On September 16, US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and “that fellow down under” Scott Morrison announced the “creation of an enhanced trilateral security partnership” committing their three countries to “diplomatic, security, and defence co-operation in the Indo-Pacific region”. In the ensuing press conference, Morrison described the AUKUS alliance as a “forever partnership”—ten times. He also called it a “forever relationship” entailing a “forever responsibility” that will define Australia’s security posture “forever into the future”.
Forever is a long time, and it remains to be seen whether AUKUS will survive past the next election. Morrison called it “the single greatest [security] initiative … since the ANZUS alliance itself”. He might have noted that ANZUS has long been a dead letter. New Zealand declared its entire territory a nuclear-free zone in 1984, and in response the United States formally suspended its security guarantee to the country in 1986. In theory, the ANZUS treaty still holds between Australia and New Zealand, and each party is required to treat an armed attack on the other as an armed attack on itself. Good luck getting any help from Jacinda Ardern.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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The end of ANZUS is not an isolated incident. The world is littered with dead-letter treaties, most of them involving the United States. More than fifty countries are covered by American collective security guarantees. Most of these are entirely meaningless. The United States is not going to defend its treaty ally Paraguay against an invasion from Bolivia. It is, however, almost certain to intervene (if necessary) to ensure the continued existence of non-allies Israel and Taiwan. It fought a war in 1991 to restore the sovereignty of non-ally Kuwait, and it maintains powerful forces in the Persian Gulf to protect non-allies in the Gulf Co-operation Council.
The AUKUS partnership is not a treaty, and it is definitely not the “Asian NATO” we’ve all been waiting for. It is potentially far more important. As NATO completes its slow transition from a fighting alliance into a collective security bureaucracy that is mainly concerned with civilian issues like anti-corruption training and the promotion of gender equality, the United States increasingly focuses its security co-operation on a small number of willing—and capable—partners. Given their serious air and naval capabilities, Japan and the UK are at the top of the list. Israel isn’t far behind. And now, it seems, Australia is the coming country.
The Australian public may see the AUKUS partnership as a submarine deal, but that fellow down under knows better. So does the wily former prime minister Paul Keating, who said that AUKUS “would witness a further dramatic loss of sovereignty” for Australia. Labor senator Kim Carr went further, saying the agreement raised “questions about preserving Australian sovereignty itself, because for many decades ahead AUKUS will lock Australia rigidly into the global strategic priorities of the US … regardless of who occupies the White House”. On the other side of the party divide, Tony Abbott called AUKUS “one of the biggest decisions that any Australian government has made in decades”—tout court.
See also: AUKUS and Its Enemies
Really? How could the purchase of eight submarines, to be delivered in twenty years (if they are ever delivered at all), be so consequential? What about the seventy-two F-35A stealth fighter jets that Australia has ordered, many of them already in service? Or the Hunter-class future frigates, packed full of American combat kit? Or the US Marine Corps rotational deployment, with their actual boots on the ground in Darwin? And would the original contract for French submarines have locked Australia rigidly into the global strategic priorities of France, no matter who occupied the Élysée Palace?
If the fateful submarines themselves make their first appearance in the fifth paragraph of this article, it’s because AUKUS isn’t primarily about the subs, or even about their nuclear power plants. France would gladly have sold Australia nuclear-powered submarines instead of diesel ones. In fact, the scuttled Attack-class submarines were to be adapted from a French nuclear-powered design, on the insistence of the Australian government that the subs be downgraded to diesel propulsion. The sub deal is only the headline hook of the AUKUS partnership, and a powerful bit of misdirection at that. The buried lede is the mission that the submarines are intended to fulfil.
The primary mission of Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines will be to seek, track, trail and (if necessary) destroy Chinese and Russian nuclear ballistic missile submarines. When that fellow down under signed up to a “forever partnership” with the US and UK, he committed Australia to much more than an expensive defence procurement program. He signed Team Australia into the brackets of the global nuclear game. When it comes to the Third World War, the US and UK may carry the nuclear football, but Australia will be in the scrum.
Scott Morrison can’t say this out loud, but he knows it full well. His repeated use of “forever” to describe the AUKUS partnership was not prompted by the length of time it would take to build the subs, or the many generations of Australian taxpayers who would have to pay for them. Nor did it refer to the centuries of secure storage that would be required for the safe disposal of the submarines’ nuclear waste. When Scott Morrison said that the AUKUS partnership was forever, he was admitting that once Australia joined the team, there was no backing out. He wasn’t talking in treaty time. He was evoking the existential eternity of nuclear armageddon.
