January 20, 2022

Labor, Trump 2.0 May Threaten AUKUS Submarines

Following several well argued Anonymous comments, from January 17 to 19, I'll renew my Devil’s Advocate position.

I’ll start by reaffirming that the pencilled-in AUKUS submarine intention is a good idea. Australia should maintain its lead with a “regionally superior submarine” - something only achievable with nuclear reactors in our future subs.


Yes the Labor Party Opposition has followed the bipartisan tradition of supporting the Liberal-National Government In Power on major defence issues. In this case the AUKUS submarine announcement. 

Note that as Labor and the Government go into the Federal Election by May 2022. Labor’s Two Party Preferred (TPP) lead of 6% (53% to 47%) is high. It is higher than the Liberal National's lead at the 2019 Election which was only 51.53% to 48.47%. See the right sidebar.

However when/if Labor is the Government In Power after the by-May 2022 Election it will be Labor that will set major defence policies. It would then need to justify the AUKUS submarine to the voting/taxpaying public. This is also noting that when Labor was last in power it didn’t authorise any new shipbuilding projects. Even if there is support for the future AUKUS subs they have not formally authorised.  

That lack of new authorisation during Labor's last period in office may have been due to Labor factional battles on defence. Such battles could resurface if Labor wins in May 2022.

From May 2022 Labor's Left Wing, which includes Labor's main foreign policy spokesperson, Penny Wong may push for reduced growth in defence expenses and resume the anti-nuclear stance.

Nuclear Submarine Task Force Report

Another major political hurdle will be 10 months later, around March 2023, when Australia's Nuclear Power Submarine Task Force is due to report its findings. The findings on cost and schedule may be vague with much more nuclear submarine budgetary detail to address - in 2024 or later. 

In a situation where Australia's Government is already running a large Covid caused national deficit it may be difficult to explain that future nuclear subs will be a major expense over and above what the Attack class would have cost.

A Long Bow - But Trump May Return

Another hurdle or reversal may be the return of Trump (2.0) if he wins the November 2024 Presidential Elections.

One of the fathers of AUKUS was Biden. Due to age Biden is highly unlikely to contest the November 2024 Elections. He'll almost certainly leave office, at 82, in January 2025 when the next President is Inaugurated. Though its early days yet no other Democrat seems a popular successor.

Trump continues to dominate the Republican Party. Trump has a history of attempting to renegotiate alliance arrangements – like the $Billions for keeping US forces in South Korea. Trump may demand an unacceptable rise in the price of US technology going into AUKUS sub. Trump might withdraw US support for AUKUS if his monetary and other demands are not met.

Again, I support the AUKUS sub idea, but raising issues over whether it will survive is a valid activity. 


Lee McCurtayne said...

Hi Pete,
What is your opinion of the latest Los Angeles class submarine and in your opinion does it tick the majority of the boxes for our needs.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate you are playing devil’s advocate so I will try to respnd further on the political status and risks for Aussie nuclear subs under AUKUS. Any successful RAN nuclear subs program will take 20+ years and so on average will see at least two changes in Federal government. So I agree it is a valid question for any of us who want to see RAN SSNs to consider the political risks.

First the good news. Opinion polls show a clear majority of Australians (57% in Roy Morgan) are in favour of SSNs, mainly due to growing fears of China. The left wing Guardian poll had an even higher % in favour (62% in Essential poll). Note that is 15% higher than the Liberal government’s current voter share, suggesting a lot of Labor supporters support SSNs. If you have a cynical view of politicians as only acting in their own self interest, that makes it very likely that a Labor or Liberal government will stick to the deal. See https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/sep/28/essential-poll-majority-of-australians-back-aukus-submarine-pact-but-fear-it-will-inflame-tensions-with-china

Of the minor parties, only Green voters are clearly opposed to SSNs. One Nation, UAP and Rex Patrick/Centre Alliance all support SSNs too. This suggests that a majority Labor or Liberal government will pass funding for SSNs, with the worst case being a Labor government dependent on Green votes in the Senate to pass legislation. Even then, a Labor/Rex Patrick/Independents alliance could pass SSN funding bills and enabling legislation.

In my view the greatest political risk for the SSN project is if the LNP or RAN gets distracted by trying to achieve other objectives that Labor might abandon in government. These risks are obvious: trying to establish domestic nuclear power, nuclear weapons, or diverting the subs (and jobs) to an overseas build. The Labor left and Greens would go ballistic (pun intended) at any of these. That would risk killing the project via cancelled funding. The challenge for the RAN is to stay focused on the core objective (SSNs) and adopt a delivery method that minimises these risks, i.e. maximises local jobs.

For these reasons, I think the safest path to delivery of RAN SSNs is local construction of the UK Astute design, with modular construction of the reactor compartment in the UK for final assembly in Adelaide. Lockheed Martin installing the US combat system and Mk48s could be done locally, bumping up the local build %. If the RAN went for Virginias there is a risk there would be more work in USA for its multiple complex systems like optronics and VLS. Less local content means more cancellation risk. Also, call me a cynic, but I note the BAE yard in Barrow is heavily unionised, which makes me suspect in practical terms Australian Labor politicians would prefer to see a joint AUS/UK build by BAE, knowing there will be unionists employed in both yards. If that is the case, it will be very difficult for the Labor party in government to abandon the deal.

