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Barrier Reef to Counter China: Nuclear Edition

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One of the biggest news stories of this year—both in terms of military-technological cooperation and in the geopolitical sense— seemingly appeared out of the blue last week. The U.S., Australia and the UK set up what was dubbed AUKUS, a military and political grouping, whose first publicly stated goal is to be the building of atomic submarines for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).

Throughout the last decade, Australia has been actively seeking to modernize and re-equip its Defence Force as well as strengthen its military ties with the U.S. This, however, is not common knowledge in Russia, as the Green Continent is a place remote from other regions that are typically of interest to the general public. But the importance of what happened on September, 15 can hardly be overestimated. Perhaps, it will come to be a historic milestone for the Indo-Pacific region and the new Cold War, now waged between Washington and Beijing. Joe Biden, Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison, the leaders of the U.S., the UK and Australia, made a joint statement where they announced a new security partnership between their countries, sharing their commitment to a rules-based order as well as to closer diplomatic and defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Under AUKUS, they are planning to openly share information and technology, “bringing together sailors, scientists and industries to maintain and expand [their] edge in military capabilities and critical technologies.” This means that Australia has now gained the same level of U.S. trust as the UK, now forming part of the “inner circle” within the “Five Eyes” alliance, whose exclusiveness has made many U.S. allies jealous.

The U.S. has not shared its technologies for building nuclear submarines with any nation but the UK. A parallel can be drawn here with the US–UK Mutual Defense Agreement of 1958 and the 1962 Nassau Agreement, under which Washington was to support London in developing nuclear technology for military purposes, such as submarines, and to sell “Polaris” missiles. As in the 1960s, when the U.S. boosted its military potential and ties with its Atlantic ally to counter the Soviet Union in the Cold War, today’s America is willing to support its key ally in the Pacific as the confrontation with China grows. The UK’s part in this cooperation is definitely minor; however, it is still useful for the United States to support Global Britain’s interest in the Indo-Pacific. In return, London might receive a good piece of the pie for its national military-industrial complex and shipbuilding, which Boris Johnson pledged to support. At least, a separate statement by Mr. Johnson mentions the creation of “hundreds of highly skilled jobs.”

Australia is not afraid, Australia is focusing

Despite its geographical remoteness from the usual centers of historical events, Australia has a short but worthy military history. The Australians fought bravely alongside their mother country, Britain, in both World Wars. The participation by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps in the First World War is considered a key national event, while Anzac Day is one of the most important public holidays. World War II contributed to a close rapprochement between Australia and the United States, which ousted Great Britain as its main ally. Besides, the U.S. never had the controversial status of a metropole, being seen instead as protector and savior from the Japanese invasion.

In the wake of World War II, Australia actively participated in many local wars alongside the United States—not only in the widely supported Korean War of 1950–1953 but also in Vietnam throughout 1964–1975. Interestingly enough, the Australian Army and Air Force took part in the invasions of Iraq (operation “Desert Storm” in 1991 and the war in 2003). While buffs in contemporary military history would assure you that only Great Britain deployed troops alongside the United States, Australia, although in shadow, was there as well. Of course, the Australian military has actively been involved in the war in Afghanistan and operations against ISIS [1] in Iraq and Syria.

In recent decades, Canberra has evidently put its military expenditures on the increase—apparently, owing to the growing tensions in the region and the emerging Cold War between the United States and China. A growing need for qualitative and quantitative renewal and strengthening of the Defence Forces was persistently stated in the Defence White Papers of 2009, 2016 and 2020. It seems as if Australia would rather stay out of the Sino-American conflict (China is its main trade partner) but military and political cooperation with the U.S. is almost existential to Australia. Nor can Washington grant extensive freedom of choices to its “junior partner” given the obviously great geostrategic importance of the Green Continent as a rear military base for the Navy and Air Force.

A mere list of Australia’s military purchases might be a good illustration here. In 2007, it signed a contract that provided for Spain to build two Canberra-class LHDs able to carry F-35B short take-off aircraft [2] as well as three Hobart-class destroyers [3]. Spain has long been Australia’s most important partner in upgrading the Navy: in 2016, the Spanish Cantabria was chosen as a prototype for Australia’s new replenishment oiler, with the first of the two Supply-class oilers put into service in April this year. The situation has recently changed: the British ВАE Systems received an important contract to build nine City-class frigates for the Australian Navy, taking over from the Spanish. The Australian variant, the Hunter-class frigate, has a bigger draft and greater compatibility with the weapon systems of the U.S. Navy [4] . The Australian preference for the Hunter-class was a big win for Britain’s military shipbuilding and the most impressive export contract in decades, which has probably weighed with Canada’s choice as they now intend to build 15 such ships. Moreover, it was an obvious example of how the British-Australian ties are gaining in strength.