When the six aircraft carriers of Japan’s Kido Butai (“mobile force”) struck Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, it didn’t just put nine battleships out of commission. It made the entire concept of the battleship obsolete. Before Pearl Harbor, battleships were the offensive core of a country’s battle fleet. After Pearl Harbor, they were relegated to scouting and shore bombardment missions. Battleships continued to be highly capable platforms after Pearl Harbor; indeed, the Second World War-era battleship USS Missouri led the American assault on Iraq in Operation Desert Storm. But relatively few battleships were built during the Second World War, and none afterward. Naval battle doctrine had moved on.
Effective military planning focuses on missions, not capabilities, and battleships have been short of a mission ever since 1941. A country’s armed forces must be capable of fulfilling the missions that they are expected to perform, but the missions come first. It’s the job of the military strategist to imagine potential missions and wargame them decades in advance, giving political leaders the long lead times they need to procure the necessary capabilities. But capabilities-based thinking is a recipe for seeing all problems as nails.
Capabilities-focused strategists might object that it is impossible to imagine all possible missions a country might want to undertake, especially when capabilities must be planned decades into the future. Indeed, it is difficult, and strategists are bound to get things wrong sometimes. But many important missions are clearly predictable, and many more are absolutely obsolete. For example, Australia will never use submarines to impose an economic blockade by attacking enemy supply convoys, or land commandos to sabotage facilities on a fortified shoreline, or sneak supplies into a beleaguered base like Malta or Corregidor. That was then; this is now.
Nor will Australia use submarines to thwart an enemy invasion. Submarines have never been particularly useful for attacking warships, since once detected, a submarine is likely to be sunk. In any case, it is much cheaper and technically much simpler to sink warships with missiles launched from ground installations, surface ships or aircraft. Modern submarines are, in theory, capable of sinking both warships and civilian ships, or even bombarding shore targets with submarine-launched cruise missiles. But in practice they will never be used for these missions, because other, more practical alternatives will be turned to first.
So why does Australia want submarines at all? Australia’s defence planning documents are riddled with capabilities-based thinking, but they do offer some answers. The 2016 Defence White Paper optimistically declares that “the key capabilities of the future submarine will include:  anti-submarine warfare;  anti-surface warfare;  intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and  support to special operations”. No doubt a diesel submarine could do all four, but it is likely that the ADF would choose other tools for all but the first. The 2020 Force Structure Plan implicitly admits this, by limiting its discussion of the future submarine’s capabilities to “regional anti-submarine warfare”. Regional, because diesel power would limit its range, and the diesel decision had already been made.
Both defence planning documents emphasise “interoperability with the United States”. The United States maintains a fleet of fifty-four nuclear-powered attack submarines (with nine on order and many more planned) to fulfil two major missions: they hunt enemy ballistic missile submarines, and they hunt the enemy attack submarines that are hunting America’s own ballistic missile submarines. There are roughly a dozen Russian ballistic missile submarines in service and half a dozen Chinese ones, and they have to be monitored at all times. In the event of a nuclear war, the hope would be that American attack submarines could save millions of lives by sinking enemy subs before they launch their missiles. It may be a vain hope, but it’s the only hope we have.
Had Australia opted to acquire French nuclear-powered submarines, built in France at a fraction of the cost of Adelaide-built diesel ones, it could have had a first-class submarine warfare capability in this decade with no grandstanding over national sovereignty and no existential angst. Adelaide’s shipbuilders (and their unions) could have been bought off with subsidies and make-work projects funded out of the cost savings. The Royal Australian Navy would have been very happy with its highly “capable” toys. The submarines would have been fast, durable and truly (to use the words of the Defence White Paper) “regionally superior”.
But they would not have been fully integrated into the US-UK global submarine surveillance program. And unlike their French counterparts, they wouldn’t even have played a meaningful national anti-submarine role, since unlike France, Australia has no nuclear ballistic missile submarines to protect. Nuclear or conventional, Franco-Australian submarines would have been little more than a prestige purchase, intended primarily to give RAN submariners a crack at command. The long-running controversy over Australia’s future submarine program was never really about their capabilities. It was always about the choice of missions: contribute to the collective security of the free world with Anglo-American nuclear subs, or simply buy a dozen boats.
