In September 2021 Australia, the UK and the U.S. announced AUKUS, a new alliance under which Australia would buy nuclear submarines from either the U.S. or UK and ditch its contract for French diesel driven u-boats.
I spelled out the details and the negative consequence of the deal:
To Protect Itself From U.S. Hostility Australia Decides To Buy U.S. Submarines
This is a huge but short term win for the U.S. with an also-ran booby price for Britain and a strategic loss of sovereignty and budget control for Australia.
It is another U.S. slap into the face of France and the European Union. The deal will piss off New Zealand, Indonesia and of course China. It will upset the international nuclear non proliferation regime and may lead to the further military nuclearization of South Korea and Japan.
It was easy to predict that the deal would screw up the development schedule of the Australian navy. It would obviously also cost much more money than its budget can provide:
But there are also many negative issues with nuclear boats. They are larger and more expensive than conventional ones. The cost nearly 50% more. They also require dedicated infrastructure and very specialized nuclear training for the crews. Australia has neither nor can it supply the necessary fuel for the nuclear reactors.
The first of the French boats for Australia was expected to be ready in the early 2030s. There will now be a long delay of perhaps a decade for Australia to get new boats.
Its current Collins class will require more than an ordinary refit to be sustained that long. That is going to be expensive. The Germans may want to jump into that gap by offering their Type 214 submarines with hydrogen driven propulsion. While these boats are much smaller they offer a long endurance, can be supplied reasonably fast and come for a much cheaper price than the nuclear driven ones.
Altogether I do not see any advantage for Australia in this move.
Australia has since elected a new government. It recognizes what a mess the deal created. There will be no new submarines until at least 2040. They will likely be super expensive. There is an urgent need to look for alternatives:
Australia has close to zero chance of getting a submarine from the United States’ current program, experts say, as yet another report shows the US is struggling to meet its own needs.
Former defence minister Peter Dutton suggested the US might give Australia a couple of its boats, a suggestion that was largely dismissed.
Marcus Hellyer, a senior analyst at Australian Strategic Policy Institute said the “only way” Australia would get a nuclear-powered submarine by 2030 would be if the US gave us “one of their own boats”. “But their numbers are declining when they want an increase,” he said.
Hellyer said that meant any submarine Australia would buy was likely to be from the next generation of US submarines, which will start being bought in the mid 2030s and are set to be vastly more expensive.
He has estimated, based on the current model, the entire program to build eight submarines will cost $171bn in the end, including inflation.
That is Aus$ 21.4 billion per boat. If those boats will be build at all:
Rex Patrick, former South Australian senator and submariner, said Australia “will not get submarines off the US line”. “The US engage in operations all around the world and they’re important operations and the US Navy is not going to cede a capability so that Australia can get submarines [so they can] dip their toe in the water,” he said.
“All the publicly available material points to the US not providing us with a submarine.”
Hellyer said there was also “no way” the UK could spare a submarine as it is only building seven of the Astute class (which is one of the options being considered for Australia) before it moves to a new model. “The UK is currently wrapping up its Astute program,” he said. “They need to wrap that up to transfer the resources to the Dreadnaught program.
“They have no capacity to build us submarines.”
More money, much more, could probably solve those production problem. But the Australian navy does not have that.
My solution to the obvious problem was to let the German’s jump into the gap and to ask them for hydrogen driven Type 214 submarines. This could even be build in Australia. It seems that the Australians have now recognized this:
Both Patrick and Hellyer said buying a conventional (non-nuclear powered) submarine from another country “off the shelf” would be another way to fill the capability gap.
Defence minister, Richard Marles, has consistently said he is keeping an open mind on the solution to the capability gap.
“As we go through the process now of looking at which solution we pursue, we also want not only to determine that solution but to work out is there any way in which that can be brought online much sooner than the 2040s and to the extent any capability gap is there, what are the means by which we can close it?” he said earlier this month.
“None of those questions have obvious answers. It’s part of the work we’re doing right now. But as we announce in the early part of next year as to what capability – or what submarine – we will be pursuing, we really want to have answers to all of those at that point in time.”
The answers are obvious. Ditch the whole AUKUS deal and buy the German U-boats.
The real reason for the deal might well have been the U.S. wish for a port and base in Australia from where it can send its own nuclear submarines to harass China.
The offer to Australia to buy nuclear submarines was likely only made to remove Australian public resistance to the stationing of nuclear submarines (with nuclear weapons) on the continent.
Australia will be better off without those.