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Why Australia wants nuclear-powered submarines

The procurement of nuclear-powered submarines has been described as ‘the greatest ever leap’ in Australia’s defense capabilities.

US President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have unveiled a plan that will see Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines, making the country just the seventh in the world to have such military technology.

Under the agreement, Australia will purchase three US Virginia-class nuclear submarines from the US by the early 2030s and has an option to purchase two additional ships if required.

The submarine deal is part of what is known as the AUKUS Pact – an acronym for Australia, the UK and the US – a security agreement announced by the three countries in 2021 and seen as a counterweight to China’s growing military presence in Asia. Pacific.

The procurement of nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS Pact is expected to become Australia’s largest-ever defense project and the acquisition has been described by the Australian Prime Minister as “the greatest leap” in the history of his country’s defense capabilities.

Beijing has made no secret of its opposition to AUKUS, saying this month it “firmly objects” to the pact, accusing the three countries of harboring a “Cold War mentality” that threatens to fuel greater escalation in the region. cause.

Australia has stressed that while their new submarines will be nuclear-powered, this does not mean they will carry nuclear warheads.

So why does Australia want nuclear-powered submarines, and what’s involved in the deal?

A US Virginia-class attack submarine in dry dock in Virginia, US, in 2014 (US Navy/John Whalen/Huntington Ingalls Industries via Reuters)

Why Nuclear Powered Submarines?

  • Submarines can be diesel-electric or nuclear powered and either type can be used to launch nuclear warheads, although Biden also stressed on Monday when announcing the deal that the Australian submarines will not carry nuclear weapons.
  • Diesel-electric submarines involve diesel engines that power electric motors to propel the ships through the water. But those engines need fuel to operate, requiring the submarines to resurface regularly to refuel.
INTERACTIVE- Submarine types
(Al Jazeera)
  • When a submarine emerges from the depths and surfaces, it is easier to detect, reducing its effectiveness as a stealth weapon.
  • Nuclear-powered submarines generate their own energy source – nuclear propulsion technology – and are not as constrained by the need to refuel as diesel-electric submarines. They generate steam using an onboard nuclear reactor used to run the ship’s turbines.
  • Nuclear submarines can remain hidden at sea without being discovered – possibly for years – and are mainly limited by their supplies of food and water for the crew.
  • “Australian submarines face long transits between ports, let alone to potential distant hotspots,” John Blaxland, professor at the Strategic and Defense Studies Centre, Australian National University, wrote of the country’s current conventional submarines. “Advances in artificial intelligence and persistent surveillance are making detection easier to the point where a short ‘sniff’ to charge the batteries is detectable. Losing stealth is the main benefit of losing submarines, so something had to be given up. Nuclear submarines can stay submerged much longer than diesel-electric models. Blaxland wrote in The Conversation earlier this month.

First transfer of nuclear propulsion technology in six decades

  • Compared to conventional submarines, nuclear-powered submarines tend to be larger and require more expensive infrastructure and maintenance.
  • Most submarines currently in service are conventional diesel-electric models, which are smaller and generally less expensive to maintain.
  • Australia does not have the expertise to build its own nuclear submarines, so it had to buy or acquire the ability to build its fleet from the US or UK.
  • Australia originally planned to buy diesel-powered submarines in a 90 billion Australian dollar ($60 billion) deal agreed with France in 2016, but that deal was abruptly scrapped in 2021 in favor of joining AUKUS. The decision set off a diplomatic firestorm with Paris, which has recently died down with the election of Albanians.
  • The submarine agreement marks the first time in more than 60 years that US-derived nuclear submarine technologies have been shared. The previous and only other time was when Washington helped London design its submarine fleet.
  • Under the plan announced Monday, the UK and Australia will eventually produce and operate a new class of nuclear-powered submarines – SSN AUKUS – that will be built jointly in both countries and will incorporate the latest US technologies.
  • Australia’s acquisition of nuclear submarines will place it in a group of only seven countries that have such ships, alongside the US, Russia, China, UK, France and India.

AUKUS and the fear of a regional arms race

  • The Australian submarine deal is part of the AUKUS security agreement between Washington, Canberra and London, which was first announced in September 2021.
  • The leaders of the Tripartite Pact have insisted that AUKUS is not intended to be hostile to any other nation. But few doubt that the main concern of the alliance is China.
  • But the deal has also left some of Australia’s biggest regional allies worried, with Indonesia and Malaysia wondering whether it could trigger a nuclear arms race in Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific.
  • All three countries have insisted the deal is defensive in nature, although having nuclear-powered submarines would give Australia the ability to launch strikes or counter-attacks in the event of conflict.
  • Beijing views the submarine takeover as a “dangerous” provocation designed to box China in, but analysts say it may need to be more concerned about future cooperation initiatives with AUKUS, which provides for cooperation between the allies on security issues. hypersonic missiles, artificial intelligence and cyber warfare.
  • In a joint statement Announcing the deal, the three leaders said their nations had stood “shoulder to shoulder” for more than a century to protect “peace, stability and prosperity around the world” and also in the Indo-Pacific region. “We believe in a world that protects freedom and respects human rights, the rule of law, the independence of sovereign states and the rules-based international order. The steps we are announcing today will help us advance these mutually beneficial goals in the decades to come,” they said.
  • The deal also drew criticism in the US, where the chair of the influential US Senate Armed Forces Committee, Democrat Jack Reed, warned Biden in December that the sale of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia could undermine US naval power.
  • Referring to the current “darkening clouds in international affairs,” Blaxland of the Australian National University notes that the AUKUS plan is “ambitious, costly” and not risk-free. “But these are challenging times. It is an important pillar to strengthen resilience and deterrence and in turn reduce the chance of adventurism,” he says. “It is often said that weakness invites adventurism, even aggression.”

INTERACTIVE - Nuclear powered submarines

Boost for Australian jobs and nuclear industry

  • An Australian defense official told Reuters news agency the project would cost 368 billion Australian dollars ($245 billion) by 2055.
  • While the deal is worth tens of billions of dollars, experts say its significance goes beyond defense.
  • AUKUS is expected to be Australia’s largest-ever defense project and holds the prospect of creating jobs not only in Australia, but also in the UK and the US.
  • Albanese said on Monday that AUKUS would create “20,000 direct jobs for Australians in every state and territory” in the country. “Australian personnel are already undergoing further training in nuclear propulsion technology and stewardship alongside UK and US counterparts,” he said in a series of tweets.
  • Those jobs are expected to develop over the next 30 years, but Australia would see an Australian dollar ($4 billion) investment in industrial capacity over the next four years, Albanese said.