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Australia’s quest for nuclear submarine force structure and its strategic impact

by Balaji Chandramohan - 4 October, 2021, 12:00 149 Views 0 Comment

Australia’s effort to acquire nuclear submarines as a part of the newly formed security alliance involving the United States, United Kingdom and Australia named AUKUS will have wide-ranging strategic implications which will be felt definitely in the South Pacific.

The AUKUS will be a cornerstone of strategic alignment supplanting Quad and vice versa according to the situation.

Australia’s decision to acquire nuclear submarines is surprising as it is not a nuclear power and it has a strong credential as a country promoting Nuclear Non-Proliferation in the international forums.

Earlier, Australia had announced its intention to align with France to get 12 conventional submarines to boost its force structure in the Indo Pacific. Australia’s strategic intention to acquire nuclear submarines could be equated with the rising Chinese maritime expansion of the Indo Pacific.

Further, Australia decided to get nuclear submarines to boost its deterrence and it’s understandable that it goes nuclear with the support of the United States. Earlier, Australia wanted to add 12 conventional submarines were supposed to replace the existing six Collins Class Submarines.

Canberra’s path to building submarines is nothing new and it has been talked about for over a decade despite the change of governments displaying a sense of strategic continuity.

Australia’s quest for submarine force structure is understandable as it prefers to have the concept of sea control and sea denial as a part of its maritime operational power-projection on its quest to have a blue-water presence in the Indo-Pacific rather than develop its aircraft carrier capabilities to get the Command of the Sea.

Defence White Papers released in 2009, 2012 and 2013 which were predominately conservative on issues related to procurements and that in many ways led to questions related to Canberra’s strategic orientation or even active posturing.

Though the submarine program is predominately aimed at an operational level it has its strategic conations too with the submarines is expected to be stationed at Australia’s Western Fleet based in Perth which an orientation towards the Indian Ocean with an additional responsibility overlooking the South West Pacific and not at the Eastern Fleet stationed in Sydney oriented towards the South Pacific which may have an extended operational reach till South-East Pacific.

This is a significant change of strategic posturing from Canberra signalling its strategic orientation in the Indian Ocean.

Australia’s submarine acquisition has been made keeping in view of China’s future submarine force, already fairly dynamic which will be a mix of advanced conventional-powered boats and improved nuclear-powered vessels.

At present, China currently possesses 53 diesel attack submarines, five nuclear attack submarines, and four nuclear ballistic missile submarines.

Further, it’s noted that the submarine activities from China is not prominent in the South Pacific region as much so in the Indian Ocean and the South-West, the primary areas of Security concern to Canberra.

China is expected to continue to grow the number of its submarines and capability of its nuclear attack submarines, introduce a new class of guided-missile attack submarines and commission up to 20 Yuan-class air-independent propulsion subs. All up, this represents a formidable mix of conventional and nuclear capability, one that will continue to be the largest submarine force in Asia, and a force that will increasingly become more capable of long-range operations, both in the Indian Ocean and in the South Pacific.

However, the above defensive posturing questions are now being raised on how far Canberra can skip having nuclear submarines. This issue was raised by the assessment of the November 2013 study of the Australia New Zealand United States Treaty (ANZUS) by the US Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Significantly the report concluded that there is a stronger case for nuclear submarines than a conventional replacement for the Collins.

The crux of the report has seen light with Canberra’s intention to get a nuclear submarine despite not being a nuclear power and being a strong adherent to the principle of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Earlier, Australia has operated a fleet of six submarines for much of the past 35 years, with six British-designed and built Oberon class boats being replaced over the period 1996–2003 by six Collins-class.

The Oberons proved their value as both at the war fighting and intelligence gathering platforms. They are now known to have operated at great distances from Australia, including intelligence collection tasks in Soviet waters during the Cold War years.

On the other hand, Australia will also upgrade its Anti-access and Anti-denial capabilities to hedge, the Russian Pacific Fleet which has resumed long-range patrols including in the Pacific Islands.

Apart from developing the submarines, it’s expected that Australia will develop its own anti-submarine warfare capabilities aimed both at the Indian Ocean and South Pacific.

Further, in an effort to boost its combat capabilities and power-projection, Canberra will be purchasing P-8 long-range surveillance aircraft, the procurement of three air warfare destroyers, and plans for several future frigates with significant anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities to replace the Anzac-class vessels.

The US-powered nuclear submarines will be a game-changer in the strategic equation of the Indo-Pacific with Australia acquiring maritime capabilities for both defensive and offensive power-projection capabilities in the Indo Pacific.

This is a significant change of strategic posturing from Canberra signalling its strategic orientation in the Indian Ocean.

Further, it’s understood that Australia’s submarine acquisition and its strategic orientation is predominately oriented towards the Indian Ocean. Canberra’s strategic shift to the Indian Ocean started from this decade one such includes the agreement to permanently base a 2,500 strong US Marine Task Force in Darwin reaffirming its alliance commitment to the United States.  Adding an offensive strategic aspect to Australia’s strategic re-orientation requires upgrading and expanding the Navy.

Further, if Australia participates regularly in the Malabar exercises in the future, the concept of the submarine and anti-submarine warfare will be included with other participating countries in the military exercise such as India and the United States.

Balaji Chandramohan
Balaji Chandramohan
Author is a member of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses. He has worked as a journalist in India and New Zealand.
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