Inside Story

Going nuclear

The AUKUS alliance represents a dramatic step away from multilateral diplomacy. Or is it a first step towards an independent nuclear deterrent?


Nicholas Stuart 23 September 2021 2632 words

Sealing the deal: prime minister Scott Morrison with his British counterpart Boris Johnson at the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, on 12 June. Leon Neal/Pool Photo via AP

The French-designed, Australian-built project to create a fleet of hugely sophisticated submarines had been plagued with cost blow-outs, problematic technical choices and deteriorating public optics. It was nevertheless on track to deliver exactly what had been originally promised: up to a dozen conventional submarines, built in Adelaide, that would provide the Navy with a massive boost in capability. It seemed to have the trifecta — local industry, military punch, intellectual know-how.

So what went so terribly wrong? What could possibly explain last week’s sudden and abrupt decision to throw the project overboard and substitute a vague promise of embarking on a new build in two year’s time? Defence analysts increasingly believe the only way to make sense of the move is to see it as the first step in the creation of an independent nuclear deterrent.

The key is in the vessels themselves.

It’s evident the new submarine must offer something pretty special, although there’s been no indication, so far, of exactly what this might be. The public statements have been anodyne, simply emphasising the advantages of nuclear propulsion and building on an existing design. Both points are accurate. Conventional submarines regularly have to “snort,” rising to the surface to take in oxygen and expel contaminants, increasing the risk they’ll be located. Nuclear vessels don’t. They can remain on station for months and possess far greater range than normal subs. There’s much more to it, though, than just this.

These new submarines will be nuclear-powered general-purpose attack submarines, or SSNs. The critical issue is capability. The design that’s been abandoned, the so-called “Attack class,” would have delivered (roughly) 5300 tonne vessels with six torpedo tubes capable of firing Harpoon anti-ship missiles, which have a thirty-four-centimetre diameter and range of about 300 kilometres. At 7400 tonnes, however, the Astute class (on which the new design will be based) is much larger and with size comes huge potential. They carry larger, fifty-two-centimetre diameter silos capable of holding Tomahawk Block IV cruise missiles. As well as accurately hitting a small target (something the size of a house) from more than 1600 kilometres away, the route of these weapons can be changed in flight.

Perhaps most crucially, they can also be fitted with nuclear warheads.

The massive range of the weapon dramatically changes the nature of the boat’s capabilities. Instead of being forced to sail close in, where it becomes vulnerable, the vessel stands off, lurking deep in the ocean well away from land. This submarine represents a sudden escalation in Australia’s strategic capability, which perhaps explains why concern has come not only from China but more particularly from Indonesia and Malaysia. They understand how this decision could change the world.

There are, of course, no current plans to acquire nuclear missiles. Indeed, such a capability hasn’t been mentioned in all the speeches and interviews. But that’s not the point.

What’s relevant is that owning this sort of submarine is a game changer. It opens up options Scott Morrison (and, perhaps more particularly, defence minister Peter Dutton) are well aware of, and are probably seeking.

Perhaps this is the vital background to why the French project was abandoned.

Both weapons systems are potent. But the shift can’t be explained away as simply an acknowledgement that Australia’s submarines need to be nuclear-powered. If this was the only requirement, talks would have already begun with the French, who produce highly sophisticated nuclear vessels. Indeed, we’ve been working hard to convert one of their nuclear subs to a conventionally powered boat, so swapping in a new engine block would have been simple.

The only way to make any sense of the move is to understand it as, quite possibly, the most significant strategic decision Canberra has made since the second world war, wedding the country decisively to a US/UK alliance and catapulting Australia into the ranks of potentially nuclear-armed states.

This also explains the initial silence from navy officers who were surprised — or perhaps stunned is a better word — by Morrison’s out-of-the-blue announcement.

At press conferences like last week’s, viewers would normally expect politicians to be surrounded by a phalanx of uniformed commanders, bedecked with medals. But the military was conspicuous by its absence, underlining the implicit change in the strategic role such vessels might have and lending weight to the thesis that the change originated with the politicians rather than the strategists. Similarly, the lack of a plan to immediately commence work doesn’t sound like the way the navy would initiate work on the submarines. In fact, absolutely nothing other than “scoping” — perhaps another submarine analogy — will be done for at least eighteen months.

