What Are the Submarines Really For?

AUKUS and the Australian Way of War

Courgette flowers stuffed with goat cheese and Wagyu beef with polenta were on the menu when Prime Ministers Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson dined at the Australian embassy in Washington, DC.1 Earlier that day, they had joined President Biden to announce a new trilateral security agreement whose centrepiece is the acquisition by Australia of at least eight nuclear-powered submarines. The prime minister described the pact, known as AUKUS, as a ‘forever partnership’—he used that phrase ten times in a press conference. 

Public support for AUKUS

The announcement had an immediate effect: an opinion poll conducted soon after found that 57 per cent of the Australian public approved of the pact. Almost 90 per cent of LNP voters approved, while Labor voters were split: a slim majority of 53 per cent disapproved, compared to 47 per cent in favour.2 The split among ALP voters thus gives the government a national-security wedge against the Opposition. The looming election won’t just be about the government’s response to the pandemic and the bushfires, which had previously dominated press coverage, but about which side can be trusted on national security. The reaction illustrates Bernard Cohen’s observation that the press ‘may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about’.3 Public support for the pact should come as no surprise: for decades, opinion polls have shown strong support for the alliance with the United States. The 2021 Lowy Institute poll saw three out of every four Australians believing that ‘Australians and Americans share many common values and ideals. A strong alliance is a natural extension of this…the United States would come to Australia’s defence if Australia was under threat’.4 

These views cannot be dismissed as aberrations. A valuable study by Caroline Yarnell finds that Australian public opinion on foreign-policy issues is rational in the sense of its being stable over time and responding reasonably to triggers such as international events and statements by political leaders. It is coherent and consistent, showing a degree of structure and discernment.5 A bipartisan elite consensus protects the alliance from too much public scrutiny and debate, ensuring that it does not enter the terrain of political contestation. Since submarines are associated with the alliance, public support for them is in this sense ‘rational’. 

Why submarines

Submarines provide a vital, highly specialised capability for a maritime nation like Australia. They raise the stakes for any adversary contemplating hostile action against us. Anti-submarine warfare, at which Australia is adept, requires a range of costly, cutting-edge capabilities in the air and at sea, and is one of the most complex warfare disciplines to master. Submarines are expensive, but countermeasures against them are much more expensive. Submarines give Australia a strategic weight that no other Australian Defence Force (ADF) asset or combination of assets does. Were calls for an independent Australian foreign policy and an armed but neutral military ever to be taken seriously, possession of such capabilities would be integral for that stance. They would allow government to act at a time of its choosing and under any realistic threat scenario. These capabilities cannot be turned on quickly; they require years of investment in personnel and equipment to achieve proficiency. 

Australia’s proficiency in this area was shown during the East Timor crisis of 1999 when Indonesia deployed two submarines to shadow Australian and New Zealand ships taking troops, fuel and supplies to the territory. The submarines were detected and their locations were signalled to higher-level headquarters in Australia. Australian commanders then contacted their Indonesian counterparts and provided convincing information to show that their actions had been detected. The appropriate Indonesian commander then ‘admitted that his submarines had been deployed forward and agreed to retire them from the area’, according to an account by defence strategist David Dickens.6 

In the future it may become politically feasible to adopt a policy of armed independence rather than the sub-imperialism that has characterised Australian defence strategy since federation. Such a policy would require a posture known as the ‘strategic defensive’—making Australian forces an aggressive, elusive military that avoids detection, seeks battle on very favourable terms, and compels a hostile adversary to abandon its goals. As Australian strategist Albert Palazzo says, the Army is already acquiring a long-range strike missile capability that enables it to create a 2000-kilometre killing zone along the approaches to our north.7 Submarines and anti-submarine warfare assets will complement this capability in all realistic threat scenarios, and this would be especially true under any future policy of armed independence. These capabilities, however, require conventional submarines. Nuclear-powered submarines serve a different purpose. 