Germany and the U.S. are Australia’s key partners for the Australian Army. In 2018, the Rheinmetall Boxer CRV multirole combat reconnaissance vehicle was chosen over the competition—this may well be the heaviest and one of the most expensive armored vehicles today. The Australian configuration is equipped with a weapons system quite worthy of a modern infantry combat vehicle as well as with an active protection system, enjoying a combat weight (38.5 tons) close to that of the main tanks. In 2022, a future infantry combat vehicle will be chosen, the main options being the Rheinmetall KF41 “Lynx” (a most “premium” IFV currently available on the market, which also stands a good chance in the States) and the South Korean AS21 “Redback”. It is planned to purchase 450 vehicles. Although it may seem somewhat of a surprise that the Korean vehicle has reached the final, they are far from underdogs: in 2020, the К9 “Thunder” won a tender to supply 30 self-propelled artillery weapons, replacing the popular German PzH 2000. The Americans retain the heaviest segment of the Australian army’s weapons systems (in fact, they surprisingly have certain difficulties with the segments mentioned earlier). In 2006, Canberra acquired 59 M1A1 “Abrams” main tanks from the U.S., while this April saw the U.S. regulatory authorities approve their replacement with the latest M1A2C vehicles with a capacity increased to 75.

Partnership with the United States in the field of aviation is somewhat traditional. In 2007, purchase contracts were signed for 24 Boeing F/A-18F “Super Hornet” multirole fighter aircraft, while the Australians—rather than re-equip half the force into EA-18G “Growler” electronic warfare and air defense suppression aircraft—decided in 2014 to purchase 12 such aircraft separately. The country is one of the biggest customers of American fifth-generation F-35A fighters, with a total of 72 up to 100 aircraft to be purchased, 41 of which are ready. The Italian-American C-27J “Spartan” tactical transport aircraft were purchased via the United States and, from the early 2000s to the first half of the 2010s, strategic Boeing C-17 “Globemaster III” transporter aircraft were purchased, bringing their number to eight. In January 2021, the latest modification of the U.S. AH-64 Apache attack helicopter was chosen to replace the unsuccessful European “Tiger” attack helicopters. Some 29 AH-64E “Apache Guardians” are set to be delivered starting from 2025.

In 2012, a contract was signed for Boeing P-8A “Poseidon” maritime patrol aircraft used for anti-submarine warfare. Initially, it was planned to purchase eight units only; however, by late last year, the total number of orders came to be increased up to 14. In 2018, acquisition of 6 MQ-4C “Triton” unmanned aerial vehicles of the RQ-4 “Global Hawk” modification was announced. These are tailored for maritime reconnaissance (in liaison with “Poseidon”). At the same time, New Zealand announced the purchase of four “Poseidons”, which are considered part of a shared naval scout-attack force with Australia. The force is rather serious: for example, the UK was only able to provide funding for nine such aircraft.

Yet, even against the background of all these contracts, the programme for renewing the submarine fleet stood out in terms of scope and importance.

Vested Interest

Australia has always paid special attention to its submarine fleet, viewing it as an effective means for projecting force at sea in terms of price-quality ratio. The current Collins submarines were gradually introduced from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. Expectations were high—already back then, France had offered a diesel-electric version of its nuclear submarine Rubis. The competition was, nonetheless, won by Sweden, who were recognized leaders in non-nuclear submarine shipbuilding.

It is difficult to pinpoint whose fault exactly it was but the six submarines handed to the Australian Navy over in 1996–2003, with significant delays (from 18 to 41 months), turned out to be ridden with issues. The bulk of the problems linked back to the submarines’ technical complexity, since they were first in their class, which meant a lot of time had to be spent on eliminating the “teething problems” that had to do with maneuvering and power systems, periscopes and increased noise. The American combat information and control system proved to be its Achilles heel, though this was not due to the submarine itself but rather because the responsibility for the contract was passed from hand to hand (from Rockwell to Boeing and from Boeing to Raytheon) given the turbulences in the American military-industrial complex during the 1990s. The issue was resolved during an overhaul by installing a new AN/BYG-1 combat information and control system similar to one used on U.S. modern multipurpose nuclear submarines. Currently, there are plans to upgrade the Collins-class submarines once again since they will have to stay in service for most of the 2030s.

