Risk of conflict 'very real' in wake of nuclear subs deal

The deal comes with a staggering price tag for taxpayers, but without them Australia could pay a much heavier cost.

The eye-watering cost of Australia's new submarine fleet has raised eyebrows, exceeding the upper limits of most projections, but it could be money well spent if a bleak prediction comes to pass.

While the deal is expected to cost Aussie taxpayers as much as $368 billion over the coming three decades, it could prove vital if our region takes a turn for the worse this century.

"We're in a much more dangerous and unpredictable environment," says Malcolm Davis, a defence analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

It would be right to quibble with the staggering costs involved, he said, if we were in a "placid, peaceful strategic environment where there were no threats on the horizon," he told the ABC on Tuesday.

But with an increasingly bellicose China, that is not the reality we face.

Anthony Albanese alongside Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the historic press conference.
Anthony Albanese alongside Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the historic press conference. Source: Reuters

"We're in a much more dangerous and unpredictable environment where US, UK, and Australian interests are being directly challenged by a rising China," he said, before offering a grim prediction.

"I think the potential for some sort of conflict breaking out in the region in the second half of this decade is very real." And that would be many years before Australia's new fleet was ready.

Details of the deal were announced by Anthony Albanese alongside the US president and British prime minister at a press conference in San Diego. While China was scarcely mentioned, its presence arguably loomed large over the historic gathering.

Speaking on Tuesday, Shadow Defence Minister Andrew Hastie didn't mince his words about the motivation for acquiring nuclear-capable subs in a deal that was initiated by the former Morrison government.

"It's a response to the darkening strategic reality in the Indo-Pacific. Let's be clear about that," he told reporters this morning.

READ MORE: AUKUS submarine deal – The good, the bad and the ugly

Will subs deal trigger a regional arms race?

When asked about the potential of a regional arms race in the wake of the announcement, Mr Davis argued that ship had already sailed when it came to China.

"It's the Chinese who are the ones escalating this arms race," he told ABC Breakfast. "If you look at what China's military modernisation plans include, they include a massive expansion of its nuclear weapons capabilities from 350 warheads to 1500.

"They include a massive expansion of its nuclear submarine capabilities. Many of them will be armed with nuclear weapons. Our submarines will not be armed with nuclear weapons. They will simply be nuclear powered and propelled." The technology means the submarines can travel much greater distances and are more difficult to detect.

Mr Davis argued in a region that could be dominated by China in the later half of the century, the advanced submarine fleet will be integral "to ensure our defence and our national security. That comes first above everything else."

China blasts Australia for 'planting a time bomb'

Despite it's own military investments, China's state media was characteristically hyperbolic in its reaction to Australia boosting its future capabilities, claiming the Albanese government was "planting a time bomb for its own peace and that of the region", describing the deal as "en expensive mistake" in an article overnight.

Speaking to the ABC on Tuesday, Blake Herzinger, a former advisor to the US Pacific fleet, said it was the "height of hypocrisy" for China to suggest Australia's submarine acquisition would fuel an arms race in the region.

Australia will rely on a combination of US and UK technology for its future fleet. Source: Getty
Australia will rely on a combination of US and UK technology for its future fleet. Source: Getty

Mao Ning, spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, was critical of the deal at a press conference last week, claiming that AUKUS posed serious nuclear proliferation risks. However that was an argument US President Joe Biden was at pains to shut down during this morning's press conference, reiterating that Australia's submarines would not carry nuclear weaponry, but simply use nuclear propulsion technology.

"This is the first time in 65 years and only the second time in history that the United States has shared its nuclear propulsion technology," Mr Albanese said during Tuesday's announcement.

"And we thank you for it," he told the crowd of US military personnel.

Timeline for when we actually get the subs

  • 2023 - Upgrades to Australian shipyards and naval facilities ahead of the construction and rotation of nuclear-powered submarines.

  • 2024 - Increased visits from US and UK nuclear submarines.

  • 2026 - Two years of work begins for the first Australian Collins-class submarine to have its life extended until the late 2030s.

  • 2027 - Four American nuclear-powered submarines and one UK vessel will begin rotating through Western Australia.

  • 2033 - Scheduled arrival of the first Australian-operated US Virginia-class submarine.

  • 2036 - Scheduled arrival of a second Virginia-class submarine.

  • Late 2030s - UK to build and operate the first AUKUS-class submarine. Australia's Collins-class submarines to enter the decommissioning process.

  • 2039 - Scheduled arrival of a third Virginia-class submarine.

  • 2042 - Australia to take command of its first AUKUS-class submarine. One of the next-generation submarines will be delivered every three years up until the mid-2050s, with Canberra operating a fleet of eight submarines, including the Virginia class.

  • 2042 - Optional purchase of a potential two extra Virginia-class submarines to plug any gaps caused by construction delays in the AUKUS line.

with AAP

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