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  • JTMS Intern Cameron Whiteside

AUKUS & the Role of Nuclear Submarines

Australia’s development of nuclear submarines, in partnership with the U.S. and UK, perpetuates the possibility of an arms race in East Asia, despite the existence of nuclear technology over the previous decades. AUKUS is a security, pact announced by U.S. President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, created in the hopes of deterring China’s aggression in the East China sea by sharing technological skills with Australia and expanding the United States’ role in East Asia.[i] While Australia signed a $66 billion agreement with France in 2016 to build diesel-electric submarines, it changed course in 2021 for nuclear submarines despite Australia’s historic skepticism towards nuclear technology.[ii] Nuclear submarines have existed in East Asia before. While Japan’s efforts eventually led to decommissioning due to radiation leakage,[iii] Japan launched the Mutsu Nuclear Submarine in 1969 and China’s long-awaited Xia-class nuclear submarines followed in 1981.[iv] The benefits of nuclear submarines for Australia are longer ranges and less need for resurfacing. Therefore, the AUKUS alliance is essential, as U.S. and UK expertise can help Australia prevent problems commonly associated with the development of nuclear submarines. However, besides the possibility of an arm’s race, in which I will evaluate whether one exists, alternatives could be used. The United States’ ability to deter Australia from an agreement with France, in favor of nuclear submarines, will place the United States closer to East Asia. With Japan as the United States’ aircraft carrier, Australia could become the United States’ submarine base. This represents an acceleration of Australia’s defense policy that aims to combat China’s growing technological capabilities.

The AUKUS deal helps Australia remain on-track towards its goals in its defense white paper, which allows the U.S. to retain influence in the East China Sea. The U.S. would have a “hub for Indo-Pacific maritime and submarine operations,” a “gateway for more expansive US-Australian posture arrangements” and helps to “relieve some pressure on its own submarine maintenance and shipbuilding base”.[v] The opportunity for the U.S. to have a hub in the Indo-Pacific is what is most at risk of starting an arms race. As will be explained at the end of this paper, additional presence of U.S. and Australian capabilities, with Australia as a hub for the U.S., could pressure China to be on the defensive.

The AUKUS agreement doesn’t heavily shift Australia’s defense prospects in the East China sea, rather, it keeps Australia on track towards provocations with China, on course for its defense strategies and creates closer ties with the U.S. Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott describes the AUKUS deal “as a ‘historic decision’ which would make Australia a ‘much safer and stronger country’”.[vi] It’s important, however, to consider Prime Minister Abbot’s animosity towards China and note that the AUKUS pact does not drastically alter Australia’s mistrust towards China. Australia aims for a tougher stance towards China, which the past signatory wouldn’t have guaranteed. According to Robert Singh of the University of London, “’France is very much seen as too soft on China”,[vii] at a time where “nearly two out of three Australians see Beijing as more of a security threat than economic partner”.[viii] Australia’s hesitancy towards China’s rise, however, has been seen as the impetus for past agreements. When signing the agreement with France in 2016, despite France’s perception as soft, the deal was integral to Australia’s defense strategy. The “new fleet of submarines [was] at the center of Australia’s defense strategy”, which demanded that Beijing “provide ‘reassurance its neighbors by being more transparent about its defense policies”.[ix] Therefore, Australia’s concerns towards China, leading to additional defense spending and the agreement with France, are similar to concerns leading to the AUKUS deal. While the deal with France has ended and the AUKUS deal begins, the defense strategy’s additional ambitions are what could lead to an arm’s race. According to the Department of Defense of Australia, the drivers of the 2016 “Defense White Paper”, which led to the deal with France, “have accelerated faster than anticipated,” pressuring Australia to adopt “more capable military systems”.[x]

Despite a more ambitious defense strategy compared to the 2016 strategy, the cost of the AUKUS deal appears to be less than France’s. When it comes to cost, the agreement with France in 2016 involved a $50 billion deal. While there is no price tag for the AUKUS agreement, the deal includes support for eight submarines. With eight submarines costing an estimated $3.45 billion each, using the “estimated procurement”[xi] cost for each Virginia SSN-774 nuclear-powered attach submarine that have been created since 1998, the AUKUS agreement in terms of submarines could be an estimated $27.6 billion. While this price tag is an estimate given both at least eight submarines will be created under the deal with an estimated cost found by the Virginia SSN-774 nuclear submarine, the cost of this deal is significantly less than the 2016 deal between France and Australia.

