Responding to the Crumbling Firmament #3

From TPM Reader MV

I’m a regular reader, writing in from Australia. I really enjoy reading your analysis and thoughts at TPM. Most of the time I think it’s spot on. But on the topic of the Aukus deal, I think you are missing quite a bit of the picture. So, I thought I’d write in with a contrary view.

First off, this is not really just a choice of submarine propulsion technology. The French offer initially *was* for nuclear boats; the Australian government specifically requested a downgraded diesel/electric version, on the grounds that Australia did not (and still does not) have domestic nuclear capability to build or keep them operational. If our govt had simply decided we needed nuclear after all, they could have just upgraded to the nuclear version of the Barracuda (already in production, and I believe even an option in the contract).

The real choice is one of strategic posture. The Biden admin, despite the anti-Blob cred they (rightly!) gained by ending the war in Afghanistan, seem to be on a path towards a cold war-style superpower standoff with China in the Pacific. Maybe that’s inevitable and they’re just trying to stay ahead of events; I’m not questioning that here. My question is, what should Australia’s position be?

Nuclear powered subs are, by their nature, offensive (or at least not purely defensive) weapons. That’s the whole point: they can operate anywhere, not just in waters nearby. (Moreover, these boats will reportedly be armed with land-attack-capable cruise missiles; again, not defensive.) So, Australia will be fielding far-ranging offensive weapons in the Pacific, and doing so effectively on behalf of the US (remember, Australia can’t keep the subs operational without continuing US support).

This is far from a “straightforward” decision. It sure looks like it commits Australia to being a forward outpost of the US in its standoff with China. Not only is this not obviously wise, it also goes against the last few decades of national security thinking in Australia, which has been all about building our own relations in Asia, rather than blindly following US/UK policy.

Anyway, just a contrary opinion from down under; hope you find it helpful.

This point is very well taken. I tried to allude to it in my earlier posts. My understanding – limited, as it is – is that the US technology is superior. But having submarines from the US deepens the security relationship with the US, regardless of the particulars of the technology. And that’s really the key. There’s one power challenging China’s military power in East Asia and only one capable of doing so. That’s the US not France.

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