Gordon Campbell on AUKUS and Australia’s decision on nuclear subs


Update: Evidently, Reuters were correct in the major details reported below on Werewolf, prior to the official AUKUS announcement. Yes, the US will begin to rotate Virginia-class nuclear submarine “visits” through the Pacific region as early as 2027. As this Werewolf article says, Australia will indeed be buying three Block V Virginia-class nuclear submarines by 2033,with an option to buy two more. In the early 2040s, Australia will increase its nuclear submarine fleet to eight vessels by buying a special “SSN-AUKUS” Virginia-class upgrade co-designed by Britain and the US, and co-built in the UK, US and the Australia shipyards in Adelaide and Western Australia. (Not Sydney, as originally supposed.) The cost of the AUKUS submarine programme to Australia has ballooned from $80-100 billion to an astounding sum of between $A268 billion to $A368 billion spread over three decades.

China may well regard Taiwan as a renegade province. Yet the invasion of Taiwan – as the Australian economist and commentator John Quiggin points out – would pose massive challenges for the forces or Xi Jinping. Basically, sea-borne invasions are very, very difficult to pull off. Even with the benefit of surprise, as he says, the huge Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944 didn’t achieve any of its early targets (e.g. control of the port of Caen] until six weeks later. Even so:

China, it is claimed, plans to invade Taiwan, a country with 290,000 soldiers under arms and reserves of 2.3 million. To achieve the kind of numerical superiority seen on D-Day, China would need to land nearly a million men in the first days of an invasion.

Oh, and in this instance, China would lack the benefit of surprise:

With modern technology, any attack would be detected before the ships left port. They would have to travel 170 kilometres across open water, within range of air attack and anti-ship missiles for the entire voyage. On arriving, they would have a choice of eight small beaches, all of which have been fortified over many decades. Assuming the troops somehow got ashore, they would deal with terrain that makes the “bocage” [i.e Normandy’s hedgerows and small forests] look like an open plain.

Moreover, the Chinese Navy has only about 70 operational landing craft. As Quiggin concludes:

Any attempt at grinding down defences with a preliminary bombing campaign would be doomed to failure. Taiwan’s air and missile forces are dug deep into mountains… A variety of other strategies (decapitation attacks, blockades and so on) have also been canvassed. All were tried by the Russians in Ukraine and all failed.

What Quiggin is getting at here is that a concerted campaign is currently being waged by sections of the Aussie media with the aim of scaring the pants off the Australian public about the imminent threat from China in the Pacific, in the South China Sea and with regard to Taiwan.

The aim of this campaign is to justify a sky-high level of new defence spending by the Australian government. New Zealand is at risk of being carted along by the same momentum into authorising increases in our own defence spending that we don’t need, and can’t afford.

Acting the part

The campaign kicks into high gear today. As the Oscars get handed out in Los Angeles, another pantomime of power will be playing out on the docks just down the coast, in San Diego. Anthony Albanese, Rishi Sunak and Joe Biden will be standing shoulder to shoulder as they announce the first concrete manifestation of the AUKUS pact – a military alliance between Australia, Britain and the Americans that has China as its common target.

This week, Albanese will formally commit Australia to a circa $80-100 billion deal to buy a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines to replace Australia’s current fleet of Collins diesel-electric submarines. As Reuters revealed in a news break on the weekend, Albanese will be announcing his country’s intention to buy several Virginia-class nuclear subs with the option of buying and/or building more. It also looks set to build another shipyard in Sydney to do some of the work. As Reuters put it:

….[The] AUKUS pact, will have multiple stages with at least one U.S. submarine visiting Australian ports in the coming years and end in the late 2030’s with a new class of submarines being built with British designs and American technology, one of the officials said….after the annual port visits, the United States would forward deploy some submarines in Western Australia by around 2027.

In the early 2030’s, Australia would buy 3 Virginia class submarines and have the option to buy two more. AUKUS is expected to be Australia’s biggest-ever defence project and offers the prospect of jobs in all three countries.

