The new AUKUS submarine agreement is about superiority, stealth and tacit warfare in the disputed South China Sea.
In the South China Sea, Beijing already dominates the air. It controls the surface of the ocean. But it does not yet control what goes on below. And that is the only remaining advantage the West can exploit if it intends to intervene on behalf of Southeast Asia’s bullied coastal states.
It’s an unbalanced equation.
And that is mainly in favor of Beijing.
But the West is pinning its hopes on its only remaining technological superiority – the “pointed predator” that is the submarine.
Therefore, Canberra was willing to commit $ 90 billion to the abandoned French project.
This may be why the need for such boats has forced Canberra to take drastic steps to ensure their timely delivery.
In short, they are needed to go where no aircraft or warship dares.
The new trilateral security agreement between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia – known as AUKUS – aims to speed up the design and construction process. It removes many complicated secrets, technological and trade restrictions. And the design will – almost out of necessity – have to be an existing American or British project.
Previously, such a technological exchange had only taken place in 1958, when Britain launched its nuclear submarine program, when the Cold War with the Soviet Union began to escalate.
Ultimately, this new partnership aims to ensure that the West retains its edge in underwater combat. It can in turn determine the outcome of a future conflict.
The clock is ticking.
Australia’s latest White Paper on Defense warns that we can no longer expect our region to remain peaceful within the next 10 years. It is a similar warning to the one issued in the 1930s, when Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperialist Japan began to stab their war engines.
“I want to emphasize that this will allow Australia to submit their submarines … for extended periods,” a White House official said this morning. “They are quieter. They are much more capable. They will enable us to maintain and improve deterrence throughout the Indo-Pacific. ”
China’s submarines are getting better. Like Russia. And the two nations have strengthened their military technology ties.
So the capacity gap closes quickly. Which has profound consequences for Australia’s aging Collins-class diesel-electric submarine fleet.
Although smaller and generally quieter than nuclear submarines, diesel-electric boats must regularly cross just below the surface and use snorkels for engines to recharge their battery banks.
These snorkels can be seen. As their wakes up.
And new radars are able to detect the wake of even properly submerged submarines.
So being silent and deep has become increasingly important.
This is where nuclear power – despite its disadvantages in size – comes into its own.
“The nuclear power of the Australian Navy will give them the legs to be viable in areas of the Western Pacific,” a U.S. submarine admiral told USNI News. “This is a message to China. China punished Australia financially, and that could be an answer to that. ”
But nuclear power is not easy. And Australia has no nuclear power industry. So the nuclear chemist and the engineers needed to support and occupy a nuclear fleet need to be built from the ground up.
“We will launch an 18-month trilateral effort that will involve teams – technical and strategic and naval teams from all three countries – to identify the optimal path to deliver this capability,” a White House official said this morning.
What role do nuclear-powered submarines play?
Taiwan is China’s neighbor next door. But it’s an 11,000-mile journey from the large U.S. Navy base in San Diego, California, to Taipei. It is 6400 km from Perth.
The South China Sea is not exactly adjacent to mainland China. But it’s nearby. And Beijing has built a complex network of artificial island fortresses to guarantee dominance over the area’s hugely important shipping routes, if it so desires.
It is also an ocean that is almost exclusively “fenced in” by islands. There are Indonesia and Malaysia to the south. The Philippines parentheses to the west. Taiwan tops the north. So the rest of the world can only enter the region via one of a handful of narrow deep water channels.
China needs the same thing to leave.
But inside the South China Sea itself, Beijing already has all the cards in place to exercise almost complete military dominance. All aircraft and ships can be tracked. Its artificial island fortresses even have radar systems designed to detect stealth.
China has hundreds of modern fighter jets, some of them stealthy. These will operate from well-established and well-supported home bases. The same advantage of the home game applies to its fleet.
In short: Any attempt to reinforce Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam or Japan would have to drive a tight glove of missiles, bombers, warships, warriors and submarines.
Submarines have the best chance of slipping unnoticed through this glove.
China possesses submarine hunting warships and aircraft. It also actively maps the South China Sea and the surrounding seabed to place listening devices and other sensors. But many military analysts believe it is not yet in the same league as the West when it comes to submarine warfare.
Britain builds its own nuclear submarines. But like Australia, it needed a technological transfer from the United States to do so. So it has an agreement where the US supplies the power plant and it builds submarines around them.
Its current generation attack submarine, the Astute Class, went into operation in 2010. The last boat in a class of seven is to be delivered in 2026. They are being built by BAE, which already has an Adelaide presence.
The United States’ current nuclear attack fleet is centered on the Virginia Class submarine. The first of its kind, USS Virginia, was commissioned in 2004. A total of 66 are expected to be built. Work is expected to continue until 2043, when the last boat retired in the 2070s.
But the U.S. Navy is already seeking to replace this nearly 20-year-old design. It has been called SSN (X).
The project has only just begun. But it is ambitious.
“(It) becomes faster, carries a significant blow, greater payload, greater salvo rate; it will have acoustic superiority, ”U.S. Undersea Warfare Division Director Rear Admiral Bill Houston told the media earlier this year.
But emphasis is placed on delivery capability and compatibility with new technologies.
It includes artificial intelligence, quantum sensors and large semi-autonomous drones.
“We take what we already know how to do and combine it,” said Rear Admiral Houston, adding that the idea was to “assemble” the best features of existing Virginia and Seawolf submarine designs into a new hull.
Whatever the case, the SSN (X) project is still embryonic. It is unlikely to deliver submarines within the time frame Australia wants.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer @JamieSeidel