The Australian Way of War

The decision to acquire nuclear-powered boats reflects what has been the Australian Way of War for more than a century: to operate inside the strategy of a superpower by contributing a well-chosen, niche capability to augment the larger force. Inter-operability is central to the Australian Way of War. Even before the First World War Australia rejected the Canadian Ross Rifle in favour of the British Lee Enfield as the standard weapon for the military. As Lewis Frederickson notes, the Canadian weapon was ‘a superlative hunting and marksman’s rifle. The craftsmanship employed in machining its components was exquisite’.8 But the Lee Enfield was sturdy, ‘accurate enough’ and, most importantly, was ‘the pattern adopted by the Imperial Army’.9 Inter-operability with Britain, the superpower of that era, was crucial. 

Interoperability with an imperial power is perhaps the most important feature of Australia’s military acquisitions. That is what sub-imperialism requires, after all. There is a bipartisan consensus on this matter. The Royal Australian Air Force is optimised to act as a wing of the US Air Force, as Albert Palazzo says.10 US State Department cables released by WikiLeaks show that the Labor government’s review of the status of the Joint Strike Fighter program in 2008 was little more than a public relations effort. Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon told the US defence secretary that the review ‘would likely not result in any decision other than to keep the JSF and continue with the Super Hornet purchase, explaining that the government felt it had to respond to Australian public concerns that the previous government had not based these decisions on capability requirements but rather on political expediency’. The political problem was that ‘aircraft acquisition is now a topic of broad public discussion; every man in every hotel (bar) is talking about F-18 Super Hornets so the Labor government needs to do a public review’.11  

The Royal Australian Navy has consistently preferred submarines far in excess of Australia’s proximate defence needs; it insists on full interoperability with the United States, including the most sophisticated sensors and weapons and the capacity for very long ranges and endurance. Full interoperability means, among other things, compatibility with the US Navy’s underwater surveillance system, which tracks other countries’ submarines at long distances. One defence minister said quite bluntly that, ‘Ideally, we are seeking a comparable capability to a nuclear submarine with diesel-electric motors inside’.12 Nuclear-powered submarines would have been the obvious choice in this context due to their endurance, speed and indefinite submerge time. But Australia has no domestic nuclear power industry—necessary if a country is to operate nuclear-powered submarines in a self-reliant manner. The Navy therefore stuck with diesel-electric boats but imposed on them demands far greater than those imposed by any other non-nuclear navy. The AUKUS announcement implies that Australia has jettisoned any remnant of self-reliance in favour of full interoperability. Indeed the government has decided to host US submarines in Western Australia until Australia’s own boats arrive in the 2040s—meaning, essentially, that Australia has outsourced its submarine capability to the US Navy for the next two decades. 

It’s been suggested that Australia’s focus on interoperability with the United States is not explained by subimperialism but by threats to Australia’s energy security; namely, that Australia is vulnerable because it isn’t self-sufficient in energy and other materials such as fertilizers. While it is true that Australia needs imports and uses the seas rather than land to transport them, fear of being choked off from trade flows has rarely been a realistic concern of policy makers. Energy security carries little weight as an explanation for policy. The Australian government has examined energy flows carefully. A high-level Energy Task Force consisting of officers from the departments of prime minister and cabinet, treasury, environment, transport and industry developed an Energy White Paper in 2004. The task force looked at a wide range of issues including developing Australia’s energy resources, energy security, and climate change.13 It saw no reason to increase Australia’s strategic petroleum reserves. Meanwhile, the government deployed the Royal Australian Navy to the Persian Gulf from 1990 onwards, joining the United States in enforcing sanctions on Iraq, followed by the 2003 invasion of that country. These operations had nothing to do with protecting Australia’s trade routes or other fantasies, as the Official History of Australia’s Peacekeeping Operations confirms:

… the deciding factor for both Labor and Liberal-National political leaders was the need to support the United States as part of Australia’s alliance obligations. In that respect, the missions were part of Australia’s long tradition of deploying forces overseas for alliance reasons that was alive at federation in 1901 and was still going strong almost a century later.14 

Even now, Australia is the only member of the International Energy Agency to hold less than the required 90 days’ worth of fuel. We have 55 days of reserves, only three days of which are in public hands, with the rest held by industry players. Japan by contrast has 183 days’ worth of fuel reserves, the majority of which (110 days) are government held.15 Policy planners aren’t driven by strangulation scenarios, although they might use them to justify a policy that has other motives. 