That last bit is very important. Like his predecessors, Albanese will be treating Australia’s defence policy as a cutting edge ingredient of its manufacturing policy. For Australian politicians, military policy and defence spending is as much about (a) creating jobs for Aussie workers, (b) gaining technology upgrades for Aussie industry and (c) scoring lucrative contracts for Aussie goods and services firms as it is about the actual defence of the nation.

That’s why when it comes time for the replacement of our Navy frigates – which is the next big ticket item on the wish-list of our own Defence Forces – Canberra will be putting pressure on us to have those new frigates built in Adelaide or in Sydney, thereby creating thousands more jobs in their shipyards. It would be far more sensible (and less expensive) for us to lease frigates from our traditional allies, and pour the savings into the threadbare cyber defences that were identified by the Royal Commission into the Christchurch mosque shootings.

AUKUS outlook

New Zealand is only a bystander at this point, while our closest defence ally prepares to go nuclear. In the short term though, all the AUKUS sabre-rattling about the Chinese threat in the Pacific will inevitably increase the pressure on the Hipkins government to increase our defence spending in the May budget. Such an outlay would contradict the recent re-focus by Hipkins on the “cost of living” issues here at home, and on the costly rebuild after Cyclone Gabrielle.

Any boost in defence spending would, no doubt, be greenwashed by Labour as being a necessary response to the disaster relief needs of Pacific nations posed by climate change, even though climate change mitigation here at home has been given a back seat to those pressing “bread and butter” issues and the recovery effort after Gabrielle.

Most voters would not be convinced that the Chinese menace poses a more compelling threat to their wellbeing than Gabrielle and its aftermath. It might also be a hard sell to convince voters why we should be spending buckets of money to help combat the threat that global warming poses to anyone else, ahead of the threat it poses here at home. Looking further ahead, surely the military would have cheaper ways of getting generators to flood affected towns around our coasts than delivering them in a brand new frigate.

In a worst case scenario, the Australians could well invite New Zealand to join AUKUS and assign us some “friend of AUKUS” status, as an observer. Our anti-nuclear legislation would complicate such a role. That aside, and given the ocean currents and prevailing winds, New Zealand has every good reason to feel nervous about the prospect of our near-neighbour learning on the job about how to build and maintain the nuclear reactors on its new submarine fleet.

Luckily, most of the new Aussie subs won’t be delivered until the early to mid 2030s. That means these massively expensive new purchases probably wouldn’t arrive in time to deter China from invading Taiwan, given that this is supposed to be imminent.

In the US, the building of Virginia-class subs are shared between two shipyards, one in Groton Connecticut and the other in Newport News, Virginia. Reportedly, the design variant that Australia has in mind will have been a three-headed upgrade project to the Virginia-class that will have been co-designed by Britain and the US, as amended to Australian specifications, with at least some of the subs being built by US-trained Australians who had no prior experience in this sort of construction. On top of these complications, all participants will be coming under pressure to deliver every stage of the project at the lowest cost possible. I mean, what could possibly go wrong with such a design and construction plan? And in this case, I don’t just mean the danger of cost blowouts.

Attack and defence

AUKUS is likely to make New Zealanders feel more unsafe in a number of other ways as well. For starters, AUKUS is not a “defend the homeland” pact. It is a forward projection alliance, to attack enemy targets and stifle the enemy’s ability to defend itself and respond. (Enemy = China.) Before we bow to the pressure coming from our traditional allies to join in with their chest-bumping rivalries with China, it is probably worth looking at the Aussie nuclear submarine deal in more detail.

The Albanese government has said the Aussie subs will not be nuclear-armed. (Not yet, anyway) However, the roughly 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles (the final design will limit the number) that each submarine will carry can all carry nuclear warheads. Only previous treaty commitments with Russia have prevented the cruise missiles carried on Virginia-class subs from being nuclear-armed.