So while I agree it is a risk, in my view unless the Greens hold the balance of power completely in a Labor minority government, the risks are manageable. And provided the RAN proposes a delivery approach with high local content (and jobs starting sooner rather than later), Labor in government will be very unlikely to abandon the SSN program.

Finally, in financial terms, SSNs are expensive but manageable. $90 billion over 30 years is $3 billion per year. We spend over $10 billion per year subsidising fuel for miners and farmers. There are lots of ways the cost could be raised.

Anonymous said...

Hi Pete

Both Abe and Suga administrations in Japan had demonstrated leadership in international politics and contributed to the political stability in Indo-Pacific Area. But, unfortunately, such great political leadership is not expected for current Kishida administration at all.

Surprisingly, Kishida has not meet President Biden yet, while then-the-PMs, Abe and Suga had promptly met then-the-Presidents, Trump and Biden. Important works such as diplomatic action against China’ aggressive behavior, vaccination against omicron and legislative work are not implemented at all. I’ve never seen such a lazy government in Japan.


Anonymous said...

Hi Pete:

I used to be in favor of an Australian SSN for a long time. About a year ago you talked me out of it. It would take Australia 15-20 years to acquire this capability. That was a winning argument, especially now with the Russian Ukraine crisis.

If Russia has its way with Ukraine, China will not be far behind with Taiwan and the South China Sea. I don't think we have 20 years.

You have discussed alternative before: SSK's with depot ships parked in friendly harbors, including the refurbishing of the current Collins class. Since Australia is extremely unlikely to fight by itself, either Australia could base its subs in allied ports closer to the action, or get used to "Democracy with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era" (TM)

Any surge in AUKUS SSN production could be integrated faster into US or UK navies than the Australian navy. Therefore, quick maximization of SSN's for AUKUS is better left to the larger partners. Any additional Australian defense investments should be placed in resources that can be integrated in the near term. Perhaps more P8 Poseidons or some way to mine Chinese near-shore waters.

But my question is this: You were against Aussie SSN's, in fact you convinced me. Why did you change your mind? And more to the point, given the likelihood of a near term conflict, what good would the SSN's do? Seriously. You are my main reference point on this topic. What gives?

Clive Dorer said...

Hi Pete

I did a lot of reading into the kind of Hybrid system B.Rex describes a few years ago - a low power nuclear plant in the order of 150-600KW output to power base systems and charge batteries - Nuclear AIP in effect. To me it makes a lots of theoretical sense, and I *really* like the idea, but it has a fundamental issue.

It turns out the killer for the idea is linked to shielding and radiation types. This is dredging memory, and is a serious over simplification of what is clearly a heavyweight physics topic (and I'm not a Physicist!) but some radiation, such as gamma and neutron, can only be shielded safely within a short distance by a sandwich layering of materials around the reactor core, which realistically is never going to be be less that 2M, with 3 being more typical, this just the physics of absorbing this stuff and the materials available to us today. In short, to stop dangerous stuff from your reactor, you need 2-3M of shielding around it, irrespective of the reactor size.

So although you could make a very small reactor core, with associated electrical generation apparatus, either a Brayton cycle, or a Stirling-like system, which would be suitable, which would be suitable for a smaller boat, you would be stuck away away by shielding requirements, which would mandate a bigger boat.

The best explanation I read a while ago was that if you had a 50MW reactor core, 1M in diameter, the whole vessel would be around 6M in diameter (1.5M + 2x 2.5M shielding).
If you made a teeny weeny 0.1M reactor, with just 50KW output, it would STILL be 5.1 M in diameter (0.1 + 2x 2.5M shielding).

So in short, you really aren't going to get away from a reactor vessel of any size being much less than 5M in diameter, with all the proportional weight and size issues.

Hence, there are brutal limits on downsizing. The entire rear of NR-1 was off-limits, all the time, to everyone, in port or out, because shielding couldn't be integrated, and she was cooking.

The Russians came up with an interest podded design to deal with with this, I cant find link at the moment, but again the only way they could work out to attached a "mini" reactor was to mount it effectively externally at the back.

Finally, I guess if you built a really big conventional boat, then you could still embark such a system, there being enough space for it - but if you're going to that extent, why not just put a full-power plant in anyway....

Anyway, I raise this just because I did a ton of reading up some years ago on this as I also thought it was a great idea, and was disappointed to find such a prosaic reason for why it was a non-starter.

Pete said...

Hi Anonymous [your Jan 22, 2022, 4:07:00 PM]

Thanks for your views concerning Kishida, Japanese Prime Minister since October 4, 2021 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fumio_Kishida

I don't know much about Japanese Prime Ministers after Abe.

I imagine some Prime Ministers are chosen because they do little - thus threatening few political factions or interests.

Kishida's policy views are interesting https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fumio_Kishida#Policy_views .



Pete said...

