AUKUS: Conroy’s justification of the “greatest industrial undertaking” falls short

At a minimum Australians expect ministers in the Defence portfolio to display a basic knowledge of defence matters. The Minister for Defence Industry Pat Conroy’s address to the National Press Club is particularly worrying as justification for “the greatest industrial undertaking Australia has ever attempted”.

Conroy’s comments on the AUKUS submarines (SSN-AUKUSs) are simplistic to the point of being misleading. He explained that acquiring “the most capable nuclear-powered, conventionally-armed submarines in the world” will deliver “a mix of intelligence collection, defensive and strike assets that generate deterrence”.

Because nuclear-powered submarines can stay submerged, transit more rapidly than conventional diesel-electric submarines, and spend more time on station or patrolling, the Minister says they “can do the work of a larger number of diesel-electric submarines”. He contends that a nuclear-powered submarine is the equivalent of two diesel-electric submarines and ”that nuclear propulsion is a significant force multiplier by itself”.

Neither of those claims stand up to close examination.

To claim that submarines designed in the late 2020s, produced in the 2030s and 40s, and operational in the 2050s will remain the “the most capable…in the world” is a brave assumption. The rate of technological change in military capabilities including through advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and autonomous vehicles, and sensors threaten the viability of even the most capable current platforms.

It’s unreasonable to suggest that Chinese submarine technology won’t advance before the SSN-AUKUSs get wet. Conroy observes that the first Australian submarine will be delivered in the early 2040s. The Pentagon notes that the Chinese already operate six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN), and that China’s submarine force will grow to a mix of 65 nuclear and conventional powered vessels by 2025 and to 80 by 2035. The first SSN-AUKUS will be launched into an environment of perhaps 100 Chinese submarines.

The calculation that one SSN-AUKUS will be able to “do the work of a larger number of diesel-electric submarines” and that one nuclear-powered submarine is the equivalent of two conventional submarines, shows very little comprehension of the nature of submarine operations. Conroy identifies the missions of the SSN-AUKUSs as “a mix of intelligence collection, defensive and strike” but this requires deeper analysis.

Even a nuclear-powered submarine cannot be in two places at the same time. Conroy says that among the roles of the SSN-AUKUSs is “to deny adversaries in our northern approaches” and “to patrol and protect sea trade routes far from home”. It is self-evident that two conventional submarines can loiter at more choke points in the northern archipelago through which an adversary might approach Australia. Similarly, two conventional submarines can patrol more sea routes in the vast expanses through which trade comes to many different ports in Australia. It shouldn’t need stating that two submarines can collect intelligence from more widely separate locations than one. Or that more adversary bases can be blockaded by two rather than one vessel. Or that more adversary targets can be attacked in separate locations.

Silly as these claims about the SSN-AUKUSs are, it is Conroy’s treatment of deterrence that is the most concerning. The Minister argues “Australia must play its part in deterring aggression and coercion”, be able to “deter conflict before it begins”, and if deterrence fails “impose unacceptably high costs on any attacker”. The costs that Hamas and Russia have been prepared to wear make clear that motivation is unquantifiable.

Deterrence is a complex idea and only has any relevance in specific contingent circumstances. It is meaningless as an abstract context. Which leads us into an important diversion here.

The Minister relies on an analogy to justify the vast investment in the AUKUS project. He believes “the Second World War provides important lessons about the need to invest in defence” and he thinks the analogy is important “because today, as in the 1930s, there are some who are turning a blind eye to our security challenges”. He implicitly paints critics of AUKUS as advocates “of appeasement in foreign policy” and of “the fiscal orthodoxies”.

How valid is the use of analogical reasoning in strategic policy?

The validity and strength of any analogy can be judged by: the number of identifiable similarities and differences between the two situations; what is known about the causal factors in each of the situations; and the number of causal relations involved. Conroy addresses none of these.

The Minister might wish to consult the scholarship on analogy in foreign policy which is vast and includes important monographs by Ernest May (1973), Richard Jervis (1976), Richard Ned Lebow (1980), Richard Neustadt and Ernest May (1986), and Y. F. Khong (1992).

To draw on current events involving deterrence, it is clear America is deterred from seriously engaging other nuclear-armed powers. President Biden said of the Ukraine war, “the test of this moment is the test of all time”, threatening war in Europe and the international rules-based order. Yet Biden was adamant “[America’s] forces are not and will not be engaged in the conflict with Russia in Ukraine”. Apparently even when everything is at stake a nuclear adversary can deter America.

The Pentagon reports that China “will probably have over 1,000 operational nuclear warheads by 2030…and will continue growing its force to 2035”. It is “developing new ICBMs that will significantly improve its nuclear-capable missile forces” and is introducing multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) capabilities. It is improbable that America would risk New York, Los Angeles, or Miami for Taiwan, let alone Australia.

It’s a puzzle how the Minister can think that a few SSN-AUKUSs will deter China at mid-century.

There are arguments in favour of acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, but they are all premised on being a force element of an American-led attack on China in North Asia. But China’s nuclear arsenal makes this an unlikely scenario. On that score Conroy’s admission that Australia has “made a commitment to work with our partners to promote security and stability in the region” requires expansion.

As an explanatory statement on defence policy Conroy’s address is underwhelming. Hopefully the Department didn’t write it for him.

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.