A submarine powers through the water and an Australian, British and American flag overlay the blue sky next to it

What’s the Deal with Nuclear-Powered Submarines? Australia’s Tactical Military Move

With their stealth and speed, nuclear-powered submarines are key players in the imperial quest for ‘sea power’. Currently, only six countries have nuclear submarines: China, Russia, India, France, the UK and the US. This number is soon to be seven as Australia scraps its original $90 billion plan to build twelve French-designed diesel-powered submarines, instead teaming up with the US and the UK to construct nuclear-powered vessels. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described Australia’s move as ‘a stab in the back,’ and the real implications of this decision are yet to be discovered.

What is the security pact between Australia, the UK and the US?

People stand on the top of a submarine that is half submerged in the water
Image Source: Photograph: Petty Officer 1st Class Michael B Zingaro/AP via The Guardian

Australia’s nuclear sub deal is part of a new security pact called AUKUS. This defence pact between Australia, the US and the UK strengthens old ties. It aims to curb Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific region. While a unified response by democratic nations to China’s imperial actions seems desirable, we are yet to see the real consequences of the pact. Will AUKUS restrain China’s sea power? Or will it catalyse further military action? Perhaps, China will seek closer relations with Russia, sharpening the divide between China and the West.

Why are the US and the UK partnering with Australia for nuclear-powered submarines?

US President Joe Biden stands at a podium with American, Australian and British flags in the background. To his left is Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on a TV, and to his right is British Prime Minister Borris Johnson on a TV
Image Source: Brendan Smialowski / AFP

Australia is pulling out of the $90 billion French deal for diesel submarines, instead allying with the US and the UK. These two countries will share their technology secrets to help Australia build its new nuclear fleet.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the partnership as one built on a ‘strong foundation of proven trust.’ The countries share values of a world that ‘favours freedom’ and ‘the independence of sovereign states.’

As similarly stated by US president Joe Biden:

‘This is about investing in our greatest source of strength — our alliances — and updating them to better meet the threats of today and tomorrow.

However, the President also noted that this deal did not extend to weapons, only the propulsion system used in submarine machinery. Similarly, Morrison said:

‘But let me be clear: Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability and we will continue of meet all our nuclear non-proliferation obligations.’

The US and the UK trust Australia with their technology. They also concede that Australia’s presence in the Indo-Pacific region will help wield Western influence in the face of China’s swelling sea dominance.

Morrison defended the government’s choice to bail on the French deal, asserting that switching to nuclear ‘is not a change of mind, [but] a change of need.’ The Prime Minister says it’s a simple solution to the increasingly complex space of the Indo-Pacific region.

What does China already have?

A Chinese submarine powering through the water with a hazy sky and grey waters
Image Source: Kyodo News Stills via Getty Images

China’s fleet consists of six Shang-class nuclear attack subs (each 110 metres long and equipped to carry missiles) and 50 diesel submarines. It is considerably larger than Australia’s naval fleet and is soon expected to be larger than the US’s.

What are nuclear-powered submarines and how do they work?

People stand on top of a submarine half submerged in water with a blue sky in the background
Image Source: Argentina Navy/AP via The Irish Times

Submarines fuelled by nuclear reactors can remain at sea for extended periods without refuelling. These reactors generate energy by splitting atoms to produce heat. In turn, this heat makes steam for turbines that generate electricity to power the vessel’s silent propulsion through the water. Moreover, these submarines can hold nuclear fuel for up to 30 years of operation!

The advantages of nuclear-powered submarines over conventional submarines

A conventional submarine uses diesel generators to charge batteries. The primary drawback here is low endurance. The diesel-fuelled vessels need to resurface to bring air to the generators and recharge. This necessity means the submarines cannot stay in open waters for lengthy periods without meticulous planning of where and when to refuel. The need to come up for air also exposes the vessels to submarine-hunting ships or planes in the sky.