While presenting a risk to the environment, it’s important to note that the propulsion system within nuclear submarines is more efficient compared to diesel-electric because there is no need to refuel. Nuclear submarines, according to Military Analysis Network, activate propulsion by “fissioning [the] nuclear fuel contained within the reactor” which creates heat and is protected with “shields [that] are placed around the reactor so that the crew is protected.” [xii] An additional concern that could be raised related to the propulsion system and the crew’s safety is the threat of radiation leakage. This problem was found in Japan. In 1974, Japan began service of the Mutsu research vessel, which, according to the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute, held a “pressurized-water reactor capable of driving Mutsu 145,000 nautical miles without refueling.”[xiii] After the maiden voyage, however, it was discovered that there was a radiation leak caused by failed “paraffin-wax seals between segments of the lead radiation shield around the reactor’s containment vessel.”[xi] After the discovery, several Harbors “refused permission for Mutsu to return” with public confidence continuing to diminish when engineers had to use cooked rice to seal leaks.[xi] U.S. technology, however, could help prevent the risk of nuclear contamination. In 1965, the U.S. Navy developed the S5G “pressurized-water reactor” which included a “failsafe control system” which caused the reactor to shut down.”[xiv] While leaks have been found in submarines, their environmental impacts have been minimal and unnoticeable for years. Unlike Mutsu’s radiation leak found on its first voyage, the USS Houston’s radiation leak was estimated to have begun two years before its discovery.[xii] Additionally, “the amount of radiation leaked was very small - “less than a smoke detector.”[xii] Other examples of the U.S. Navy’s success in addressing the risk of nuclear radiation exposure can also be seen with the HMS Tireless, in which a leak described as “serious” in May of 2000 and included extensive damage led to “no leak of radioactive material.”[xii]

Concerns over the possibility of an arm’s race do have some merit, as seen by China’s response. Following the announcement, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson said the AUKUS agreement “seriously undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies an arms race” at a time when China is “embarking on one of the biggest military spends in history,” according to UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace. China’s response could include additional military buildup, which wouldn’t be antithetical to its current plan in the East China Sea. According to Rachel Cheung of World Politics Review, the deal was created with China already exerting “assertive behavior and growing military capabilities in recent years.”[xv] While China is behind in submarine technology today, China is “expanding its anti-ship missile capabilities” and has “steadily [modernized] its submarine force, [while] most of its submarines are now built to relatively modern Chinese and Russian designs”[xii] Therefore, the new alliance is formed at a time when a race for arms has already begun, which has concerned many nations in the region. The Foreign Ministry in Indonesia was “deeply concerned about the continue arms race and power projection in the region”[xvi] with other South-East Asian nations concerned that the new partnership “could further marginalize the region’s peak diplomatic group [ASEAN]”.[xvii]

While concerns over the possibility of an arm’s race with China remains paramount as Australia joins a deal with the UK and US, it isn’t new. Concerns over an arms race in the Asia-Pacific have been present since the Australia- French deal in 2016. As pointed out by Elias Groll and Dan De Luce, a 2016 leak of “detailed technical plans – totaling some 20,000 pages” for French submarines created panic. [xviii] At this time, countries were dealing with China’s “aggressive claims to disputed island chains”, by taking steps to increase submarine investment.[xix] This was seen in Vietnam which “bought six Russian-made Kilo-class submarines worth $2.6 billion for deployment”.[xix] The leak was concerning since China had the opportunity to emulate technology by France to build their own submarines, making the purchase of submarines for the protection of island chains against China void. A second example on the lack of an arm’s race in the Asia-Pacific can be seen by Southeast Asian military expenditure and the limitations of countries dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

If an arm’s race were to occur, we should see at least a few countries increasing their shares of GDP to the military. According to the East Asian Forum, despite the increase in submarine technology from AUKUS, “a nuclear submarine race is out of the question for Southeast Asia” given that “funding for these programs is a perennial challenge, and the imperative for a long-term post-pandemic recovery only makes it worse.”[xix] However, it’s important to note that more information is needed following the AUKUS deal to truly understand the risks associated with an arm’s race.

