Raucous AUKUS Ruckus.

datePosted on 13:22, October 2nd, 2021 by Pablo

A significant strategic re-equilibration is underway in the Indo-Pacific. It may eventuate into a geopolitical tectonic shift but at a minimum it entails a reordering of the regional military balance, which in turn has diplomatic implications much further afield.

Agreement between the US, UK and Australia to build nuclear powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), and the military alliance between those states that will have that submarine fleet as its cornerstone (called “AUKUS”), has generated a lot of debate about its implications across a number of issue areas. Much heat has been generated as well, particularly from France (which saw its 2016 contract to build diesel-powered boats cancelled), China (clearly the reason why the Anglophone military partnership was formed and which is unhappy about it), non-proliferation and pacifist communities (who see the danger of nuclear arms proliferation amid a regional arms race as a result of the move) and NZ security conservatives who feel that Aotearoa was ignored and left out of the alliance because of its non-nuclear status. Now that much of the initial furore has died down, it is worth pausing to disaggregate what the creation of AUKUS entails.

First, a bit about the boats. The RAN boats will likely be based on the US Los Angeles (older) or Virginia (newer) class or UK Astute class fast attack submarines (SSNs). Most of their infrastructure, including their nuclear propulsion systems, will likely be built by General Dynamic Electric Boat Division and/or BAE, which have built these types of submarine for the US and UK. The keels and hulls will be laid by shipbuilders in Adelaide. The submarines will be around 370 feet in length and displace 6900-7700 tons. Armed with Mark 48 torpedoes, assorted mines and Tomahawk cruise missiles, they have a top speed of +25 knots (the exact speed is classified) and a diving depth of +800 feet (again, the exact depth is classified). With a crew of approximately 145-150, their primary mission is Surface and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), although they can attack land targets and engage in mining and intelligence gathering operations. 

The nuclear propulsion systems can be likened to a miniaturized version of commercial nuclear power plants with the the exception that the submarine reactors are fueled by highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium. That allows them to use much less fuel than less enriched uranium power plants and helps reduce the size of the entire propulsion system. They are much quieter than diesel engines, which along with other acoustic suppression technologies known only to the US and UK navies gives them greater stealth capability and allows them to deploy and stay on station longer than conventionally powered boats (up to 12 + months depending on the mission). In practical terms that means that the Australian subs will be able to patrol across the Indian and Southern Oceans and far into the Pacific east of New Zealand and north of Indonesia and Hawaii.

SSNs are not equipped with nuclear weapons. Those type of submarines, known as SSBMs, are almost twice the length and weight of SSNs and carry Sea Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) that have ranges of 10,000 kilometers or more. This is important to note because the missile tubes required to launch SLBMS are larger than those required to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles, which means that SSNs cannot fire SLBMS. Although theoretically SSN cruise missiles, mines and torpedoes could be armed with with nuclear warheads, the availability of other weapons options and practicalities of ASW and naval surface warfare make that option highly unlikely. Moreover, the nature of the reactor casing and absence of anything remotely resembling a detonator trigger make the possibility of an accidental nuclear explosion aboard an SSN extremely remote.

From a performance point of view, the switch to US/UK designed submarines is a great improvement over the French diesel-powered option even if the total number of boats delivered will be less (6-8 rather than 10-12). The issue that remains regarding the 2016 contract between the French and Australians is how much the latter will pay for canceling it (the contract was worth 34 billion Euros). There had already been time delays and cost overruns in the 5 years since the contract was let and not a single keel had been laid, so the cancellation and switch makes sense if the break price for doing so can be agreed upon (say, for example, ten percent of the original contract and expenses incurred through the cancellation date). That is not an insurmountable obstacle and the French are well aware of the advantages the AUKUS deal has over the initial contract. To that can be added the strategic benefit France accrues with the presence of the upgraded RAN submarine fleet, which at no cost to France improves defense of sea lanes of communication between Europe and East Asia without requiring an increased French naval presence in the Indo-Pacific (the French Pacific fleet, headquartered in Papeete, is the smallest of the French fleets).

The arrival of the nuclear-powered Australian sub fleet alters the strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific and, along with ongoing upgrades to Australian Defense Forces (ADF) land and air components, will make Australia the first military Great Power in the Southern Hemisphere.