On the other hand, the technology of nuclear-powered submarines allows for longer endurance. Nuclear power is abundant, so the stealthy vessels can remain underwater indefinitely until something breaks down or the crew need a break from the confined space. Nuclear-powered subs also have fewer moving parts than a diesel vessel. This adaptation makes them notoriously quiet as they propel seamlessly through the ocean at speeds of up to 55 kilometres per hour. Curiously enough, this technology was so quiet that in 2009, British and French nuclear submarines (carrying ballistic missiles) accidentally collided with each other in the Atlantic Ocean. How’s that for undetectable? Luckily, the impact happened at low speed, and no one was injured.

How many nuclear-powered submarines is Australia getting?

The tops of three grey submarines powering through the water in a uniform line
Image Source: Cpois David Connolly/AFP/Getty Images via The Guardian

Under the AUKUS initiative, Australia will build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy – the country’s largest military acquisition in its history. The exact number and specific model is yet to be decided, but Australia’s subs will most likely be the US Virginia-class vessel or the British Astute-class attack submarine. The switch to nuclear-powered vessels comes with Australia’s newfound technology that allows the use of nuclear subs without supporting a civil nuclear industry.

According to the latest estimates, Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines will cost around $90 billion to build and a further $145 billion to maintain.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham told ABC Radio National:

‘The Prime Minister has acknowledged that it will likely cost more than what we had assessed for the conventionally powered submarines.’

What about the Australia-France relationship?

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison wearing an Australian flag face mask stands next to a French man in a suit wearing a black face mask as both men wave toward the camera
Image Source: Yoan Valat/EPA via The Conversation

After the Australian government abruptly announced its decision to scrap the $90,000 submarine deal, French defence ministers released a statement:

‘The regrettable decision which has just been announced on the FSP program only reinforces the need to raise the issue of European strategic autonomy loud and clear. There is no other credible way to defend our interests and our values ​​in the world, including in the Indo-Pacific.’

Words like ‘backstabbing’, ‘stabbing’ and ‘treason’ dominated the French media. For example: ‘Submarines: France stabbed by its Australian and American “allies”’

Similarly, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denounced Australia’s betrayal on French national TV. He also expressed his anger towards the US, likening US President Joe Biden to former President Trump:

‘This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr Trump used to do […] I am angry and bitter. This isn’t done between allies.’

Consequences of Australia’s deal-break with France

A man with glasses speaking into a microphone on TV with the text 'we built a relationship of trust with Australia, and this trust was betrayed' below
Image Source: abcnews.com

According to Fathi and Rioult, Australia can expect four main consequences from cancelling their submarine deal with France.

1.     Potential economic retaliation from the EU

Following Brexit, Australia and the UK have been renegotiating free trade agreements in the EU. There could be some form of economic retaliation against both Britain and Australia through EU legislation. Europe could block Australia from its markets for years to come.

For example, France was supposed to be a ‘gateway’ to the Australia-EU agreement, especially regarding mining resources. However, France may withdraw this support following Australia’s submarine ‘betrayal.’

The French Government could also refuse to approve the formalised free trade agreements. Renaud Muselier – a leading Liberal politician in France – has called on the EU to cease negotiations with Australia entirely:

‘By breaking a historic contract with France and @navalgroup, the #Australie stabs us in the back, for the benefit of the Americans and the British. We must react: I ask the European Union to suspend negotiations on the Australia / EU free trade agreement’

Australia’s deal withdrawal certainly goes against the promise of the ‘ease of doing business’ outlined in their ‘What could an Australia-EU FTA deliver?’ section on the government website.

2.     Loss of defence training

Australia and France’s deal fostered employment and training for the Australian workforce. But now, Australian navel employees who are training in France as part of the ‘future submarine program‘ may not finish their apprenticeships and exchange programs.

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating ‘trashed’ the AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine deal, stating that it would result in:

‘a further dramatic loss of Australian sovereignty, as material dependency on the United States robbed Australia of any freedom or choice in any engagement Australia may deem appropriate.’

3.     South Australia may lose other investments

The effects of Australia’s ‘betrayal’ may be felt beyond the defence sector. For the past five years, the South Australian Government heavily supported the submarine deal. It established the Office for French Strategy which drew French multinationals to the state and accelerated Australian-French adventures.

