On 15 September 2021, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morison announced that Australia would build nuclear-powered submarines; speculation has been rife as to which submarines are being considered. The partners, Australian-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS), have given themselves 18 months to come up with a plan.
Let’s look at Australia’s maritime doctrine; the key aspects covered by the Australian government are the trinity of maritime operations – being diplomatic, constabulary and military operations (including combat at operations at sea and from the sea) as well as the strategic concepts of sea control, sea denial and maritime power projection.
The main problem Australia’s previously selected Shortfin Barracuda class was that it couldn’t patrol long-distance and endurance was limited by diesel-electric engines. Without a nuclear submarine, Australia does not have the means to project power in the Indo-Pacific region.
In May, the editor-in-chief of Beijing’s Global Times newspaper, which generally reflects the views of the Chinese Communist Party, threatened Australia with ‘retaliatory punishment’ with missile strikes ‘on the military facilities and relevant key facilities on Australian soil’ if we were to send Australian troops to coordinate with the US and wage war with China over Taiwan.
So, resolving the threat posed by the Global Times depends on Washington making it clear to Beijing that any missile attack on Australia, as America’s closest ally in the Indo-Pacific region, would provoke an immediate response by the US on China itself.
America has an overwhelming superiority in being able to deliver prompt global conventional precision strikes.
As far as Australia is concerned, the growing torrent of threats and bullying from Beijing means that we need to have a much clearer understanding from our American ally about extended deterrence—not just nuclear deterrence but also conventional deterrence against Chinese long-range theatre missiles with conventional warheads.
Virginia-class solves Australia’s problem
A Virginia-class submarine fits the bill for Royal Australian Navy’s requirement. No one doubts its capabilities and commonality with the US Navy would yield training and support benefits. It uses US weapons systems, which the RAN already has in its inventory, such as the Mk.48 ADCAP torpedo.
And its vertical launch system (VLS) gives compatibility with Tomahawk cruise missiles. Australia is already set to acquire these, but for the surface fleet. It would be natural to put them aboard the Virginias too.
The Virginias make less sense without Tomahawk or some other missile to put into the VLS. The current Block-IV Virginias have 12 vertical missiles, and the Block-V will have 40. The Block-V’s capacity seems overkill, so a Block V appears more likely.
A challenge with the Virginia Class could be the cost of setting up Australian production. Although there is speculation that Australia could acquire the boats straight off US production lines, this isn’t in the spirit of the announcement. And US yards have years of Virginia class construction ahead. So a new set of tooling would need to be made to set up a new production line in Australia.
The nuclear arms sharing agreement
The US shares nuclear weapons with Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Turkey. The US retains final control using a dual-key system, with the host nations responsible for delivering the weapons to nearby targets. These European countries burden-share nuclear deterrence with the US. We could do the same.
France and the UK are two countries in Western Europe to maintain independent nuclear deterrence capability.
Germany’s motivation to replace ageing Panavia Tornado aircraft with Super Hornet Block III was driven by nuclear weapons sharing capability. Super Hornet offers the B61 nuclear bombs delivery capability.
According to Lowy Institute, Nuclear sharing is an option worth considering as the future becomes less certain and potentially darker. Australia has two trusted allies who can offer such protection for Australia by sharing its nuclear weapons. Few nations could make such a nuclear sharing deal work, but Australia and the UK could.
The RAN might also consider leasing US Navy’s Los Angeles Class boats that are due for retirement in the coming years. The Los Angeles Class would offer Royal Australian Navy’s crew to train and use a nuclear submarine. These could be extended for a few years until the fuel runs out. Maybe even moored in port as stationary training platforms.
In addition to these progressive steps, RAN submariners could become a common sight aboard American boats. Australia announced a massive undertaking for the RAN. The AUKUS partnership opens the door to illusive nuclear technologies.
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