When added to the military pivot by the US and UK towards naval operations in that theatre, it means that the regional balance of power will undergo a major shift that greatly complicates the Chinese quest for maritime dominance in that potential conflict domain. The US Pacific fleet already has more than 30 submarines in theatre, the majority of them LA and Virginia-class SSNs, to which are added a few Seawolf-class guided missile multipurpose subs and Ohio-class SLBMs. The UK is re-positioning significant parts of its fleet, including Astute-class SSNs and Typhoon-class SLBMs, to the Indo-Pacific as part of the naval ring-fencing of the PLAN. That means that PLAN submarines, both SLBMs and attack submarines, will be more effectively shadowed and attacked by Western boats in the event of conflict. That in turn provides another layer of security to US carrier fleets and allied surface vessels (including Australian and New Zealand navy vessels), whose numbers help make up the difference between regional smaller fleets and the PLAN (which is the largest naval fleet in the world). It also puts the small PLAN aircraft carrier force at considerable more risk.

The strategy behind AUKUS is simple: make it much harder and far more costly for the PLAN to push its reach beyond the mythical “first island chain” that extends out beyond Japan to the Aleutians in the North and the Philippines and Borneo to the Southeast, encompassing all of the East China and South China Seas and the straits connecting them and the Pacific. The second island chain, which extends from Japan through Guam to Papua New Guinea, has already been mapped by PLAN strategic planners, who have been considering forward basing rights in places like the Solomons, Fiji and, much further to the West, ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, extending to the current PLAN base in Djibouti. The Chinese concern with maintaining a permanent maritime presence in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean is justified: over 95 percent of its oil imports and 80 percent of its trade with Europe, the Middle East and Africa cross the Indian Ocean and pass through the Strait of Malacca. PLAN power projection to the outermost island chain, extending from the Aleutians through Hawai’i to New Zealand, is at this point an aspirational target superseded by the drive to develop a PLAN Indian Ocean fleet while consolidating dominance over the first two island chains.

The Three Island Chain in Chinese Military Planning.

The PRC’s ability to protect its interests in the Indo-Pacific is complicated not only by the AUKUS alliance, but also by the creation of the so-called “Quad” security agreement involving Australia, India, Japan and the US and the reinvigoration of the 5 Powers defense arrangement involving Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand Singapore and the UK. This concentric and overlapping network of security partnerships constitute military-diplomatic tiers arrayed against PLAN power projection. That raises the material costs to the PRC when pursuing maritime expansion since it will need more platforms and weapons to overcome the assets arrayed against them, and it raises the risks to the PRC are starting a conflict or engaging in intimidating behavior towards its neighbors. In short, this collective deterrence strategy will make it much harder for the PRC to engage in coercive military and so-called “wolf warrior” diplomacy with the security alliances now being built against it.

The reaction of SE Asian and Western Pacific countries to this re-equillibration effort has been for the most part muted. For them the issue is not so much about the presence of more nuclear powered platforms since they already exist in some numbers in and around the Indo-Pacific basin. It is more about the collective action required to achieve strategic balancing in pursuit of, if not regional hegemony by the US or PRC, then a mutually satisfactory status quo grounded in that strategic balance. For countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Viet Nam, the Philippines and Singapore, a stable maritime security balance based on common respect for universal norms and rules is the preferred option, but if not ,a regional status quo rooted in the military superiority of and collective deterrence provided by the Anglophone-led powers is seen to be preferable given the nature of Chinese behavior in recent years.

At this point we must pause for a parenthetical aside. There is a difference between regional dominance and regional hegemony. Domination is achieved by the unilateral imposition of an inter-state status quo by a militarily and economically superior actor. Hegemony is achieved via consent and consensus, where weaker states agree to the leadership of a stronger state (or coalition of states) within given geographic limits. The former is rooted in overwhelming coercive and dissuasive power that enforces acquiescence. The latter is grounded in agreement on principles and norms that promote willing acceptance. 

