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Op-Ed: New AUKUS alliance media beatup – US counter to China and “World War 2.9” sales pitch don’t cut it

China accused the United States of 'creating risks' in the South China Sea after the USS Curtis Wilbur (pictured here in 2018) sailed through disputed waters - Copyright US NAVY/AFP/File Benjamin DOBBS
China accused the United States of 'creating risks' in the South China Sea after the USS Curtis Wilbur (pictured here in 2018) sailed through disputed waters - Copyright US NAVY/AFP/File Benjamin DOBBS

With no back story at all, Australia has supposedly scrapped a $90 billion submarine contract with France, for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). The RAN will now allegedly buy US/UK nuclear subs. A remarkably inarticulate new-ish alliance, called AUKUS is also blaring away in the background. Frankly, from the lack of specifics, I don’t believe a word of it.

This endearing strategy-by-innuendo scenario is being called “China’s worst nightmare”. There are few specifics apart from a much less hysterical statement cited in POLITICO from “a congressional staffer” that President Biden will announce a new defense working group with Australia and the UK. This includes nuclear technologies, so there are implied issues with China. The POLITICO article doesn’t specifically mention Australia buying nuclear subs.

Update: A joint statement announcing AUKUS has been formally made as of 15 September US time and released about an hour ago. It does refer to Australia acquiring nuclear subs and technological cooperation. The pity of it is that the lack of specifics persists. The logic, however, has been spun into a major event, which it currently isn’t, directed at China.

This quaint and somewhat fragile reasoning apparently leads to “China’s worst nightmare”. As a sales pitch for anything, it’s a rather two-dimensional bit of ad copy in relation to real-world situations. Relations with China and Australia are abysmal at best. China and the US have been trying to defuse the constant stream of issues between them. The UK is involved in various issues in the South China Sea.

Somehow, nuclear subs for Australia become the sales pitch for an alliance?

There’s a lot of grinding, staggeringly unimpressive background to the Australian submarine situation.  Under contract with Marine Nationale, a major French naval shipbuilder, Australia seems to have found a lot of strangely odd reasons to renege on the contract.(Nor are there any details regarding this rather traditional Australian clumsiness in managing naval contracts. What’s the fallout from reneging on the contract, etc.?)

Yet another update – The French are furious, with plenty of reason. This matter was obviously not discussed with them beforehand. It’s not likely to be doing a lot of good for our reputation in the major military systems market. This sort of thing really should be managed much better at the government level.

Australia hasn’t been buying nuclear subs as a matter of naval doctrine and logistics since the 1960s no-nuke decisions. Nuclear subs come with a lot of back-end supports and added technologies.

They’re also a lot more expensive, directly and indirectly.  Nuclear subs need extensive training and support. While these subs have almost unlimited range and many combat-related upsides, this move basically reconfigures Australian naval strategy at its core.

Adding what seems to be a purely political “alliance” in the blurb hardly matters. Subs underpin the many naval realities for Australia. Australian subs roam the world, officially and otherwise. The RAN submarine arm has suffered from various technical issues with the current submarines and a seemingly ever-reducing number of trained submariners. A new strategic approach, total unit, and deployment redesign with new training and support requirements amount to a gigantic shift.

A few other issues:

  • There are no dates for the proposed nuclear subs.
  • There’s no mention of a specific class of nuclear submarine, real or imaginary. (I say imaginary because even the US Navy doesn’t propose new types of nuclear sub out of thin air.)
  • The support for the nuclear subs will require building an entirely new infrastructure.
  • The role of the new subs, armament and capabilities aren’t at all clear. Australia doesn’t have any nuclear weapons at all.
  • The RAN could be seriously stretched to manage all of these new inclusions in its role.  
  • This statement requires more of an analytical look than it’s likely to get. What subs, how much, and basic deployment issues have to be addressed. China won’t give a damn except about what subs it might be fighting.There are so many details to fill in that “China’s worst nightmare” is at least 10-15 years away.

Strategy? Sort of…

The “new” alliance, if that’s what’s supposed to happen, simply extends a functional UK/US/AU military and political relationship which dates back to the First World War. This is hardly likely to be news to China.

China’s years of tirades of abuse and threats haven’t gone down too well in Australia. From a purely Australian point of view, anything anti-Chinese could be easily sold to the public. That may be a political consideration, but as a long-term policy, it’s nothing of the sort.

The US has been talking about, and actually repositioning, into the region since the early 2000s. Australia is a natural element in managing the Pacific, South East Asia and Indian Ocean assets.

A lot of this “new” strategy is inevitable. US allies and associates in the region have their own issues with China. The South China Sea, Taiwan, various border and trade issues. It’s fair to say that the entire region, geographically from Japan to Australia to India, has been focused by China’s sudden, bizarre, and totally unnecessary “assertiveness”.

From the current military perspective:

  • China is unlikely to be interested in the rhetorical sales pitch of AUKUS.
  • Operational systems and combat capabilities are currency in this environment.
  • China will inevitably respond and reconfigure its priorities to any Australian military presence seen as a threat.
  • Nuclear targets in Australia have existed since the Cold War; a few more are predictable, given China’s increasing nuclear strike capacity.   

The future perspective is much more complex:

  • New classes of weapons, notably hypersonics, change the range and strike capabilities and responses to those weapons.
  • The “designated likely war zone” in Asia just happens to be the world’s biggest and busiest trade region with roughly a third of the world’s population. There can be no winners in this environment if it’s an all-out war. Rebuilding Europe in 1945 could seem relatively easy.
  • There are other factors, including the on/off War on Terror, and related risks still very much in the mix. The Middle East remains a murderous global ulcer, and Chinese involvement could make it a lot worse.
  • The US is the key strategic driver for any united front against China. Given the vagaries of US politics, any alliance could be equally vague. That hardly improves matters. Any reincarnation of Trump’s isolationist, astonishingly destructive, and grossly absurd ally-hating idiocies could be truly disastrous.

What the world needs now is a euphemism – “World War 2.9”?

AUKUS could be a mirage or not. The present administration, (which can even read and write and spell), is in all likelihood quite sincere in wanting to create a future defense framework, and with good reason. Substance is needed.

Meanwhile, the old defense structures are too old, in many cases obsolete, and unworkable in the current environment, let alone future forms of it. Up-gunning any modern military is quite unavoidable. New combat options will reconfigure the entire military posture anyway.

Ironically, “World War 2.9” could be just that – Unable to make it to World War 3. It’s also quite likely that China’s multifaceted assertive military stances will come back to bite it, hard. The PLA can defend China, sure. Beyond that, against any opposition, the constant blasé verbosity means nothing. Multiple military commitments far outside China, rhetorical or otherwise, are a very different ballgame. Maybe this nonsense reads well in the Global Times, but these are extremely difficult operational realities if they ever happen.

“World War 2.9” isn’t likely to be fun for anyone. …Particularly if it’s based on tiresome expressions like “China’s worst nightmare”. Someone might believe it.

Written By

Editor-at-Large based in Sydney, Australia.

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