The other possibility — one that’s almost too depressing to contemplate — is that Morrison was persuaded to overturn decades of careful defence planning by a couple of determined advocates in his own inner circle of advisers. The remarkable secrecy surrounding this announcement suggests the PM’s office was well aware it faced the danger of significant pushback. Perhaps that’s why the deal was presented as very much a fait accompli. The possibility remains that Morrison has just tossed away billions of dollars and years of research, in return for vague promises of future cooperation on subs that will, inevitably, be built overseas.

The best way to understand what’s happened is to go back to the very beginnings of the fraught program that Defence once labelled SEA 1000: the project to build twelve “regionally superior” conventional submarines in Adelaide. Back in 2009 Kevin Rudd promised (with trademark aplomb, if slightly less engagement with possible realities) to build a fleet that would not merely defend the sea lanes but also provide a foundation for industry and kick-start a vibrant technological and scientific future. What was not to like?

It offered a single, neat solution to a multiplicity of different issues — defence, industrial and intellectual. It was about using knowledge to do things better.

But then, just two years later (and before any work on fleshing out ideas had begun) Rudd was gone, replaced by Julia Gillard. She didn’t hesitate to shelve the project and concentrating instead on budget repair. Then it was Tony Abbott’s turn to move the project forward. He chose to adopt a Japanese design only to have his plan aborted when a Liberal senator from South Australia threatened to vote against the government if the build didn’t remain in Adelaide.

Having caved in, Abbott bequeathed the problem to yet another PM, Malcolm Turnbull. By 2016 the prospect of building a dozen world-leading conventional submarines as a cornerstone of the country’s defence had become deeply problematic but the big difference was Turnbull had an energetic “can do” defence minister in Christopher Pyne.

Pyne engaged again with the original problem, never for a moment doubting that he could pull a solution out of the hat and, if it was one nobody else had thought of, well, so much the better. He looked around again, noticed the French, and liked what he saw. Voilà!

Naval Group — once known as Direction des Constructions Navales — had been around, in one form or another, since Cardinal Richelieu had taken command of France’s shipbuilding policy back in 1624. It had produced France’s ultimate deterrent, when Le Redoutable entered service as a ballistic missile submarine in 1971. It made everything from aircraft carriers to drones and, to Pyne, appeared as reliable as a good glass of fine Bordeaux.

Australia had already dated, and discarded, Japanese, German, and Swedish partners. A second-rate French conventional design — not the one that would be perused by Pyne — had already been ruled out as inadequate. Canberra’s traditional allies, London and Washington, only made nuclear submarines and, as these were out of contention, a flirtation with the French began. Perhaps they would be prepared to convert their nuclear boat to a conventional one?

Of course there would be problems because that’s what relationships are like. But “how hard,” Christopher asked, “how hard could it really be to pull out the nuclear power-plant and slip in a conventional engine?” Naval Group was willing.

There was enthusiasm, excitement, on both sides: a preparedness to experiment and, who knows, even the prospect of a massive breakthrough in submarine technology.

But the detail of the abandoned project reveals much more about Canberra’s incapacity to focus on the future than it does about the failure of a huge company to listen, or the simple preference of the French for a long lunch and fine wine. If this breakdown is the result of a culture clash, well, there were certainly two parties at fault.

It’s difficult to determine the exact moment disillusion entered the union.

Perhaps it was because this was never, really, a partnership of equals. Although both sides — the French builders and the Royal Australian Navy — wanted to end up in what was the same place, there were still fundamental theoretical disagreements about exactly where this might be. The rapid speed of technical progress further complicated issues. A pre-2020s design was attempting to anticipate an operating environment some twenty or thirty years into the future, but the constricting envelope of the submarine meant that difficult decisions needed to be made early in the process.

One simple example was propulsion. Obviously the system would involve some form of battery — but which type? The tested and reliable solution was lead-acid, but new advances in lithium–ion technology looked as if they’d soon offer significant advantages. It wouldn’t be simply possible to rip one type out and replace it with the other, though. The boats’ weight, trim and basic stability would be dramatically altered.

Technical arguments raged over this and other issues, including what used to be called torpedo tubes, or the way missiles would be launched from the vessel. Should these be located forward, in the bow, or would upward, as in the original design, and appropriate for firing a ballistic missile? How many and what size of missile would be stowed?

