How AUKUS nuclear submarine deal puts pressure on China
The new AUKUS submarine agreement is all about superiority, stealth and silent warfare in the disputed South China Sea.
In the South China Sea, Beijing already dominates the air. It controls the sea’s surface. But it doesn’t yet command what’s going on beneath. And that’s the only remaining advantage the West can exploit if it intends to intervene on behalf of Southeast Asia’s bullied coastal states.
It’s an unbalanced equation.
And it’s mainly in Beijing’s favour.
But the West is pinning its hopes on its one remaining technological superiority – the “apex predator” that is the submarine.
That’s why Canberra was willing to commit $90 billion for the abandoned French project.
That may be why the need for such boats has compelled Canberra to take drastic action to ensure their timely delivery.
Put simply, they are needed to go where no aircraft or warship dare.
The new trilateral security agreement between the US, UK and Australia – known as AUKUS – is intended to speed up the design and construction process. It brushes aside many complicating secrecy, technological and trade limitations. And the design will – almost out of necessity – have to be an existing US or UK project.
Previously, such a technological exchange had only happened in 1958 when Britain kicked off its nuclear submarine program as the Cold War with the Soviet Union began to escalate.
Ultimately, this new partnership is intended to ensure the West maintains its edge in underwater combat. That, in turn, could determine the outcome of a future conflict.
The clock is ticking.
Australia’s latest Defence White Paper warns we can no longer expect our region to remain peaceful within the next 10 years. It’s a similar warning to that issued in the 1930s as Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperialist Japan began stoking their engines of war.
“I do want to underscore that this will give Australia the capability for their submarines … to deploy for longer periods,” a White House official said this morning. “They’re quieter. They’re much more capable. They will allow us to sustain and improve deterrence across the Indo-Pacific.”
China’s submarines are getting better. As are Russia’s. And the two nations have been strengthening their military technology ties.
So the capability gap is quickly closing. Which has profound implications for Australia’s ageing Collins Class diesel-electric submarine fleet.
While smaller and generally quieter than nuclear submarines, diesel-electric boats must regularly cruise just beneath the surface and deploy snorkels for engines to recharge their battery banks.
These snorkels can be seen. As can their wakes.
And new radars are capable of spotting the wakes of even properly submerged submarines.
So staying silent and deep has become increasingly important.
That’s where nuclear – despite its disadvantages of size – comes into its own.
“The Australian Navy going nuclear will give them the legs to be viable in areas of the Western Pacific,” a US submarine admiral told USNI News. “This is a message to China. China economically punished Australia, and this could be a response to that.”
But nuclear isn’t easy. And Australia has no nuclear energy industry. So the nuclear chemist and engineers needed to support and crew a nuclear fleet will have to be built up from scratch.
“We will launch a trilateral effort of 18 months, which will involve teams – technical and strategic and navy teams from all three countries – to identify the optimal pathway of delivery of this capability,” a White House official said this morning.
What role do nuclear-powered submarines play?
Taiwan is China’s next-door neighbour. But it’s an 11,000km journey from the major US naval base at San Diego, California, to Taipei. It’s 6400km from Perth.
The South China Sea isn’t exactly adjacent China’s mainland coast. But it’s nearby. And Beijing has built up a complex network of artificial island fortresses to guarantee dominance over the area’s enormously important shipping lanes if it so desires.
It’s also a sea that’s almost entirely “fenced in” by islands. There’s Indonesia and Malaysia to the south. The Philippines brackets the west. Taiwan tops off the north. So the rest of the world can only enter the region via one of a handful of narrow deep water channels.
China needs the same to leave.
But inside the South China Sea itself, Beijing already has all the cards in place to exert almost complete military dominance. All aircraft and ships can be tracked. Its artificial island fortresses even have radar systems designed to unmask stealth.
China has hundreds of modern combat jets, some of them stealthy. These will be operating from well established, and well supported, home bases. The same home-game advantage applies to its navy.
Put simply: Any attempt to reinforce Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam or Japan would have to run a dense gauntlet of missiles, bombers, warships, fighters and submarines.
Submarines have the best chance of slipping through this gauntlet unnoticed.
China does possess submarine-hunting warships and aircraft. It’s also actively mapping the South China Sea and surrounding seabeds to position listening devices and other sensors. But many military analysts believe it’s not yet in the same league as the West when it comes to submarine warfare.
Britain builds its own nuclear attack submarines. But, like Australia, it needed a technological transfer from the United States in order to do so. So it has an agreement where the US supplies the powerplant, and it builds submarines around them.
Its current generation attack submarine, the Astute Class, entered service in 2010. The final boat of a class of seven is due for delivery in 2026. They’re being built by BAE, which already has an Adelaide presence.
The United States’ current nuclear attack fleet is centred upon the Virginia Class submarine. The first of its kind, the USS Virginia, was commissioned in 2004. A total of 66 are projected to be built. Work is slated to continue through to 2043, with the last boat retired in the 2070s.
But the United States Navy is already looking to replace this almost 20-year-old design. It’s been dubbed SSN (X).
The project has only just begun. But it’s ambitious.
“(It’s) going to be faster, carry a significant punch, bigger payload, larger salvo rate; it’s going to have acoustic superiority,” director of the US Undersea Warfare Division, Rear Admiral Bill Houston, told media earlier this year.
But an emphasis is being placed on deliverability and compatibility with emerging technologies.
That includes artificial intelligence, quantum sensors and large semi-autonomous drones.
“We’re taking what we already know how to do and combining it together,” Rear Admiral Houston said, adding the idea was to “mesh together” the best attributes of the existing Virginia and Seawolf submarine designs into a new hull.
Whatever the case, the SSN (X) project is still embryonic. It is unlikely to deliver submarines within the time frame Australia desires.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel