No longer a middle power: Nuclear ‘franken-subs’ turbocharge Australia’s global clout

The days when Australia could be accurately described as a middle power are about to end.

When Prime Minister Anthony Albanese appears at the San Diego naval base alongside his counterparts from the United States and United Kingdom on Tuesday, he will be announcing far more than an upgrade to the nation’s military hardware.

Australia’s first nuclear-powered submarines to arrive, sometime in the early 2030s, will be five Virginia-class boats from the US.

Australia’s role in the AUKUS partnership – beginning with the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines – will transform how the world sees us. It should also transform how Australians see themselves, dispelling the deep-seated notion we are plucky but not hugely consequential players on the international stage.

Only six nations currently possess nuclear-powered submarines. That list includes the world’s two undisputed superpowers (the US and China), a Cold War superpower that remains a global menace (Russia), the world’s most populous nation (India) plus two major economies that once ran vast colonial empires (the UK and France).

Thanks to the AUKUS pact, Australia will become the seventh member of this exclusive club. It will be the only one with a population under 65 million and the only one that doesn’t have nuclear weapons.

The significance of the journey the nation is embarking on should not be lost in the flurry of technical details that will accompany Albanese’s announcement next week.

Nuclear-powered submarines are among the world’s most expensive and sophisticated forms of military equipment. Unlike diesel-powered submarines, they can operate without refuelling for virtually unlimited periods and can travel vast distances underwater. A single boat can cost over $6 billion and requires nine million labour hours to build.

Only countries that feel a need to project power far beyond their shores look at such staggering numbers and consider them a good investment. Middle powers certainly don’t, meaning it’s time to stop thinking of ourselves in such terms.

Nuclear-powered submarines will allow the Australian Navy to reach as far as the South China Sea and the East China Sea. And why would we want to do that? Albanese will not say so explicitly but the fundamental reason is the important role they could play in a potential war with Australia’s biggest trading partner, China.

To say so is not to indulge in alarmism, but to reflect the reality of Australian strategic thinking. If Beijing were not building up its military at a dramatic rate and asserting its superpower status in the Indo-Pacific, Australia would not be investing over $100 billion in nuclear-powered subs. It’s that simple.

“We might not be able to change China’s objectives, but we can alter its cost calculations and behaviour and constrain its options,” Lavina Lee, a foreign policy expert at Macquarie University, argued in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age’s three-part Red Alert series on national security this week. “What we do matters.”

The government has said next week’s announcement will explain the “optimal” pathway for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. Based on what we know so far, terms such as complex and high-risk seem equally apt.

Developing a nuclear-powered submarine capability was always going to be complicated given Australia’s non-proliferation commitments, lack of technological experience and need to train a nuclear-capable workforce from scratch.

That endeavour becomes even more complicated when you choose to acquire two different submarine models. First to arrive, sometime in the early 2030s, are five Virginia-class nuclear submarines from the US.

Our own purpose-built AUKUS alliance submarines are still being designed, will involve input from three countries and will be largely assembled in Adelaide.

The idea makes sense conceptually: Australia creates local manufacturing jobs; the British shipbuilding industry gets a much-needed boost; and America receives crucial help in containing China’s Indo-Pacific ambitions.

But on a practical level, we court obvious risks of cost blow-outs and delays from this three-nation “franken-sub” project.

By acquiring such advanced military technology, Australia is entering a league of powerful nations. With great power comes the responsibility to get it right.

Hopefully, the nation’s political and military leaders are up to the task.

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

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