With limited space available choices like these inevitably affected not merely the capacity of magazines but also the number and type of weapons that could be carried. These questions are critical because they went to the task and possible missions the boats could be sent on. It was a given that there would never be enough space, so what should the room that was available be allocated to? Spare missiles, or room for commando teams and food? Extra diesel, or more batteries?

The real problem was there were no “right” answers, simply choices that would result in different outcomes. Fundamental disagreements were inevitable, and festered until minor cultural difficulties had grown to become seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

The French team felt the Australians were making impossible demands, but they adopted the new requirements and the cost kept growing. The navy felt Naval Group wasn’t listening or working with them to achieve a positive result. Feelers were put out to SAAB Australia, the company that had built the earlier (and initially trouble-plagued) Collins class submarines and was now working on an interim refit of these vessels.

Details of what was happening were scarce — submariners aren’t called the “silent service” for nothing — but it was obvious big issues were in play. The original contract with the French had been broken into different parts precisely so that either side could opt out at fixed points. The conclusion of the design phase appeared to be the obvious point to make the breach final. As that came and went, however, it appeared as if both sides had reconciled their differences and would move forward together.

That was not to be.

On 13 June this year Morrison was in Cornwall, where he’d been invited as a guest to attend a scheduled meeting of G7 leaders. There, beside the sands, Morrison quietly sealed a deal with British PM Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden to scrap the French team’s efforts. Macron was also in town but had no idea a plot was being hatched behind his back to dump Naval.

Exactly what had happened is still obscure. Naval Group makes the damaging charge that it was string along while secret negotiations began with the British, first, and the United States second. They believe Morrison, prodded by new defence minister Peter Dutton, had already made a firm decision to switch builder long before he finally met French president Emmanuel Macron for private talks in Paris on his way home from Britain.

It was all smiles and warmth as the two leaders reviewed ranks of be-plumed soldiers from the steps of the Elysée Palace. Macron even dispensed with the cold elbow-bump and instead pulled the Australian PM into a traditional Gallic embrace. Incredibly, Morrison seems to have said nothing of his plans to his host. If he’d intended to give any hint to Macron that an irreparable breach was imminent, he failed badly. It’s the secrecy accompanying the Australian manoeuvre — together with the way the sudden switch to build a nuclear submarine was announced without any consultation or pre-warning — that’s more than partly responsible for the almost universal negative worldwide reaction.

What changed in Canberra was the political leadership. Morrison didn’t share Turnbull’s appreciation of the French or nuanced understanding of international issues. He and Dutton brought a new determination to make things happen and to do so in their own way. They looked for allies where they were comfortable; they found them in the Anglo-sphere.

The only other alternative is to assume the government really is completely incompetent and has been sold a pup.

This story really ends where it began — in politics, driven by personality.

Sometimes, huge defence industrial projects — like Australia’s attempt to build the best conventional submarine in the world — simply fail. And sometimes there’s more to the story than first appears. Nobody will, or is even likely to provide the full facts in the middle of all the acrimony. All one is left with are questions — but one, in particular, stands out.

After spending massive sums of money attempting to convert a nuclear submarine into a conventional one, if all that was required was a nuclear powered boat, then why not just revert to the original successful French design? What extra oomph did the British vessel (widely believed to be the frontrunner as replacement) offer to make it worth the angst and furore that’s accompanied the decision to scrap the project? Is it really worth a close to $3 billion write-off, simply so we can pay more to get an Anglo design that will probably be built overseas anyway?

This is especially the case when the British boats have been plagued for years with their own technical problems and also suffered (in the case of their first submarine) similarly huge cost blowouts.

Apportioning blame for what’s happened is as pointless as pontificating on the breakdown of a bad marriage. Perhaps, in the end, each partner just wanted something different and it simply took a while to work it out. Maybe in the end there were so many reasons cascading together, large and small, that dissolution became inevitable.

If so, the problem appears to spring from an attitude that seems to encapsulate Scott Morrison’s entire approach to politics. Change partners swiftly, strike and never look back; whether your aim is to become PM or buy a new submarine. By partnering in AUKUS, Australia’s back in an older, much more familiar relationship — and, what’s more, a threesome! What’s not to like about that? It comes with all the excitement and hope that springs from the sudden blooming of a whirlwind romance.

What could possibly go wrong? •