As Australia emerges from two years of coronavirus emergency measures, net government debt is projected to total $729 billion by the end of the fiscal year. Cancelling the Attack-class submarine program will save something like $90 billion, and that must be a welcome respite. The government has said it will take eighteen months to think over its plans for a nuclear replacement, delaying any decision until well after the next election—and well into a new era of policy-making, no matter who wins. In the meantime, drone technology is rapidly advancing, and human-crewed ships may eventually become obsolete. Let’s face facts: there’s a very good chance that Australia’s nuclear attack submarines may never be built.
The Collins boats won’t last much longer. Echoing the concerns of many defence analysts, Kevin Rudd has warned the long delay in commissioning a replacement means that Australia could be left with a submarine gap. He worries that “we are being left strategically naked for twenty years”. If he were talking about patrol boats or early-warning radar, he might be right. But strategically, the mission of defending Australia is not a submarine mission. No Australian submarine has ever sunk (or even fired at) a ship that was making for Australia.
Australia’s first submarine, HMAS AE1, was lost in 1914 in an accident off Rabaul. Its sister ship, HMAS AE2, was lost in the Dardanelles the following year. The RAN had no submarines in the Second World War, and post-war subs seem to have spent most of their operational lives playing friend or foe in American training exercises. With no disrespect to Australia’s brave submariners (and it takes a brave person to serve on a submarine), it is not at all clear that Australia’s six Collins-class boats have ever “done” anything. They’re rarely even available for service.
The RAN’s submarines do not exist to protect Australia. Neither do its frigates, destroyers or amphibious assault ships. They exist to participate in global missions, serving alongside American and other friendly forces in pursuit of multinational goals. Even the 2006 deployment of Australian forces to East Timor in Operation Astute did not require major fleet assets, although a frigate was dispatched in support (just in case). As unglamorous as it may be to admit it, the core mission of the RAN’s most capable fighting ships has always been to play a supporting role on the world stage, not to defend Australia fair.
That’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s what the mighty US Navy does, too. The USN’s ballistic missile submarines might be said to defend America through the threat of mutually assured destruction in the event of a nuclear attack. Otherwise, homeland security is the job of the Coast Guard. America’s all-powerful carrier strike groups exist to project power, not to protect the homeland. The have the capability to patrol the coasts, but that mission is much better served by land-based aircraft. It’s the same story for the Marine Corps’ amphibious assault groups. Their missions can only be construed as “defence” under the broadest possible understanding of the term.
The RAN routinely participates in US-led maritime security operations in the Persian Gulf and off the coast of Somalia. It also conducts exercises in which its ships practise playing key roles in US-led fleet formations. With the British return to Indo-Pacific waters in 2021, Australian frigates joined a UK-led carrier strike group in the South China Sea. The US may do most of the heavy lifting of global maritime security, but the UK is an important partner, and Australia chips in. Much as the Australian Army has fought alongside the US in every major conflict since the Second World War, the RAN is a small but capable contributor to American-led maritime security efforts throughout the Indo-Pacific region.
The AUKUS partnership represents a dramatic deepening of that historical role, whether or not the submarines ever get built. It means that Australia is joining the Anglo-American team. For the last eighty years, the US and UK have co-operated in a global partnership to patrol and police the world’s seas. The 1956 Suez crisis may have been a blip in that relationship, but it was only a blip. Just two years later, the US and UK signed the 1958 Mutual Defence Agreement for the sharing of nuclear weapons and propulsion technologies. Despite many ups and downs in the day-to-day working of the US-UK relationship, it has been consistently “special” ever since.
In the late twentieth century, what the US needed most from the UK was technology co-operation, followed closely by area defence in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. But times change, and with them adversaries—and priorities. Right now, what the US wants most of all from its allies is help countering China’s rapidly growing PLA Navy as it expands across the Indo-Pacific. That’s why there’s a British carrier strike group in the Pacific for the first time since the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. And it’s why the US and UK were keen for Australia to solidify its supporting role in the global Anglo-American maritime partnership by joining AUKUS.
Whether and whenever Australia acquires nuclear-powered submarines, the creation of AUKUS signals a consolidation of the global nuclear Anglosphere. Canada, Ireland and New Zealand may continue to act as free riders on the security provided by their respective regional big brothers, but the addition of Australia to the Anglo-American team makes it a truly global franchise for the first time since the Second World War. Australia might never field nuclear-powered submarines, but there are already reports that it may support British nuclear-powered submarines in the Indo-Pacific. With China expanding to Africa along its self-declared Maritime Silk Road, the “Indo-” half of that term is likely to prove the more important geography. And Australia, despite being a relative military lightweight, is a geographical superpower.