‘The Office of the French Strategy exists within the Department of the Premier and Cabinet and its primary role is to maximise South Australia’s direct participation arising from Defence’s Future Submarine Program […] it is accountable for building stronger relationships with the French Governmental entities, business and community, and supporting SA businesses who do or want to do business with French based entities.’

South Australia had a strong relationship with the Brittany region in France, and there were varied cultural and educational partnerships in place. However, France may redirect its investments elsewhere leaving many of these investments unsupported.

4.     The end of the ‘French connection’

The ocean-class submarine project between Australia and France has linked the two countries together since 2016. However, Australia’s withdrawal represents an end to this culturally valuable ‘French connection’. This fractured relationship compromises many partnership agreements between universities in South Australia and France.

China’s response to AUKUS

A China flag fixed on the tail of a boat as it glides through a murky green sea with buildings in the far distance
Image Source: Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images via Politico.com

The conference between Australia, the UK and the US rarely discussed China. But it is clear that three countries made the pact with China in mind.

China warned that the AUKUS pact – with its ‘cold war mentality’ – could hurt the countries’ own interests.

Liu Pengyu, the Chinese embassy spokesperson in the US, said:

‘[Countries] should not build exclusionary blocs targeting or harming the interests of third parties. In particular, they should shake off their cold war mentality and ideological prejudice.’

An English-language editorial in the Global Times argued Australia had now ‘turned itself into an adversary of China,’ and the country could be targeted to warn others who act ‘with bravado’ or ‘military assertiveness.’

Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating noted similar points. He argued that the AUKUS deal would bind Australia to any US engagement against China:

‘This arrangement would witness a further dramatic loss of Australian sovereignty, as material dependency on the US would rob Australia of any freedom or choice in any engagement it may deem appropriate.’

Safety concerns about nuclear-powered submarines

The battered remains of a submarine
Image Source: Wikitour.io via The Moscow Times

Some of the deadliest nuclear and radiation accidents in the world have involved nuclear-powered submarines. In the past, these catastrophes often involved reactor malfunctions that resulted in core damage and the release of radiation.

For example, in 1961, the Soviet submarine K-19 suffered a complete loss of coolant to its reactor. This malfunction released radioactive steam that seeped through all compartments of the ship through the ventilation system. All seven members of the engineering team and their divisional officer died from radiation exposure within a month. An additional fifteen crew members died over the next two years from the effects of radiation.

In 1986, the Soviet submarine K-219 suffered a devastating explosion that eventually led to a reactor accident. The explosion killed three crew members instantly, and a third died shortly after from toxic gas poisoning. This incident was represented in popular culture in the BBC film Hostile Waters.

Three years later, in 1989, an electrical switchboard malfunction in the K-192 caught fire and killed 13 men before it was extinguished.

In 1963, the USS Thresher (SSN-593) sank and was prevented from resurfacing due to ice clustering in the ballast blow valves. Thresher was one of the first submarine incidents to exceed 100 onboard deaths. The accident catalysed the Submarine Safety Program (SUBSAFE) – an assurance program of the US Navy designed to preserve the safety of its fleets.

While there are numerous safety measures in place to prevent accidents like these from occurring today, many remain concerned about any potential oversights that could endanger human life.

Main points

The top of a submarine half submerged in water with a gloomy sky in the background
Image Source: Asian Military Review
  • Australia scraps its original $90 billion plan with France to build 12 diesel submarines
  • The French Government and defence ministers expressed outrage at this abrupt decision
  • Australia’s withdrawal from the French agreement is likely to fracture the countries’ positive relationship
  • Australia is instead forming a pact with the US and the UK (AUKUS)
  • This pact will see Australia develop nuclear-powered submarines (which are stealthier, faster and more enduring than diesel-electric vessels)
  • Most people believe this pact is a response to China’s growing ‘sea power’ in the Indo-pacific region
  • However, China will likely retaliate to AUKUS alleged ‘cold war mentality.’

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