That is what makes for the difference between the PRC and Anglophone approaches in the Indo-Pacific: the PRC seeks to secure its interests as it sees fit and uses coercive diplomacy (including military diplomacy) along with economic incentives (to include foreign aid in exchange for pro-PRC votes in international fora) in order to achieve its goals during peacetime. As seen by its island-building project in the South China Sea, aggressive use of maritime militias to assert territorial claims within the first island chain and “swarm” fishing fleet tactics across the globe, the PRC will not hesitate to violate international law should it deem it necessary. For its part, the Anglophone alliance seeks to uphold a rules based international order that, if admittedly constructed in its preferred image and resting on imperialist foundations that are a legacy from the colonial era, attempts to balance coercive and dissuasive uses of “hard” power with persuasive and inducement-focused uses of “soft” power as the preferred means of peaceful international exchange. 

The difference between regional dominance and regional hegemony appears to be the reason why the announcement of the Quad and AUKUS pacts have met with little resistance outside of China and Russia. In fact, many States see the moves as a natural response (and counter) to Chinese belligerency when asserting its interests in the Indo-Pacific.

Further afield, the ring-fencing or containment project against China in the Indo-Pacific will have a significant impact on European strategic interests. The arrival of AUKUS and the Quad signal to NATO that the US and UK are turning their gaze to the strategic threat in the Far East and will prioritize redeployment of maritime assets in that region. This forces NATO to subordinate US and UK perspectives within it in favor of a more “continental” approach that focuses on the original and primary threat that it was created to counter: Russia (formerly the USSR). Even more so than the PRC in East and Southeast Asia, Russia has asserted its dominance by occupying territory in Georgia and the Ukraine, annexing Crimea, backing the Belorussian dictatorship and Serbian nationalists, conducting hybrid warfare in border states such as Latvia and Estonia, bolstering its Arctic military operations and establishing itself as a major extra-regional interlocutor in the Middle East after its successful military defense of the Assad regime in Syria, machinations in post-Gaddafi Libya and military partnership with Iran.

With Brexit a fact and Germany transiting away from 16 years of strong centrist rule under Angela Merkel, this allows for two things. First, a return, after years of unfocused attempts at extra-regional peace-keeping, nation-building, regime change and prosecuting the “war on terrorism,” to the Cold War focus on land warfare across the continent should conflict with Russia eventuate; and secondly, the rise of France as a more integrated European military leader under the NATO banner (France is a NATO member but has not participated as an integrated command member since 1966). French protestations about the AUKUS deal notwithstanding, it appears that the US/UK shift in strategic perspective away from Europe may actually prove beneficial in that it will help revitalize NATO as a collective defense alliance in tandem with a more Euro-centric production and trade regime.

As for New Zealand, there is little downside to the AUKUS pact. Although it was not invited to join and will continue to officially prohibit the new Australian nuclear submarines from entering NZ waters (as far as it can), it will also continue to exercise and conduct joint operations regularly with the US, UK and Australia outside of NZ waters. Having committed to upgrading its ASW capabilities with the purchase of modern P-8 patrol and ASW aircraft to replace its small fleet of P-3s now in service, the HMNZN (RNZN for short) will be included in some of the technology transfers derived from AUKUS beyond the nuclear aspects of the deal (say, in computing and artificial intelligence sharing related to ASW). The RNZN has to replace its two ageing frigates in the near future anyway, so the cost to the NZ taxpayer for receiving an enhanced security umbrella as a collateral benefit of and complement to AUKUS will be minimal beyond what has already been envisioned under current systems upgrade plans. In terms of foreign relations, NZ’s non-involvement in AUKUS spares it the wrath of the PRC, something that for a country as trade dependent on China as NZ is, can only be a good thing (even if the Chinese well understand which side NZ is on when it comes to the regional military balance). As for domestic politics, non-involvement in AUKUS also is a positive given that the non-nuclear policy has broad cross-party and public support. Thus, politically, diplomatically and militarily, NZ’s stance vis a vis AUKUS is a net positive for the country.

