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Nuclear-Powered Submarines: Militarism Lacking A Strategy?

22 Oct 2021
By Sian Troath
The Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Collins (SSG 73) rises to the surface during exercise La Perouse. The exercise was designed to enhance unit-level training to improve the strike group’s ability to respond to a submarine threat, and enhance interoperability between partner nations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Leonard Adams)

Australia’s intentions to acquire nuclear powered submarines raise an important question: what are the submarines for? It appears that strategic rationale has been displaced by assumptions about technological superiority.

What are the submarines for? A seemingly simple question, one would think. At more than $90 billion, surely there’s a substantial, extensive, and well-thought-out strategic rationale, right? Or, perhaps, it’s just militarism for militarism’s sake.

The primary argument made in favour of the submarines is that they serve as a deterrent against China. It must be noted, however, that this is not an argument put forward by the government itself, but rather one inferred by analysts. There has been no big picture strategic rationale provided from the Australian government. Rather, the decision seems to be based on an assumption that any grab for technological superiority is a strategic necessity.

The other key argument for AUKUS is that it shores up alliances. But alliances should not be an end in and of themselves, and it seems naive to assume alliance success before more fully exploring the implications. Further, there are other things such alliances could focus on, and other partnerships which will be at worst undercut and at best overlooked as a consequence of this decision.

Among proponents, there is a substantial focus on the technological superiority of the submarines. There is a distinct feel of technochauvinism to this – assuming more advanced technology is an inherent solution, with little critical consideration of what the technology is for, what the problem is, and what tools are best suited to manage that problem.

And so the question remains, what are the submarines for? What is the strategic rationale at a baseline, and beyond that, what is the justification for allocating such substantial sums of money here and not elsewhere?

To quote Van Jackson, it puts “capability before concept.” To quote Lesley Seebeck, it is “an agreement missing a strategy.” This all leads us back to militarism for militarism’s sake – which is not a strategy, or at least certainly not an effective one.

It’s also a bad assumption that militarism is the best tool to match the strategic problems facing Australia. At the very least, these things should not be assumed. Before the deal is done (or, rather, the plan to make a plan is announced), there should be a debate over what Australian objectives actually are and the options for achieving those objectives. The strategic homework should have been done first, not handed in late after the show and tell.

As Andrew Carr has persuasively argued, putting foreign and defence policy on a strange kind of untouchable pedestal beyond the reach of debate does not make for good policy. More uncertain times make this more true rather than less. There should be rigorous public debate over what kind of region and world Australia wants to live in, and what it is willing and able to do to try and achieve that.

So what kinds of other options should be part of the debate? Diplomacy is an obvious one. Despite a recent small increase in funding to DFAT, long-term chronic underfunding means that Australia’s diplomatic capacity leaves a lot to be desired. Like with public debate, a more contested environment makes diplomacy more important, not less – particularly when you are making some of your neighbours nervous with your decisions.

Asia literacy is another. Asian studies programs at universities are being cut back, as are language programs. If security with Asia rather than security from Asia is not to be consigned entirely to the scrap heap, these kinds of programs are fundamental.

Then there is all of the energy and funds that could be channelled instead towards working on Australia’s relationships with other states throughout the region. The same goes for cooperation with allies and partners outside militarism – on climate change or health, for instance.

It is easy to jump to militarism as a solution. It tends to be easy to justify in vague terms of national security, enhanced capability, maintaining a technological edge, and protecting strategic interests. It is much harder to define or even debate what those strategic interests are, and what strategic rationale lies behind capability acquisitions – particularly when you have undercut or overlooked your other tools of statecraft.

Perhaps it is time to return to basics. Let’s start with defining the problem, before presuming the solution.

Sian Troath is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Canterbury and an adjunct research lead at the Jeff Bleich Centre for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security & Governance. Her research focuses on Australian foreign and defence policy, alliance dynamics, lethal autonomous weapons, and theories of trust in international relations.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.