In conclusion, the recent AUKUS deal represents a continuation of Australia’s concerns regarding China’s military capabilities in East Asia and an opportunity for U.S. hegemony. While nuclear submarine technology isn’t perfect, its advances serve as a challenge for China as it attempts to build its own submarine capabilities. With China’s neighbors such as Vietnam expanding its submarine capabilities and Australia become a hub for the U.S., China will likely witness an increase in sonar and laser capabilities, outside investments in submarines themselves. Australia’s defense strategy has centered around concerns regarding China’s capabilities, with AUKUS offering more advanced capabilities compared to France. While an arms race is at best delayed, AUKUS will be a concern for China as well as countries in favor of avoiding an arms race. However, after reviewing the military expenditures of countries in the East China Sea, it’s not clear if an arms race has begun at all.

*** The views expressed herein belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of JTMS or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. ***


Works Cited:

[i] “Aukus: UK, US and Australia Launch Pact to Counter China.” BBC News. BBC, September 16, 2021. [ii] Jones, Dustin. “Why a Submarine Deal Has France at Odds with the U.S., U.K. and Australia.” NPR. NPR, September 20, 2021. [iii] Cross, Michael. “Technology: Japan's Nuclear Ship Sets Sail for the Sunset.” New Scientist. New Scientist, June 1, 1990. [iv] “Nuclear-Powered Ships.” World Nuclear, November 2021. [v] Corben, Tom, Ashley Townshend, and Susannah Patton. “What Is the Aukus Partnership? - United States Studies Centre.” What is the AUKUS partnership? - United States Studies Centre, September 16, 2021. [vi] Jin, Syrus. “Ex-Australian Pm Abbott Hails AUKUS, China Confrontation in DC.” Responsible Statecraft, October 29, 2021. [vii] Wheeldon, Tom. “Perception That France Is 'Too Soft' on China Fed Australia Submarine Dispute.” France 24. France 24, September 21, 2021. [viii] “Australians' Trust in China Has Fallen to Record Lows, According to New Survey.” South China Morning Post, June 23, 2021. [ix] “Australia Boosts Defense Spending, Cites Asia-Pacific 'Tension': DW: 25.02.2016.” DW.COM, February 25, 2016. [x] “2020 Defence Strategic Update.” Defence. Australian Department of Defence. Accessed November 23, 2021. [xi] “Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress.” Congressional Research Service, November 17, 2021. [xii] Pike, John. Nuclear propulsion. Military Analysis Network, February 29, 2000. [xiii] Cross, Michael. “Technology: Japan's Nuclear Ship Sets Sail for the Sunset.” New Scientist. New Scientist, June 1, 1990. [xiv] “Xylene Power.” Marine Applications of Nuclear Power. Accessed November 24, 2021. [xv] Cheung, Rachel. “The Aukus Deal's Implications for China.” World Politics Review, September 22, 2021. [xvi] Lamb, Kate, and Agustinus Beo Da Costa. “Indonesia Warns against Arms Race after Australian Nuclear Sub Pact.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, September 17, 2021. [xvii] “Australia Seeks to Calm ASEAN Concerns over Aukus Nuclear Submarine Deal.” Global Defense Corp, September 23, 2021. [xviii] Groll, Elias, and Dan De Luce. “China Is Fueling a Submarine Arms Race in the Asia-Pacific.” Foreign Policy, August 27, 2016. [xix] Koh, Collin, and NTU. “No Aukus Arms Race in Southeast Asia.” East Asia Forum, November 1, 2021.

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