Pacifists and non-proliferation activists have reason to be concerned that Australian acquisition of nuclear powered submarines could lead other States in the region to follow suit. India has nuclear powered aircraft carriers and submarines in its arsenal, so countries with similar levels of economic development and technological expertise like Indonesia, South Korea or Malaysia (or even Singapore!) might decide to join the nuclear powered club. However, this does not mean that nuclear weapons will follow from that, and in fact, the security alliances being used to contain the PRC’s ambitions are in part designed to mitigate against governmental insecurities and inter-regional rivalries that might prompt a move towards nuclear propulsion. Japan and Taiwan will not go that route due to the conflict-precipitating dangers that it would entail, and other countries in the Indo-Pacific simply do not have the resources to join such a “big ticket” arms race.

Hence, while understandable in principle, in practice the chances of nuclear proliferation increasing as a result of the AUKUS agreement are very low. What it simply means is that six more nuclear propelled platforms will be added to those already cruising the waters of the West and South Pacific, Indian Ocean and connecting seas and straits (to include more PLAN nuclear submarines).

A final point on strategic (re) balancing such as what is being seen in these recent developments. Moves of these sort are designed to influence behavior. On one hand, they are designed to reassure friends and allies of the coalition partner’s commitment to their common defense and in this case, collective deterrence of a common adversary. On the other hand, they are oriented towards changing an adversaries’ behavior in a contested space by raising the costs of it persisting with a belligerent course of action without the consent of the other countries in that geographic space. As such it is both persuasive and dissuasive in nature. 

This does not occur in a vacuum. Along with the “stick” of strengthened collective security alliances, economic and diplomatic “carrots” can be tendered to the PRC for lowering the tone of its civilian and military diplomacy while re-emphasizing the cooperative rather than conflictual orientation of its international engagements. This may not be possible so long as President (and General Secretary of the CCP) Xi Jinping remains in power, but it certainly will be an option that his successors will have to consider. And since the Australian submarines will not become operational until late in this decade at best, that gives them time to evaluate the pros and cons of sticking with his hardline approach to foreign policy. Time will tell.

This week’s “A View from Afar” podcast addresses the topic of this post. You can find it here.

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14 Responses to “Raucous AUKUS Ruckus.”

  1. Raucous AUKUS Ruckus. - Fiji Online News on October 2nd, 2021 at 14:15

    […] Click here to view the original article. […]

  2. Kumara Republic on October 2nd, 2021 at 14:41

    What’s to stop NZ from formally declaring neutrality, in the vein of Ireland/Sweden or even Costa Rica?

  3. Pablo on October 2nd, 2021 at 14:55

    KR:

    I would suggest that the main obstacle is that NZ is more deeply embedded in US/UK/OZ security arrangements than Ireland and Costa Rica (Sweden maintains a fiction of independence but is in fact a close partner of NATO and, as its presence in ISAF Afghanistan demonstrates, tends to go where they go; Costa Rica is a member of the US-led Rio Pact even if its Public Force is quasi-military rather than fully constituted military in nature). The core impediment to neutrality is NZ’s participation in 5 Eyes, but it also belongs to Anglophone-led 5 Powers Agreement and is a NATO partner much like Sweden. So it leans pretty heavily towards Anglocentric security circles. Perhaps another way of phrasing your question is “what long-term purpose will neutrality serve in the event of Great Power conflict involving the PRC and AUKUS/Quad?”

  4. Jim Rolfe on October 2nd, 2021 at 14:58

    Generally all fair points, but the detail…
    1.the tense. You say ‘alters the strategic balance’. The operational balance will alter when they arrive perhaps. At least 15 years though, maybe 20 unless the US diverts some of its own boats, but the net gain in that case will be zero. In any case, three already close allies working together some more with decades of operational and exercising experience together already behind them is hardly a strategic game changer.
    2.technology transfer. From what has been released, other than in nuclear technology, Australia already has huge access to the latest technology (as does NZ) through the five country defence science and technology agencies’ long-existing relationship. The scope of that has to be seen to be believed.
    3.NZ will now officially prohibit the submarines from our waters. No, the law has done that for several decades now. It beggars belief that Australia would want to put an SSN into this area short of a complete breakdown of regional order, in which case we’d be signing up for them also.
    I can see AUKUS as some kind of a strategic signal I guess, but in material terms it means little. Really it’s about Australian ambitions, long held, to be at the (regional) top table.