China is even more vulnerable than Australia to having its energy flows choked off: it relies on the Strait of Malacca, through which most of its energy imports travel, and on the long transit across the Indian Ocean, which is heavily patrolled by increasingly hostile navies. A war in the Western Pacific would disrupt nearly all Chinese trade, whereas for Australia and the United States, only trade with China would be greatly affected. Nor would Australia and the United States need to forcibly blockade China’s sea and air routes: non-Chinese shipping and air transport companies would not enter the combat zone because they would rather lose revenue than ships and planes. China has been a net oil importer since 1993, and the gap between domestic consumption and domestic production has grown steadily since. China had become the largest importer in the world by 2019, relying on imports to meet almost 75% of its consumption. It is also one of the world’s largest natural gas importers, relying on imports to meet more than 40% of its domestic needs.

There is a word for these threat scenarios: projection. If the objective is to join the US in threatening China’s fuel supplies, such a policy cannot be stated quite so brazenly. It must be recast in terms of threat – a Communist government bent on world domination, in which disputes over exclusive economic zones and Taiwan are ultimately the forward elements of an international totalitarian wave. In fact, AUKUS provides evidence for a different conclusion – namely, that it is a conscious application of principles of imperial planning that long pre-date the Biden-Morrison period. 

Exclusive economic zones and power projection

US submarines are not necessary for the defence of Australia; conventional submarines could take care of that. Nor are they required to protect merchant shipping en route to China. The nuclear-powered boats have a very different rationale. They enforce the United States’ self-defined right to project power globally under the guise of ‘freedom of navigation’. There is a popular misconception about this matter, recently illustrated in the television comedy Utopia. One episode satirises Australian defence policy by saying that increased military spending is intended to protect our shipping routes. Since China is our major trading partner, and in that scenario we would be protecting trade with China from China, the whole thing is absurd. A clip from the show has been widely circulated and perhaps gives some comedic satisfaction. But it’s utterly misinformed. Australian strategic planners already know that it’s absurd to protect trade with China from China. That isn’t the aim of the policy. In the real world, the military build-up is about whether foreign military and intelligence activities can be conducted inside another country’s exclusive economic zone.

Exclusive economic zones (EEZs) were established as a feature of international law by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982. UNCLOS refers to waters extending up to 200 nautical miles from a country’s shores. It gives coastal states the right to regulate economic activities (such as fishing and oil exploration) within their exclusive economic zones. The United States has not ratified UNCLOS but says it will act ‘in accordance with the balance of interests’ reflected in UNCLOS ‘relating to traditional uses of the oceans, such as navigation and overflight’. It established its own exclusive economic zone within 200 nautical miles of its coast, and recognises the exclusive economic zones of other states as well. China has ratified UNCLOS, established its own exclusive economic zone, and also recognises those of other states.

The United States says further that it has the right to conduct military and intelligence-collection activities within any country’s exclusive economic zone, and can do so as close as 12 nautical miles from the coast, which are territorial waters under the jurisdiction of the coastal state. It accepts the right of other countries to do this inside its own exclusive economic zone; even during the Cold War the United States did not interfere with Soviet ships, bombers or surveillance aircraft that periodically flew close to US airspace. China states that it respects freedom of navigation in the disputed South China Sea but does not respect the right of foreign governments to conduct military and intelligence-collection activities within its exclusive economic zone. Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of China’s joint staff, has asked, ‘When has freedom of navigation in the South China Sea ever been affected? It has not, whether in the past or now, and in the future there won’t be a problem as long as nobody plays tricks…China consistently opposes so-called military freedom of navigation, which brings with it a military threat and which challenges and disrespects the international law of the sea’.16 

