The Subs and the Next War

In March 2023, former Australian prime minister Paul Keating attracted significant media attention when he described AUKUS as a manifestation of the United States’s campaign to encircle China with hostile military allies and partners. Under this trilateral agreement with the United Kingdom and the United States, Australia will spend up to AU$368 billion on eight conventionally armed—at least for now—nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs). This commitment, according to Keating, ‘screwed into place the last shackle in the long chain, which the Americans have laid out, to contain China’.

Less publicised was his criticism of the utility of SSNs in the intensely monitored shallow waters near China’s coast: in the ‘shallow water, the Chinese have it absolutely loaded with sensors and with equipment to detect large submarines … The Chinese can also shoot our submarines because we’re in the shallow water and we are detectable’. Supporting this view is a 2023 war-game report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which states that SSNs are ‘much more effective at searching the open ocean’. In fact, the report indicates that SSNs would play only a marginal role in a conveniently conventional war—necessary to avoid omnicidal nuclear escalation—between China and the United States following a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Titled The First Battle of the Next War, the report is ‘the most serious look at … how [a Taiwan scenario] could unfold’ according to Lyle Goldstein, a research professor at the US Naval War College for twenty years and the current director of Asia Engagement at the foreign policy thinktank Defense Priorities. Although the war-game is set in 2026 and Australia is not due to receive its first Virginia-class SSNs until the 2030s, the report sheds light on how the country’s submarines could be used.

Determining the outcome of the war-game was China’s capability to capture and operate ports and airfields on Taiwan before the United States, Taiwan and possibly Japan sank its amphibious vessels. These competing objectives formed a ‘strategic center’ in the battle ‘on or near Taiwan’: ‘for US teams, this was the destruction of China’s amphibious fleet, without which China cannot achieve victory. For China, this involved protecting the amphibious fleet, landing as many troops ashore as possible and supporting them, to the maximum extent possible, with airpower’.

In the most likely scenario, Australia ‘would participate in the South China Sea fight but be unavailable as a result for operations around Taiwan’. However, it is not difficult to envision Australian SSNs operating closer to Taiwan, especially considering Defence Minister Richard Marles’s focus in his 2022 address at CSIS in Washington on the capability of Australian and United States forces to ‘operate seamlessly together, at speed’ alongside his ambition to ‘increase the range and lethality of the Australian Defence Force so that it is able to hold potential adversary forces and infrastructure at risk further from Australia’.

The report offers conflicting advice on the capability of SSNs to counter China’s amphibious fleet. In the most likely scenario, ‘all available SSNs’ were ‘reassigned to either defeating the invasion of Taiwan or clearing the South China Sea’. Reinforcing this view of the submarines’ importance, the authors write that ‘inside the straits, U.S. submarines wreaked havoc on Chinese shipping … Every submarine squadron (four submarines) in the strait sank eight Chinese amphibious ships and eight escorts or decoys, but at a price of roughly 20 percent attrition’ (including 108 possible deaths, as each Virginia-class submarine has a 135-person crew) ‘per 3.5 days’. As a result of this performance, the authors advocate for the United States to produce more SSNs—which as of March 2023 it was doing at a rate of approximately 1.2 per year—as their ‘numbers [are] inadequate’.

However, elsewhere in the report, the authors identify numerous limitations of SSNs. First, ‘their effectiveness [in the Taiwan Strait] is diminished by Chinese corvettes and MPA [maritime patrol aircraft] actively conducting ASW [anti-submarine warfare]’. Second, China would be able to create ‘a barrier at the entrance/exits to the strait comprised of Chinese submarines and minefields that China plants over the course of the opening weeks’. Third, the submarines have limited capacity for torpedoes, so they ‘must periodically return to port to rearm’. Fourth, ‘China will likely target’ these rearming facilities. Fifth, ‘many torpedoes’ are expected to ‘miss or malfunction’. Finally, the United States may run out of these multimillion-dollar Mark 48 heavyweight torpedoes, as ‘some will be lost when the submarine carrying them is sunk, and others will be destroyed when shore facilities are attacked’. The threat of Chinese attacks on ports was significant enough for the authors to propose ‘mobile reloading from civilian ports’, which would turn them into military targets.

Reiterating many of these limitations, Goldstein emphasised SSNs’ poor suitability for use in the Taiwan Strait. ‘Probably China would close the straits with sea mines’, he said, which ‘would be almost impenetrable for submarines, so we couldn’t even get our submarines into the straits to try to sink this invasion fleet’. Not mentioned in the war-game, but in accordance with Keating’s criticism of the SSNs, is the strait’s shallow water, which reaches a depth of only 70 metres. ‘Very shallow water? Not good for nuclear submarine operations. They become much more vulnerable’. As a result of these limitations, ‘the waters around Taiwan really do not … support the idea that submarines could be a major factor’, according to Goldstein.

Finally, the authors of the report underestimate the possible size of the amphibious fleet to be destroyed:

… the Chinese invasion fleet … is not nearly as large as the fleet that supported the D-Day invasion. For that operation, the Allies had … a total of 547 ships … The anticipated Chinese amphibious fleet of 2026 includes … a total of 96 ships … At Normandy, the Allies put 90,000 troops ashore on the first day, whereas the Chinese can put about 8,000 ashore on D-day/Taiwan.

However, drawing on a 2020 Department of Defense report’s analysis of China’s ‘civilian-military fusion’, Goldstein argued that China would also use civilian vessels, bringing the potential size of its amphibious fleet to hundreds of thousands: ‘the way China would undertake this invasion is by employing its civilian fleet … which amounts to tens of thousands of vessels. I mean literally hundreds of thousands of vessels, if you include fishing boats … This completely goes against the logic in the report’.

Rather than the use of SSNs, the authors identify four problematic conditions necessary for China’s defeat. First, Taiwan’s troops must repel any Chinese forces that reach the island (but the number of Chinese personnel could be far higher than the authors anticipate due to the size of China’s amphibious fleet). Second, unlike Ukraine, which has received large shipments of weapons and equipment during the war (although Russia retains the upper hand), Taiwan must begin the battle with everything it will require, as China could blockade the island for months (and arming Taiwan already risks provoking the invasion the war-gamers sought to repel). Third, the United States must use its military bases and possibly civilian airfields in Japan, including large international airports (although doing so would turn them into military targets). Fourth, the United States must be able to attack the amphibious fleet from a distance using long-range anti-ship cruise missiles (the report notes that its bomber fleet is currently insufficient).

Amidst this list of conditions, Australia’s small, partly second-hand fleet of SSNs pales into insignificance, revealing that AUKUS is a poor investment even when judged by the irrational standard of its proponents as means to ‘deter aggression’. As the costs of the agreement are set to push Australia’s military spending comfortably higher than 2 per cent of GDP—NATO’s spending target—a government that accepts this fact would better serve taxpayers who are footing the bill.

Illusory Imperatives: AUKUS commits us to futile wars; an independent defence is possible

Clinton Fernandes, Jun 2023

AUKUS is an investment in US shipyards rather than the Australian economy. We are not buying submarines so much as subsidising the US Navy’s submarine budget.

About the author

Samuel Hume

Samuel Hume is a New Zealand teacher living in London.

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