining two to three separate submarine supply chains will be an ongoing operational challenge until Australia has fully transitioned to an all-SSN force by mid-century.

A potentially more fatal concern is that AUKUS may be gambling on the wrong horse, betting on big, costly platforms such as those which the Ukrainian armed forces are sending to their watery graves in the Black Sea with cruise missiles and cheap naval drones. Are not the Moskva, the Caesar Kunikov, the submarine Rostov-na-Donu, and 22 other Russian vessels a slam-dunk argument against AUKUS? Instead of investing in a few high-tech weapons produced at exorbitant expense over decades, should Australia not be buying tens of thousands of cheap unmanned underwater vehicles, plus thousands of missiles?

Deterring at a distance:The strategic logic of AUKUS (2)

The logic is alluring. Who does not want a quick fix and savings running into the billions of dollars? But the Battle of the Black Sea is not a workable model for the defence of Australia. The Western-supplied Storm Shadow and Harpoon missiles used by the Ukrainians have a range of up to 550 kilometres, reaching not far beyond Melville Island from RAAF Base Tindal. With a range of 833 kilometres, Ukraine’s naval drones would only give Australia coverage of parts of the Timor and Arafura seas from Darwin and barely halfway to New Zealand from Sydney. The Ukrainians are striking at that range because they have no choice. If they were armed with SSNs or even Collins boats, Ukraine may have sunk the rest of the Black Sea Fleet, on top of the spectacular achievement of destroying one-fifth of it so far.

Unless proponents of this radical form of asymmetric warfare suggest shrinking Australia’s defensive perimeter to fight at the gates of its capitals, it makes no sense to retrench Australia’s forces when enemy fires outrange them. Better to strike the enemy from as far away as possible — for which SSNs are essential. The real choice is not between submarines and drones. Australia must choose both, and has done so. Crewed-uncrewed teaming is the future of undersea warfare, as seen in the RAN’s investment in unmanned underwater vehicles such as the Ghost Shark, which could be launched from and recovered by Australia’s SSNs.

Nor is the overhyped claim that advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and sensor technology will render the oceans transparent, making submarines obsolescent, a sound reason to dissolve Australia’s force. It would be negligent of any Australian government to put blind faith in the still debated theory that the veil of the ocean is about to be lifted. And it would be shortsighted not to see that AUKUS Pillar II — which focuses on joint development of AI, drone warfare, quantum computing, hypersonic weapons, and other exotic technologies — is a promising avenue for counter-measures to the technological advances that may put the stealth of Australia’s SSNs at risk.

Reports of the death of submarines are premature. Dozens of countries continue to operate them, and every nuclear-weapon state except Pakistan regards nuclear-armed submarines as a survivable deterrent. Without conventionally armed SSNs, Australia will have a stunted ability to deter rivals at distances of thousands of kilometres.

The real choice is not between submarines and drones. Australia must choose both, and has done so.

B-21 bombers might have given Australia that capability too. This option was discussed in the DSR. But their formidable intercontinental range would make most sense for striking an enemy’s homeland — the ADF is explicitly not getting into that business. B-21s are the best solution to a problem Australia does not need to solve: bombing an enemy into submission. Swift and survivable, they could also be used to destroy an enemy fleet in Australia’s northern approaches. [39]If their cost — $81 billion for 12 — were justifiable, acquiring them for this limited mission would significantly increase Australia’s deterrent.

Which takes us to the ultimate argument against AUKUS: the opportunity cost. It is undeniably true that, for the cost of eight SSNs, Australia could buy fifty B-21s, seventy Hunter-class frigates, [40]a thousand more F-35s, or could divert that money into any pressing domestic portfolio. The price tag is a real challenge that defenders of AUKUS will need to convincingly justify for decades.

The cost of AUKUS is warranted because, on first principles, Australia needs a submarine force for its ability to deter and defeat an enemy invasion and to stealthily strike distant targets, which SSNs can just do better. Threatening to aggressors, lethal if provoked, but not overtly provocative, SSNs are the goldilocks long-distance capability. There is no peer platform that achieves that military effect more cheaply, aside from Australia’s outdated conventional boats that will reach their expiry date in a decade.

Threatening to aggressors, lethal if provoked, but not overtly provocative, SSNs are the goldilocks long-distance capability.

AUKUS is not only affordable, it is already partly budgeted. The Albanese government has begun to fund SSNs by investing $9 billion over the forward estimates and a projected $58 billion until 2033, $24 billion of that offset by not buying French submarines. AUKUS will cost less than ten per cent of the defence budget. [41]The argument that it is gutting funding from the rest of the ADF is spurious. To pay for SSNs, the government earmarked $30.5 billion in additional spending in the last budget. This puts defence spending on a pathway to 2.4 per cent of GDP by the 2030s, up from 2.04 per cent last year and higher than the previous government’s 2.1 per cent target. New money is funding SSNs just as the government is investing $11.1 billion in doubling the surface fleet to 26 warships.

Where that money comes from is a crucial question that goes to the core of AUKUS’s social licence. In the guns-and-butter trade-off faced by any government, critics can cut through with cheap political slogans simplifying complex strategic debates down to what you could buy instead of one AUKUS boat. Prudent governments have a duty to balance funding for Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme, fee-free TAFE, cheaper medicine and childcare, social housing, and power bill relief with adequate spending on the defence of its Commonwealth — on which every progressive policy depends. Defence is as much a left-wing as a right-wing issue, as bipartisan support for AUKUS proves. The cost of AUKUS reflects the value all Australians should place on their way of life as a free people under the Southern Cross.

Deterring at a distance: The strategic logic of AUKUS (2024)
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