It is the right to conduct military activities inside another country’s exclusive economic zone that is at the centre of incidents between US and Chinese ships and aircraft, and has been since at least 2001. This issue is separate from the question of territorial disputes in the South China and East China Seas. Even if all these demarcation questions were resolved, China would still oppose ‘military freedom of navigation’, which, as a senior diplomat has said, ‘is an excuse to throw America’s weight about wherever it wants. It is a distortion and a downright abuse of international law into (sic) the “freedom to run amok”.17 The United States, for its part, insists on applying its own concept. It fears that if China’s position were to gain greater international acceptance, it would affect the US ability to project naval and air power in other exclusive economic zones such as the Persian Gulf. That would force it to conduct operations from more than 200 miles offshore, significantly reducing the range of its sensors and missiles, and it would be much harder to deploy its marines and their equipment in assaults..

Article 301 of UNCLOS, entitled ‘Peaceful uses of the seas’, says that states shall ‘refrain from any threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the principles of international law embodied in the Charter of the United Nations’.18 Chinese scholars often begin criticism of US military uses of the exclusive economic zone with this provision. The United States knows that Indonesia, the Philippines and India also quietly support the Chinese perspective. In April 2021, the United States carried out a freedom-of-navigation operation 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands, an archipelago of thirty-six tiny but strategically important and ecologically sensitive islands belonging to India. A press release by the Commander of the US Seventh Fleet declared that the operation in India’s exclusive economic zone ‘asserted navigational rights and freedoms…without requesting India’s prior consent’.19 India objected, stating that UNCLOS ‘does not authorise other States to carry out in the EEZ and on the continental shelf, military exercises or manoeuvres, in particular those involving the use of weapons or explosives, without the consent of the coastal state’.20 In this global context, and muted contest over the meaning and rights related to exclusive economic zones, Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines are  focused not on defending Australia from hostile powers but on supporting the United States in its determination to project power globally. Meanwhile, China has begun to conduct intelligence gathering and presence operations in other countries’ EEZs, including Australia’s, justifying its behaviour by saying it wouldn’t do so if Australia adopted its own position on sovereignty of EEZs. The situation calls for diplomacy and negotiation, not provocative behaviour. 

Implications for proliferation 

AUKUS sheds light on a loophole in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty: when the nuclear powers signed the treaty, they insisted on exempting fissile materials used in nuclear-powered ships and submarines from inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). They wanted to preserve the secrets of their naval reactor designs. The United States and the United Kingdom operate nuclear submarine reactors that use 93.5-per-cent enriched uranium as fuel. The US Navy’s reactors currently use about 100 nuclear bombs’ worth of highly enriched uranium every year, more than all of the world’s other reactors’ production of such combined.21 Civilian reactors typically use 3- to five-per-cent enriched uranium as fuel. (The French Suffren-class submarine runs on fuel enriched below 6 per cent). Australia will be the first non-nuclear-armed state to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, and these will require the same high-grade uranium as the rest of the US fleet. A further possible consequence is that Iran, Brazil and South Korea could use the Australian precedent to develop or acquire nuclear-powered vessels too, enjoying similar exemptions from IAEA inspection. 

The Morrison government’s submarine purchase is just one part of what will be a much larger US footprint in Australia under AUKUS. Defence Minister Peter Dutton has announced plans to build new facilities for naval, air and ground forces with ‘combined logistics sustainment capabilities for maintenance to support the enhanced activities’, and ‘more bilateral exercises and greater combined exercise engagement with partners in the region’.22 Australian planners aren’t too concerned about France’s anger at having its submarine supply contract cancelled. They know that France cannot operate effectively even in its own imperial area of francophone Africa without US power. On the same day the news of AUKUS broke, President Macron announced that a leader of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara had been killed by ‘French forces’. In reality, French forces relied on US transport planes for logistical support, US aerial refuellers for its fighter aircraft, US surveillance drones for reconnaissance, and US intelligence to track targets. The United States has an overwhelming advantage over any other country in global power projection. AUKUS enhances Australia’s ability to demonstrate its relevance to this. Planners have long feared that some other country in the region might become more powerful and more relevant to the United States, which would select it over Australia as a close military ally. The more vulnerable the United States becomes in Japan, Taiwan and the northern Philippines, the more attractive Australia becomes as a secure location for US forces. From this perspective, the greater the US presence here the better.

