Australia is Getting Nuclear Submarines From Britain and the U.S. — A Nuclear Weapons Proliferation Threat?

The Royal Australian Navy is set to become the seventh in the world to deploy nuclear powered submarines after an agreement was announced on September 15th which committed the United States and Britain to supporting such a acquisition. 

The agreement comes, which will be finalised over the next 18 months, comes as part of a defence pact proposed by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to Joe Biden and Boris Johnson, the Australia, United States, United Kingdom (AUSUK) alliance. 

AUS UK was explicitly framed as being intended to counter the People’s Republic of China in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific, and and includes cooperation in multiple strategic areas including long range strike capabilities, cyber warfare, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing.

Australia has long operated diesel electric attack submarines, namely the Collins Class, which have an impressive record during simulated exercises including sinking U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, and the Navy previously planned to acquire twelve replacements from France under a deal worth over $40 billion. 

Cost overruns notably led to the French contract rising by over 50 percent in cost and reaching close to $70 billion, with the ability of the French industry to meet requirements being brought to question. Termination of the deal with France could cost Australian taxpayers $400 million, with Paris already indicating that it may demand compensation, but the alternative deal with the U.S. and Britain will provide the Australian Navy with assets with far superior endurance. 

Nuclear powered submarines can spend much longer at sea and can cover greater distances more quickly, but tend to be less stealthy and louder than their diesel electric counterparts which makes them better suited to offensive power projection operations rather than to defence. The Australian ships are expected to borrow heavily from the British Astute Class and American Virginia Class designs. 

It was previously widely reported from 2019 that Australia was considering becoming a nuclear weapons state, joining the ranks of India, North Korea, Pakistan, and Israel as a country that would do so outside the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. 

Indeed, should the country go through with the submarine program it would be the only country without nuclear weapons to deploy nuclear-powered submarines - with the list of nuclear weapons states being synonymous with those with nuclear-powered submarines with the exceptions of Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea currently? 

The provision of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia may thus be seen as a proliferation risk and would allow the country to more effectively deploy nuclear weapons on behalf of a broader Western alliance against countries in East Asia.

It was speculated in the past by a number of sources that Australia could become a client for American B-21 Raider strategic bombers to provide it with a long-range asset capable of striking China - including with nuclear force if the country did go down that path. A greater possibility remains that Australia could train its personnel to use American nuclear weapons as many European NATO members already do, on the basis that warheads would be passed on to allies by the U.S. in the event of war. 

With Australia’s new submarines set to be compatible with the same armaments as those fielded by the U.S. and Britain, nuclear-tipped submarine-launched cruise missiles could potentially be transferred to the Royal Australian Navy in the event of war much like the U.S. plans to pass on nuclear gravity bombs to its European allies. 

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