Yet with the scrapping of nuclear proliferation treaties with Russia in the wake of the war in Ukraine, we could well be sailing in a few years time into “neither confirm nor deny” territory with our Australian neighbours. Regardless of their potential for carrying nuclear tipped Tomahawk cruise missiles alongside the usual torpedoes, mines, autonomous undersea drones, etc etc ….Would these nuclear-powered Australian subs be barred from docking at New Zealand ports under the terms of our anti-nuclear legislation? Yes, they would.

Therefore, it would be good to know if our current political leaders share a bi-partisan agreement to preserve our anti-nuclear stance in its current form and thereby ban those Aussie subs from our ports, now and forever more. Even if Labour and National did agree, the reality is that our new and expensive Poseidon anti-submarine surveillance aircraft will still be taking part in exercises which will increasingly have (a) a nuclear component and (b) an anti-submarine (ASW) component, courtesy of our ANZAC buddies. Lest we forget. (The growing ASW role for Virginia-class SSN category subs is mentioned on page 9 of the Congressional Review Service evaluation of the SSN programme. )

From what can be gleaned at this point i.e. prior to the formal announcement, the Australian order will be filled with a new and advanced SSN® model still in development. This is where the British come in. In a sense, Australia will be (a) serving as a test run and (b) will be creating extra economies of scale for the British Navy’s plans to develop and build SSN( R) models to replace its Astute class submarines by the early to mid 2040s.

To repeat: It would be unwise for New Zealand to be stampeded by the “defence” lobbyists both here and offshore into making significant increases to the allocations for Defence in the May Budget. If nothing else, the Aussie subs saga is a useful reminder that the regional tensions in the Pacific and the China bogey are both being driven and monetised by firms within the military-industrial complex, via the pork barrel politicking (lucrative jobs and contracts for our neighbourhood! ) that is so rife among our traditional military allies.

Footnote: While we spend billions on a fleet of new Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft, and the Aussies buy their fleet of mega-expensive nuclear submarines, the future of underwater warfare is seen by some observers to rest with unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). Apparently, the Australian military has a programme to develop UUVs called Ghost Shark, cutely named after the US Ghost Bat programme.

UUVs are being developed to do some of the dirty and dangerous work previously done by crewed submarines under their ASW air cover. Some see UUVs as an adjunct to conventional below- surface warfare. Others see UUVs as making those conventional tools redundant. You can read about these unmanned underwater military drones here.

Gospel ships

Here’s my idea of the best job in the world. Reportedly, a small team at Baylor University in Waco, Texas has been working for a dozen years at finding, cleaning up and re-mastering obscure gospel music dating from the classic gospel post war period, from 1946 until the early 1980s. Yes, imagine a job where digging through bargain bins and backroom record ship crates looking for obscure musical gems, attending estate sales and rummaging through garage sales looking for old records etc was actually a paid gig, financed by a friendly investment banker who feels that this work to save rare gospel music is worthwhile.

Here’s one of the Baylor team’s efforts, a beautiful and deeply obscure version of “Old Ship of Zion” by a group called the Mighty Wonders. This isn’t on Spotify but another interesting track by the Mighty Wonders called “ Jesus, I Need You to Work For Me” is.

If you like this kind of music, one of the best black gospel/soul music sites on the Net is this one, which has been in existence for the past 15 years. It’s an endless treasure trove of deep soul and gospel.

Now, and for a different approach to the same subject… A few months ago, the British duo of Venbee ( the 21 year old singer and writer) and Goddard (the producer) released “Messy in Heaven…” Venbee’s lyric treats Jesus as a trust fund kid with daddy issues, for whom cocaine offered a release from the burdens of leadership.

The track is pretty funny from the opening line onwards, but the lyrics and delivery also treat the situation with compassion. At times, being the Messiah really sucked:

Barefoot on the pavement, he was never complacent

Held his ground for the town and the statement

Leader, never backs out of the arrangement

Speaks out to the whole crowd when he saves them

But he was the one that needed saving…