  5. Pablo on October 2nd, 2021 at 15:46

    Thanks Jim,

    My understanding that the first of the boats will be delivered as a priority, perhaps 6 or so years ahead of schedule. As it stands, the time between being the keel being laid down and commissioning of the completed boat for LA and Virginia class subs is approximately 3-4 years, so it will not surprise me if we see the Australian boats appear at the end of this decade or in the early 2030s even if the boat building facilities in Adelaide need to significantly upgraded.

    We have to remember that AUKUS is just the culmination of a longer term OZ military build up across the three force components, including purchase of F-35s, M1 Abrams tanks, 4 new Hobart class guided missile destroyers delivered in the last 4 years and assorted missile systems under a defense modernisation program that has spent 2 percent of GDP over the last five years (and that does not include expenditures on intelligence and counter-intelligence). It is the entire combine that will make OZ into the Southern hemisphere’s first Great military Power. When you add in the redeployment of significant parts of the USN and HMRN fleets to the Indo-Pacific (including the possibility of relaunching the US 2nd Fleet and forward basing it in Darwin or Perth), and what you have is a major strategic shift in the regional balance of power. Add in what India and Japan can bring to the table as well as smaller allies (to say nothing of them offering forward basing rights to US and UK ships) , and the tilt against the Chinese becomes more pronounced.

    Yes, the non-nuclear legislation already prohibits nuclear powered and armed vessels from entering NZ waters, which led to that curfuffle over the “neither confirm or deny” stance by the US on the matter. I was merely referring to PM Ardern’s comments reiterating the NZ position. The larger questions regarding Australian nuke subs operating in NZ waters is a) will they do so regardless of the NZ government stance? and b) will NZ look the other way if they do so as long as it stays out of the public eye (say, HMNZN ASW assets working with the RAN against PLAN subs in the NZ EEZ and/or territorial waters)? My impression is that NZ already casts a blind eye on US sub operations in and around the archipelago so long at they operate discreetly.

    In any case, I do not think that the PRC is going to simply sit down and do nothing in the face of these developments, so the best I can say is “watch this space.”

  6. James Green on October 2nd, 2021 at 21:51

    I just want to get this out of the way first: “The HMNZN” doesn’t seem to make grammatical sense to me, it’s also an archaic term that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in contemporary writing before. RNZN is the norm.

    In my opinion the AUKUS pact isn’t that big of a deal to anyone (except France) and shouldn’t really change anyone’s positions. France of course is highly pissed, but for them it is about the money. I bet the US is mostly in this for the money too, possibly it’s more complicated for the UK.

    An extra 6–8 attack submarines isn’t going to be doing much to change the balance in the Indo-Pacific, especially if, as seems likely, the US and UK wont be increasing their reactor production rate.

    I’m not entirely sure why Australia thinks nuclear submarines are a good idea, probably it almost entirely comes down to the prestige and wanting to ensure its own submarine builders can maintain their jobs. My understanding is that the main advantage of SSNs over diesel-electric is that they can cross a whole ocean before starting a patrol, however they are a bit noisier when actually patrolling the shallower coastal waters.

    Perhaps these subs aren’t targeted at China at all but rather the Indian Ocean, I’d think the US doesn’t have many subs there. Otherwise sending subs into the South China Sea doesn’t seem worth it to Australia. The shorter range of diesel-electrics can also be overcome by having friendly replenishment ports closer to China.

    Speaking of which, if I was in charge of Australia, I wouldn’t be worrying about building subs at home, I’d just buy them off the shelf. Using the money saved I’d focus on building up missile and torpedo industries; that is an area where security of supply matters a lot more. I’d use a big chunk of the money to invest in infrastructure in Papua New Guinea and especially training centres to help make sure they can maintain the infrastructure themselves. A democratic and developed PNG would be a huge boon to Australian defence, especially from the direction of China. It’s hard to think of better cost/benefit decision.

    Overall I see this as mostly about the US and UK having managed to nick a lucrative contract away from France, who, having already signed it, thought they had a done deal. I’m reminded of them being pressured into not selling two Mistral amphibious ships to Russia about a decade ago, they must have lost a bit of money there too.

  7. JAK on October 3rd, 2021 at 10:17

    “In practical terms that means that the Australian subs will be able to patrol across the Indian and Southern Oceans and far into the Pacific east of New Zealand and north of Indonesia and Hawaii.”

