It started, as defense stories often do, with an acronym. Australians woke up Thursday morning to Aukus, a new alliance between Australia, Britain and the United States formed to deal with the growing threat from China.
(Aukus carefully avoided the ‘C’ word, but we all know that’s what they were thinking.)
News of the tripartite alliance born at the June G7 trilateral came with the shocking announcement that Australia would scrap its current $ 90 billion submarine project in favor of nuclear-powered ships. Instead of 12 French-designed submarines, Australia will get “at least eight” designed in the UK or US and built in Adelaide.
The reaction was swift. New Zealand, left out of the gang, will continue its nuclear-weapon-free policy and ban any nuclear-powered submarines in its waters. The Greens and anti-nuclear activists were scathing.
Paris called it a “back stab.” France said it had no warning about the deal and found out from the media. Later, French officials were told that their American counterparts were not available to meet.
“We only found out yesterday,” Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly told RFI radio.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he discussed it with French President Emmanuel Macron after the G7.
Beijing called it “extremely irresponsible.”
It was a lot to take in. But, to channel Donald rumsfeld, those are the known acquaintances. There will be much more to come as we try to answer the known unknowns.
What are we getting?
If the new plan, unlike the old one, goes according to plan, we will get a fleet of nuclear powered submarines. At least we know how they work.
We don’t know yet whether they will be based on a UK or US design, but it is more than likely that they will be powered by the type of reactor found in America’s Virginia-class submarines.
Let us put aside the broader question of Australia’s role and obligation to global stability and America’s satisfaction.
Many defense experts have been arguing that we need the stealth and range of nuclear submarines, rather than the diesel-electric ones that we end up ordering. The idea has generally been rejected by the government because we do not have sovereign nuclear capabilities. Apparently that doesn’t matter anymore. (Or not?)
Guardian Australia Political Editor Katharine Murphy explained the factors that led to the decision and the unknown long-term ramifications. Former Defense Minister Christopher Pyne said the new technology that means they never have to be restocked was a “game changer” that led to Australia’s decision.
And yet the decision was made in secret and it was a global shock. The government may have sealed the deal quickly, but there is still a long way to go.
And the jobs?
Morrison promises that there will be a job bonanza for everyone, but oddly enough, some people feel a bit insecure. Naval Group Australia employs around 350 people, who will be looking for new jobs. There are companies that have prepared to supply merchandise to the Naval Group that do not know if they will remain as the proverbial cormorants.
The government says the new (proposed) submarines will have 40% local content, compared to the 60% promised by the Naval Group.
And fewer ships will also be built.
Still, Australia has a historic shortage of submarines, so they will at least be in high demand.
Show me the money.
Australia has already spent $ 2.4 billion on the now scrapped project; Morrison says the money was not wasted, although it went into building a very different ship. Exiting the contract will cost hundreds of millions (but we do not yet know if France could have a legal recourse to obtain more compensation).
That’s a lot of money. Do you know what else will cost a lot of money? At least eight new subs. And no, we don’t know how much.
How quickly can this new military industrial effort get into action?
One of the continuing concerns about the future fleet was that it would take so long to get them up and running that we would have to stretch Australia’s existing Collins-class fleet with extensive repairs. We will still have to do that.
There will first be an 18-month study to develop the plan. And it will be a decade before the ships start to hit the water. So at this stage, when it comes to the timeline, we’re pretty much where we were before.
So stay tuned as we fight the notoriously secretive defense system to find out what we’re getting for our taxpayers’ money and when, and maybe why, and if it’s worth it, and if we’ve irreparably damaged our relationship with France. , and by extension, with Europe.
Still, at least we know the basics. Like the name of our prime minister. Even if the president of the United States may not.