Hi Anonymous [your Jan 22, 2022, 5:18:00 PM comment]

A. I prefere to present multiple sides of the Australian SSN debate, because its so complex. This is noting no one knows final answers about this future SSN's:
- extremely complex,
- changeable national defence engineering, national policy and international relations conundrums
- which may dominate defence debate until the early 2040s
- when the first Australiann SSN may be commissioned.

In short no one can provide you the certainty you seek until it happens in the 2040s.

B. On your claims:

- what has an Aussie submarine got to do with the "Ukraine crisis"? or Taiwan?

- I never remember advocatinfg Australian "depot ships".

- "refurbishing of the current Collins class" is not in doubt. Its official Australian policy, known as the "LOTE"

- I've never suppoted Australia basing "its subs in allied ports". More like supporting the refueling of Collins in America's Guam and Diego Garcia, that already goes on.

C. Where you say: "Any surge in AUKUS SSN production could be integrated faster into US or UK navies than the Australian navy. Therefore, quick maximization of SSN's for AUKUS is better left to the larger partners. Any additional Australian defense investments should be placed in resources that can be integrated in the near term."

You appear to want "Australian" SSNs to be totally built in the US or UK, being under the control of the UK RN or USN or actually being units of those navies!

D. Aside from the 20 year Australian SSN building lead times there is the 15 years required to train fully nuclear-knowledgable Australian officers and crew.

E. A deep thank you.

Recalling what I said in A. above.

While I'm privileged, and a bit daunted, to be your "main reference point on this topic."

you could also check https://www.defence.gov.au/about/taskforces/nuclear-powered-submarine-task-force with its many connected links

to see if/when it may have all the answers.

Cheers Pete

Pete said...

Hi Lee McCurtayne [your Jan 21, 2022, 9:21:00 AM]

Re your: "What is your opinion of the latest Los Angeles class submarine and in your opinion does it tick the majority of the boxes for our needs."

I'll respond to you in an article in a few days.



Pete said...

Hi Clive Dorer [your Jan 22, 2022, 6:49:00 PM comment]

Great intellectual maturity that you concluded the mooted Nuclear AIP Hybrid propulsion system was killed off by concerns over "shielding and radiation".

On another matter, there are always so many enthusiasts for mini nuclear power stations in remote Australian country towns, that could:

- go from experimental possibilities to practical business propositions due to good old Aussie nuclear innovation

- despite lack of a profitable track record elsewhere in the wold

- easily gain community and regulatory support (because the stations are small...)

- no mention of the need for expensive round the clock armed protection

- and here's the kicker, they would be "so safe" despite the possibilities terrorists/staff hostage takers could blow them up with explosives.

Turning a small, funky, new-tech reactor into a radiological substance bomb/spreader is always a bad look.



Pete said...

Thanks Anonymous [at Jan 22, 2022, 12:29:00 AM]

For your fine comments beginning:

I appreciate you are playing devil’s advocate so I will try to respnd further on the political status and risks for Aussie nuclear subs under AUKUS."

I'll turn your comments into an article soon.



Anonymous said...

Hi Pete:

Thanks for the reply, but perhaps we missed each other a bit.

B1: I am not advocating sending Australian submarines to Ukraine. My intent was to point out that Ukraine may have impact on next crisis relevant to Australian navy, where China would use the crisis in Europe as a distraction, to be exploited by a move in the South China Sea. That would create the scenario that AUKUS was founded to address, and indeed the LIKELIEST next big thing for the Australian navy. This would mean that the next Australian adventure would be with China, and in the very near term.

B2: I think I read something in your blog discussing the possibility of depot ships to support forward submarines (before Australia decided on SSN's), though you were not very keen on that. If depot ships were to be forward based, they may have to be in ports that are not in Australia. From this, I extrapolated that if AUKUS has allies close to the South China Sea, those are the ports where the subs would need to be based. Perhaps you were meaning Guam and or Diego Garcia, but I assumed that the nature of the conflict would have an impact on the choice of ports.

C: I agree that Australia, like any country, wants to control its own military, but in a large conflict, such as world wars I and II where the outcome is uncertain, smaller allies try to maximize the chance of an allied win more than their own control. To misquote Donald Rumsfeld, The war you have to prepare for is the war you are likely to get, not the one you want to get. The whole point of my letter is that the Australian navy is not choosing the scenario: It can at best adapt to the most dangerous likely scenario. In war, the bad guys choose the time, place and scenario. I think a near term Moscow/Beijing axis breakout is the most likely scenario. If you don't agree, what scenarios do you think are more dangerous/likely?

E: I do follow other sources, but I find yours most educational. You are very smart and well informed, but I sometimes disagree with you on requirements and war scenarios. On technology and operational issues you are the best teacher I found.

Best regards. I am still a fan.

Pete said...

Hi Anonymous [at Jan 24, 2022, 3:50:00 AM]

Thanks for your comments.

I've turned my responses into an article "Australian Submarine Tenders? US Naval Bases"

dated January 29, 2022 at https://gentleseas.blogspot.com/2022/01/australian-submarine-tenders-and-us.html