    Looking at a globe, a run south and circle around Antarctica gives them access to the Atlantic as well.

  8. Pablo on October 3rd, 2021 at 10:46

    JAK:

    Although it is perhaps plausible to do so, what would be the purpose? I would prefer to stick with real operational scenarios rather than flights of fancy.

  9. UpsideDown on October 3rd, 2021 at 22:49

    Analysts are underplaying the importance of the enriched uranium fuel used by the new subs. Effectively AUKUS provides Australia with the raw ingredients to build nuclear weapons. It wouldn’t surprise me if there weren’t already top secret machinations in Canberra to achieve this outcome over the next 10 to 15 years. Given the ridiculous, childish and unnecessary “wolf warrior” diplomacy from the Chinese hardening in recent years into significant trade pressure then the Chinese will only have themselves to blame for such an outcome.

  10. Kumara Republic on October 4th, 2021 at 19:18

    Speaking of F-35s, NZ staying out of a formal AUKUS tie-up means it won’t be required to buy these expensive sitting ducks. Other models like the Saab Gripen or KAI T-50 just happen to be much cheaper to buy & operate than the F-35.

  11. Frederick Miles on October 16th, 2021 at 14:33

    The comments of Greg Sheridan in the Australian, SMH and Sky interviews are far more accurate and like Tony Abbots are consistent with mine. In so far as Abbot decided that the RAN sub policy had to be revised after Putin vist to the Brisban G20 in 2014 was accompanied by the Slava class battlecruiser Vayarg, 200 mile offshore the most southern penetration of any major Russian/ Soviet warship and one which the useless Collins were unavailable and too slow to survey. As Sheridan states all that has happened is the Liberal Govt has cancelled the order for the French diesel subs the idea that Australia or the state of Adelaide could actually build modern or old SSNs can be dismissed by anybody who knows anything or has even read the Rand Corp report on the Collin and Astute class in 2008 commissioned by the Australian and UK governemnts. The actual capability of a LA/ Virginia class SSN without nuclear a/s missiles is debatable as the wire guided Mk 48s run out at about 32 knots and even at a apeed of 45knots after release from wire guidance would take half an hour to get 20 miles. The distinction between stratetic , tactical and conventional weapons with anti SSBN capability no longer really exists

  12. Pablo on October 16th, 2021 at 15:12

    You seem to be a crank in crusty briefs who does not understand the concept of technological upgrades to existing equipment and the regular introduction of new platforms as part of the production cycle, or the notion that capital investment in shore facilities allows them to handle the requirements of modernized boat-building. In any event, arguing that Tony Abbot’s views being consistent with yours is proof of the validity of your argument (such as it is) is in fact proof of the opposite. Sheridan should not be flattered by being paraphrased by you.

  13. Brett Davidson on October 26th, 2021 at 14:25

    The cartographic aspect of China’s thinking is interesting. We’ve heard of the ‘nine-dash-line’ claimed in the South China Sea. This is placed within the ‘three-island-chain’ schema.

    It reminds me of my (long ago) architectural education when I studied traditional Chinese concepts of spatiality. The principle of concentric zones and walls/lines is foundational and is reflected in city design and concepts of empire and why China referred to itself as ‘the middle kingdom’ (‘central’ is a better translation).

    I remember seeing a cartoon years ago of negotiators leaving a meeting and one says to another, ‘The problem is that we think we’re playing chess while they think they’re playing poker’. Coupled with the Belt and Road Initiative, and China’s investment in infrastructure for Pacific Island and African nations (which leaves them deep in debt to China), this seems to suggest that China is thinking in terms of architecture – constructing rigid hierarchical defensive structures.

  14. Pablo on October 26th, 2021 at 15:56

    Thanks Brett.

    That was an interesting take on the subject. You mention rigid defensive structures in the last sentence but when it comes to projecting power across blue water, surely they have modified their strategy even if the ultimate goal remains seeking to eventually dominate the three island chains? With rapid technological advances in warfare, doctrinal adaptation is paramount. The US has found that out the hard way so perhaps PRC strategic planners are learning from their rival’s mistakes?

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