The True Impact Of Australia’s Nuclear Submarine Deal

On September 15th, President Joe Biden announced a pact with the United Kingdom and Australia to share nuclear-powered submarines, an announcement which revealed that France had been removed from the contract. This removal undermined France’s foreign policy ambitions in the Australasia region, since the contract was worth an estimated $65 billion dollars, which would have been given to France in exchange for 12 non-nuclear submarines. However, all these details reveal a threat greater than broken alliances and contracts: Australia’s defensive planning against Chinese military movement.

Under the new AUKUS deal, Australia will receive eight nuclear-powered submarines to replace its six conventionally powered, less effective Collins-class submarines, which are built on diesel and electric power. The Collins-class subs produce enough noise to compromise their location and ability to stay hidden. With new, nuclear-powered submarines, Australia will become the seventh country in the world to operate nuclear-powered military vessels, joining the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, and India. Unlike these countries, Australia’s submarines will not be equipped with nuclear weapons, lacking the nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles common on other vessels.

The agreement does not specify the make or type of the submarines offered, since the United States and United Kingdom operate different models and classes of submarines and it will likely take another few months for Australia to select which submarines to purchase. This decision will likely strengthen a technological alliance with either western power, depending on whether Australia selects an American or British submarine class.

When Australia originally signed the agreement with France in 2016, it was in response to the Chinese navy undergoing the largest peacetime expansion by any country in history. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy added aircraft carriers, a new class of ships, and dozens of allied warships. The navy has also been venturing out of the western Pacific Ocean into the Indian Ocean, broadening its submarines’ scope of waters near Australia. This expanding military presence forced the Australian military to reflect on their defensive and offensive technology.

Nuclear submarines are not the only benefit of the AUKUS deal. Australia will also gain access to new cruise missiles including precision strikes and anti-ship missiles. French missiles frequently lack long-range anti-ship abilities and cannot inflict serious damage on the large warships in the Chinese navy.

While Australia remains largely unthreatened for now, the entire country is in range of air and water strikes from China, whose missiles and strikes land just short of Australia’s territorial neighbor, New Zealand. China appears to have the motivation, ability, and resolve to develop a strategy that could seriously impact Australia’s ability to defend itself in the future. This possibility is why Australia is forming alliances with western powers to obtain stronger and more effective naval forces and weapons. Australia’s choice to dissolve its military trade with France in favor of a U.S. and U.K alliance will likely affect France’s response to alliances in the future.

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