Australia’s six existing Collins-class submarines are stationed at Fleet Base West on Garden Island, just south of Perth—and 4000 kilometres from the Pacific Ocean. They are, essentially, Indian Ocean boats. The popular myth that they protect Australia from hostile intruders is belied by the fact that they would have to sail eight days just to reach Sydney. With a submerged range of 750 kilometres and a top speed of 37 km/h (to use landlubber units), they could neither keep up with a Chinese invasion fleet nor tail it for so much as twenty-four hours, should the Chinese obligingly slow down to accommodate. They would be positively left in the dust (metaphorically speaking) by any prospective Russian threat.
Garden Island’s Fleet Base West, however, is potentially much more useful than the subs it currently hosts. It is, in fact, well situated to become the AUKUS partnership’s Indian Ocean home. The US Navy has a major base in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, while the UK maintains basing rights in Oman. Both countries share advanced staging facilities on Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean. They also have access to berthing space in Singapore, but this requires the approval of the Singapore government—and Singapore is highly susceptible to Chinese pressure. Western Australia offers a politically stable, easily supplied, continental home base for AUKUS submarines, with plenty of expansion space for any support infrastructure that may be required.
If Fleet Base West becomes AUKUS’s regional centre for the provisioning and maintenance of hunter-killer submarines, it will reasonably enough be targeted by Chinese and Russian nuclear missiles. The vice-president of Beijing’s semi-official Centre for China and Globalisation, Victor Gao, has explicitly warned that “Australia itself will be a target for possible nuclear attacks in the future” as a result of AUKUS. He asked the ABC’s Stan Grant, “Do you really want to be a target in a possible nuclear war?” and pointed out that Australia “will lose the privilege of not being targeted by nuclear weapons in the future”.
Western Australia’s secessionist tendencies notwithstanding, no one wants to see Perth go up in nuclear flames. But Gao has a point. The Collins-class subs are always described as being highly capable, and by all accounts they are “silent and deadly”. But deadly to whom? An American aircraft carrier in a staged wargame? Certainly not to China or Russia. It is inconceivable that in a real war the Western allies would send an Australian diesel submarine to sink a Chinese aircraft carrier. Allied aircraft would long since have finished the job.
But if Fleet Base West becomes a support centre for future Australian nuclear-powered attack submarines, or (what is much the same from China’s perspective) British or American nuclear-powered attack submarines, it will become a legitimate nuclear target. Australia might never deploy nuclear weapons of its own, but if it joins the Anglo-American nuclear team, it must accept the consequences. Scott Morrison won’t say it out loud, but the primary mission for Australia’s future nuclear submarines will be to help sink Chinese nuclear ballistic missile submarines. It should not shock anyone that those missiles might be targeted back at Australia.
For eight decades and counting, Australia has more than pulled its weight in providing global security, but it has never before played in the nuclear game. Nor does it have to now. For all its unwarranted aggression towards Australia in recent years, China poses no meaningful threat to Australia. Refusing to buy coal and placing tariffs on wine are not acts of war. China is actively threatening the sovereignty of weaker neighbours like Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam, but that is hardly a concern for Canberra. There is no reason to believe that China would gratuitously target Australia in a nuclear war, if Australia took Beijing’s advice to mind its own business.
Australia would likely be materially better off if it simply followed New Zealand down the road to appeasement. Belying its glorious heritage on the Somme and in the Battle of Britain, the Te Ope Kātua o Aotearoa (also known as the New Zealand Defence Force) has dwindled to little more than a civilian observer corps. The beleaguered NZSAS can field a few hundred highly-trained light infantry—if the government ever lets them go abroad again. For actual home defence, New Zealand possesses two ageing frigates and no combat aircraft. Regarding China, New Zealand’s frank advice to Australia has been to “follow us and show respect”, in the words of New Zealand trade minister Damien O’Connor. The only price New Zealand has had to pay for its appeasement strategy is a measure of self-respect.
Australia is even more secure. The RAAF is armed to the teeth and well able to defend the country against any potential state adversary, present or future. The RAN is finally expanding its patrol-boat flotilla to police Australia’s shores. The Australian Army continues to play a prominent role in promoting global security, as does the RAN. Australians can already hold their heads high, without taking the momentous step of forging a nuclear “forever partnership” with the US and UK. If they do join the team, they should do so with their eyes open. They should be fully aware that they are running real risks, not only to secure their own freedom, but to ensure the future of the entire free world.
Salvatore Babones is The Philistine.