Time to talk about time and the AUKUS submarines

Time to talk about time and submarines.

Time is the most salient consideration in the AUKUS nuclear-powered submarines debate. The time until Australia could deploy a sustainable capability is decisive.

The project’s schedule would be affected by inclusion of a design phase for a new submarine and by where the submarine might be built. Replication of the American or British nuclear submarine construction industrial base would stretch out delivery time. Whether Astute or Virginia class is selected, the new submarine faces a very long gestation period. Even with no disruptions or delays, and no intrusions by external forces, a deployable capability would only be achievable by the early-2040s at best, but early-2050s is more probable.

Therefore, the contemporary strategic environment is not germane to the debate. Military technology will progress, and conflict will have been transformed radically by mid-century. The AUKUS submarines would be expected to have an operational life-of-type until at least the late-21st century. They would be born into unknown territory.

Supporters of the submarine project often fail to factor in time. Michael Keating and Jon Stanford have repeatedly claimed “that a major area of operations (AO) for [Australia’s] submarines would be the waters surrounding China’s naval bases”. A belief that implies the geopolitical situation will remain static in its current broad outlines, and that beyond 2050 the US and China will remain locked in the same competition. This is speculative.

Such assumptions about trajectories of both the US and China are problematic. These don’t allow for tectonic geostrategic shifts similar to those experienced regularly since the mid-20th century, including the wars of decolonisation, the end of the Soviet Union, the war on terror, and the rise of China and India. Something can be expected to emerge to shake up the strategic environment.

The passage of time will render the prevailing balance of forces in the Asia Pacific completely irrelevant in any account of how the submarines will be used. In the second-half of the century no nation in the region will have forces that are recognisable to today’s strategists, either in size or technology. Warfare is not going to resemble the current model as the world moves beyond 2050 when these submarines would only be beginning their operational lives.

It may once have been possible to make predictions about the advance of technology for an appreciable time into the future. Today, attempts to predict the precise course of future modes of conflict is perilous ground. The evolutions and innovations we can currently imagine in the fields of artificial intelligence, robotics, new materials, quantum computing, and other technologies will not come anywhere near the actual state-of-affairs in the second half of this century.

At a minimum sub-surface warfare will almost certainly be transformed by technologies that make oceans transparent and enable vastly improved sensors, signal-processing, and targeting, and see effective counter-submarine tactics become pervasive. Autonomous surface and sub-surface vessels are already seriously threatening the viability and utility of submarines.

By the time the AUKUS submarines get wet it is likely they will already be redundant, and probably vulnerable to inexpensive almost off-the-shelf capabilities held by most nations.

Defence Minister Marles’ recent defence of the government’s policy exhibited a curious absence of a sense of time. This is despite the fact that time is a central and fundamental consideration in strategic analysis. For understandable political reasons, in Parliament, Marles was primarily intent on addressing the criticism from former prime ministers that acquiring nuclear-powered submarines would diminish Australia’s sovereignty. Nevertheless, his obsession with sovereignty left his speech to Parliament strategically illiterate.

Marles has previously declared that “Australia was within a 10-year threat window”, based on the 2020 Strategic Update. That is, within a decade Australia’s defence forces will need to deal with a regional power with the capability to launch a major operation against Australia. So that’s more like a seven years window now. Yet Marles has failed to explain how a thirty-year project to obtain nuclear-powered submarines addresses Australia’s current pressing strategic needs.

This is not to deny that the strategic threat in the region has grown because of arms build ups and confrontation. Defence of Australia does require urgent attention. It is simply recognition that rationally these submarines have absolutely nothing to do with materially strengthening Australia’s current defence challenges. The project amounts to a large, costly, speculative, and risk-laden gamble.

Perhaps the government is convinced that a war between China and America is highly probable, and may be unavoidable. It might believe that Australia would inevitably be swept up in the conflict, and that if China prevailed Australia’s subsequent predicament would be intolerable. Therefore, Australia needs to provide unlimited support to America.

The government might have concluded that while the nuclear-powered submarines might never eventuate, the theatre surrounding the announcement provides a publicly-digestible narrative for the surrender of Northern Australia to the American military. Because Australia looks like getting something in return, AUKUS thus appears more like a deal between equals and not a colonial occupation.

Australia’s defence is in the hands of ministers, advisers, and bureaucrats insensible to the reality of the passage of time. It is likely that in the coming decades new strategic or technological developments will result in the AUKUS submarine project’s abandonment. If not, and the AUKUS submarines ever materialise, it will be a colossal failure of strategic policy.

Image: One of the futuristic submarine concepts unveiled by the UK’s Royal Navy in 2017. The series of concepts ‘mimic real marine lifeforms and [would] radically change the way underwater warfare could look in 50 years’.

Copyright Mike Scrafton. This article may be reproduced under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence for non-commercial purposes, and providing that work is not altered, only redistributed, and the original author is credited. Please see the Cross-post and re-use policy for more information.

Also published in John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations.