Getting the most out of AUKUS could require Plan B-21
21 Jan 2022|

As the Defence Department’s deputy secretary for strategy between 2009 and 2012, I asked US counterparts on three occasions about the likelihood they would share submarine nuclear-propulsion technology.

The answer was the same each time: there was no way the US Navy or Department of Energy would hand Australia the technology. Britain had been given access in 1958 under conditions where even today the US has stringent oversight of its capability, but that was the limit of American openness.

The American judgement was that we should stick to our quiet conventional submarines, which the US military valued highly.

Two things have changed since then: first, communist China presents a near-term existential threat to the global strategic balance; and second, Joe Biden is US president. The China threat will outlast Biden, but the key question for Australia is: will AUKUS survive a change of president?

Without Biden’s intervention, America’s nuclear-propulsion bosses would not have changed their minds about Australian access.

On Monday, The Australian reported the views of Randy Schriver, a respected assistant secretary of defence in the Trump administration, that there were ‘many potential obstacles on both sides’, including pushback from the US Navy. Success requires ‘sustained commitment from the senior political leaders in both capitals, otherwise the chances of Australia deploying its own nuclear submarine will drop below 50 per cent’.

Schriver backs AUKUS but says that, even with Biden’s personal support, a successful transfer of propulsion technology is a 50–50 proposition.

I want AUKUS to succeed, just as I wanted the French-designed Attack-class submarines to be a triumph. Australia needs a defence force with excellent technology, able to deter a well-armed enemy, and submarines can play that role.

Australia needs to persuade the US that we are serious about taking on nuclear propulsion, that we will spend the money, recruit the people, design the safety systems, build the ports, and train and exercise the navy to be outstanding nuclear custodians. On the AUKUS timeframe announced last September, we have until February 2023 to develop ‘an optimal pathway to deliver this capability’. Thirteen months to go.

By February 2023 Australia could have a different government, one more doubtful about nuclear propulsion. Boris Johnson’s attempt to hang on to the UK prime ministership, optimistically titled ‘Operation Save Big Dog’, may have sunk well before 2023.

Biden could face a Republican-controlled Congress after the November 2022 midterm elections, constraining his ability to make bold executive decisions.

Just like the Attack-class submarine project, it may emerge that the technology on offer is ultimately not going to deliver what Australia needs. Or it may be unaffordable or too far into the future to matter, or, as the US Navy worries, beyond what our navy of 16,000 people can handle.

It took half a decade for our government to conclude that it needed a Plan B to escape from the Attack-class project. Does anyone seriously think we should approach AUKUS as though nothing could go wrong?

Even if AUKUS delivers success in other technology areas like cooperation on hypersonic missiles, nuclear propulsion is a risky centrepiece for the grouping. A failure of AUKUS is something we cannot allow to happen because it would strengthen Beijing’s claim that American decline in the region is inevitable.

To keep AUKUS strong, and for our own security, we need a Plan B if nuclear propulsion fails. Given our geography, Australia needs military equipment with range and hitting power. Nuclear-powered submarines provide unlimited range but with constrained firepower—it’s a long way back to port once the limited stock of torpedoes has been fired.

Extended-range strike aircraft give more flexibility and the capacity for faster missile replenishment. Australia should look at options to join with the US in acquiring the long-range B-21 stealth bomber. The aircraft’s development is complete. Five aircraft are in construction in California; initial flights have already happened, with more planned in the next few months.

No one piece of equipment changes the strategic balance, but long-range stealthy strike aircraft would complicate Beijing’s offensive plans, creating a barrier to military adventurism. Raising the barrier to military conflict is what is needed in the next few years.

ASPI’s Marcus Hellyer points out that the B-21 will use two F-35 engines but have three or four times the unrefuelled range. The US Air Force plans for a unit price under $1 billion, which is an astonishing amount of money until you compare it with the $45 billion we plan to spend on future frigates, $89 billion on submarines and $30 billion on armoured vehicles.

Australia operated the F-111 long-range strike bomber until December 2010, so this is a type of machinery we have mastered in the past. AUKUS gives us an opportunity to see if we can buy into a game-changing technology, with production starting soon, delivering a long-range stealth weapon that will reinforce deterrence in Asia.

The Royal Australian Air Force could be operating this aircraft within half a decade, making it relevant to the current strategic situation.

An investment now will spend money that can’t be spent on submarine construction at least for a decade and overcome a lack of hitting power in the Australian Defence Force.

Strike capability will make the ADF a much more difficult opponent and thereby strengthen deterrence. That means keeping the region at peace.

The case against the B-21 bomber is that it isn’t in Defence’s current plan and won’t be built in Adelaide. This points to weaknesses in how we acquire military technology: our processes are too slow and too focused on incrementally adding to the existing design of the ADF. We need more creativity.

Left to its own devices, it would take Defence years to decide that a stealthy strike bomber might be worth buying. At Christmas, The Australian reported that a review of Defence innovation planned ‘major reforms’ to ‘get new projects to contract stage’, cutting ‘as much as 12 months from the current four years’.

Four years is longer than the time between the attack on Pearl Harbor and the end of the war in the Pacific. Defence is talking the language of a strategic crisis but hasn’t yet worked out how to break out of a peacetime acquisition mindset.

AUKUS provides the best platform we have to think again about the design of the defence force. This will only happen with ministerial push. There is literally no time to lose.