1 George Parker et al., ‘AUKUS: How Transatlantic Allies Turned on Each Other over China’s Indo-Pacific Threat’, Financial Times, 25 September 2021.

2 Roy Morgan Snap SMS Survey, Finding No. 8797, 16 September 2021, https://www.roymorgan.com/findings/8797-roy-morgan-survey-on-nuclear-powered-submarines-september-16-2021-202109160833 

3 Bernard C. Cohen, The Press and Foreign Policy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963, p. 13. 

4Natasha Kassam, ‘Understanding Australian Attitudes to the World’, Lowy Institute Poll 2021, p. 10,  https://poll.lowyinstitute.org/files/lowyinsitutepoll-2021.pdf 

5 Caroline Yarnell, ‘Is the Australian Public “Rational” on Foreign Policy Issues?’, PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 2015, https://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/handle/2123/14427?show=full  

6 David Dickens, ‘The United Nations in East Timor: Intervention at the Military Operational Level’, Contemporary Southeast Asia 23(2), August 2001, p. 224. 

7 Albert Palazzo, ‘Planning to Not Lose: The Australian Army’s New Philosophy of War’, Australian Army Occasional Paper No. 3, 2021. 

8 Lewis Frederickson, The Development of Australian Infantry on the Western Front 1916–1918: An Imperial Model of Training, Tactics and Technology, PhD thesis, UNSW Canberra, 2015.   

9 Frederickson, The Development of Australian Infantry.   

10 Albert Palazzo, ‘When You’re in a Hole, Stop Digging’, Lowy Institute, 20 September 2021. 

11 08CANBERRA180_a, AUSMIN 2008: Session IV: Alliance and Defence Partnership, 25 February 2008. 

12 David Johnston, The Importance of the Future Submarine for Australia: The Submarine Choice, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2014.

13 Kathleen Mackie, Department of Environment and Heritage, Committee Hansard, 4 August 2004, p. 1. Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts References Committee. Lurching Forward, Looking Back: Budgetary and Environmental Implications of the Government’s Energy White Paper.

14 David Horner and John Connor, The Good International Citizen: Australian Peacekeeping in Asia, Africa and Europe 1991–1993, Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. 533.  

15 Lisa Murray, ‘Could Australia Run out of Fuel?’, Australian Financial Review, 14 June 2021. 

16 Erik Slavin, ‘Chinese Admiral Contests Freedom of Navigation in South China Sea’, Stars and Stripes, 19 July 2016.

17 Liu Xiaoming, ‘China Will Not Tolerate US Military Muscle-Flexing Off Our Shores’, Guardian (UK), 27 June 2018.

18 https://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/part16.htm 

19 https://www.c7f.navy.mil/Media/News/Display/Article/2563538/7th-fleet-conducts-freedom-of-navigation-operation/ 

20 https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/us-navy-conducts-freedom-of-navigation-patrol-within-indias-exclusive-economic-zone/articleshow/81983624.cms?from=mdr  

21 Alan J. Kuperman, ‘The US Navy’s Nuclear Proliferation Problem’, Breaking Defense, 15 September 2021, https://breakingdefense.com/2021/09/the-us-navys-nuclear-proliferation-problem/  

22 Peter Dutton, joint press conference, 16 September 2021, Joint press conference: Washington DC, United States of America | Department of Defence Ministers 

About the author

Clinton Fernandes

Clinton Fernandes is in the Future Operations Research Group and is a Professor at the University of New South Wales. His research focuses on emerging war technologies and advanced materials and manufacturing methods. His most recent book is Sub-Imperial Power: Australia in the International Arena, published by Melbourne University Press in 2022.

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