Australian Defence Minister has defended the federal government’s $368 billion (US$244 billion) deal to purchase up to five nuclear powered submarines, saying Australia’s diesel-electric submarines pale compared to U.S. nuclear-propulsion technologies and China’s existing fleet of more than 10 of nuclear submarines.
On March 13, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced that Australia would convert its six Collins-class diesel electric submarines to eight nuclear powered submarines in the course of the next 30 years under AUKUS, a trilateral security pact with the United States and the United Kingdom.
The move has long been in the making as Australia looks to replace its six Collins-class subsmarines that are set to reach the end of their service life in 2036.
Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has criticised the deal, saying the plan will “take a lot more time, cost a great deal more money, have a lot more risk” than if Australia had proceeded with his government’s submarine project with France.
In 2021, the Morrison government that took over from Turnbull tore up his $66 billion contract with France for 12 new diesel-electric submarines. Then-Defence Minister Peter Dutton said the French submarines were no longer suited to Australia’s operational needs at a time of increasing security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.
But under Labor’s leadership, Defence Minister Richard Marles said on Sunday that looking at projections through the 2030s and into the 2040s, it has become clear that “the only capable long-range submarine that will be able to effectively operate is a nuclear-powered submarine.”
He told ABC’s Insiders that diesel-electric submarines are able to pursue targets for time frames measured in days before they have to surface to recharge their batteries using their diesel engines.
“That’s a noisy thing to do. It’s called snorting,” he said. “The ability to be able to detect that is growing.”
On the other hand, nuclear-powered submarines are able to be underwater for months at a time, and their only limitation is the food, Marles said.
“And that is therefore what we’re going to need to happen in the future.”
“And that’s why we have to walk down this path, which is ultimately converting our six current diesel electric submarines to eight nuclear powered submarines course of 30 years.”
Marles didn’t explicitly name China’s ruling communist party (CCP) in his comments but said “there is an assertion of sovereignty in respect of the South China Sea, which which is not consistent with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.”
“In the year 2000, China had six nuclear-powered submarines. By the end of this decade, they’ll have 21. In the year 2000, they had 57 surface ships but by the end of this decade, they’ll have 200. Now this is a very big military buildup,” he said.
According to the latest Pentagon assessment, China currently operates 56 submarines, 12 of which are nuclear-powered.
The Defence Minister also denied that Australia’s access to the U.S. submarine technology was contingent on any commitment to the United States to defend Taiwan if a conflict breaks out.
“What Australians do in respect of any conflict is always a matter for an Australian government of the day to control, and this doesn’t remove any one ounce of that control.”
The AUKUS submarine project is significant because the U.S. Navy hasn’t shared its nuclear-propulsion technologies since partnering with Britain in the 1950s.
Albanese, U.K Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and U.S. president Joe Biden all acknowledged that the rewards of cooperation outweigh the risk of sharing the secrets given the CCP’s military buildup in the region.
Implementing AUKUS will “require robust, novel information sharing and technology cooperation,” the joint statement said. “Our nations are committed to further trilateral collaboration that will strengthen our joint capabilities, enhance our information and technology sharing, and integrate our industrial bases and supply chains while strengthening the security regimes of each nation.”
The deal will also make Australia the first nation outside the “Club of Five”—United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France—to put a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines to sea.