In 2007, a programme for selecting a replacement, SEA 1000, was launched, with proposals from Japan, France and China presented. Plans were for a series of 12 submarines to be built, which would be twice as many as compared to the Collins-class. At the same time, the Australians had high expectations in terms of quantity and quality, striving to build the world’s largest non-nuclear submarine. The submarines had to boast low noise and higher autonomy, which, interestingly, led to an air-independent power plant (VNEU) being abandoned in favor of the classic combination of a diesel engine and electric batteries (lithium-ion and of bigger capacity, though). For a long time, a modernized Japanese Sōryū-class submarine, with its increased size, was a favorite. As a sidenote, we shall note that the final two of the 12 such submarines built for the Japanese Navy were equipped with additional batteries instead of an air-independent power, Stirling-type engine, like the new Japanese Taigei-class submarines (29SS) dubbed “Big Whale”.

However, in April 2016, Canberra reportedly opted for the French Shortfin Barracuda. For competitive procurement, France submitted a non-nuclear (diesel-electric) version of its multipurpose Suffren-class nuclear submarine (also known as Barracuda-class). These are brand-new ships built for the French Navy, which has so far received only the flagship submarine. When the French proposal was chosen, the estimated time of the first Attack-class submarine (the flagship submarine was to be called HMAS Attack) to join the fleet was beyond 2030. One can find various estimates of the project’s costs, which are mostly based on the initial calculations in the prices of the mid-2010s[5] . In 2020, the Australian Ministry of Defence estimated the price of the 12 submarines to be at AUD 89.7 bn in 2019–2020 prices, which is the equivalent of USD 65–66 bn. The lengthy timeframe for the project to be completed and high demands have resulted in the speculations that Australians would end up going for nuclear submarines. Defence officials were openly showing their interest in such a scenario, while the Americans were doing their best to promote their Virginia-class submarines. However, this turned out to be impossible from a political point of view at the time.

One cannot rule out the conspiracy theory of “patriotic sabotage” to hinder the deal, believing that “we would only have to stand for a day and hold out through the night, upon which nuclear-powered submarines will just break through[6]. ” The official contract was only signed in February 2019. A series of scandals occurred, the biggest one had to do with a leak of classified papers in the Australian press, dealing a serious blow to France’s reputation and that of the DCNS submarine producer. This probably was what made India refuse to purchase additional submarines from the same producer. The choice of the Shortfin Barracuda was severely criticized in the Australian media as well as by Australia’s prominent politicians, such as the ex-PM Abbott. Even after the contract was signed, the political squabbles around it persisted, now focusing on the low involvement of national industry. The final contract for building the first submarine should have been signed in April 2021 but the Australians lodged new complaints and suggested revising the contract to signing it this autumn. This caused suspicion in France, compelling them to repeatedly question the Australians, including at top level, whether they would want to switch to nuclear-powered submarines, a topic that was ignored. The final declaration of commitment to the contract was published on 30 August, signed by the ministers of foreign affairs and defense of both sides, two and a half weeks before the deal was cancelled. The French were only warned about this cancellation a couple of hours before it!

With this in mind, the level and the reason behind France’s anger is quite understandable. Their “close allies” were throwing dust in their eyes while arranging deals behind their backs for at least a year, so very cynically. For example, the matter was discussed during the G7 Summit this year but Macron, who was there, was not told anything. Moreover, the timing of AUKUS’s announcement was chosen in quite an insulting manner (or with a blatant disregard for Europe)— a couple of days before the European Policy in the Indo-Pacific was published. The Europeans were shown how their allies could reconsider their plans and opinion. It is interesting that the sides could find the time to warn the IAEA about the idea to sell Australia high-enriched uranium reactors, but no time for the EU was ever found. Apparently, Joe Biden was building a convenient schedule for his own as the first meeting of QUAD (the U.S., Australia, India and Japan) was scheduled for September, 24 to take place in Washington, DC. AUKUS was obviously one of the main topics.

At the time this article was penned, the French reaction was still in evolution. What is already known is that French ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia were recalled. The ambassador in London was not recalled to additionally insult Great Britain, showing that the UK is not considered as somehow independent in these matters. The meeting between the French and British ministers of defence on deepening cooperation in the missile development programme was cancelled. Australia will probably have to pay EUR 90m in compensation. In the next part of the article, we would nevertheless switch from the issues of transatlantic relations and potential scenarios for France to the military and technical prospects of the Australians buying nuclear submarines.

The Non-Peaceful Atom and other Phenomena

The new programme was announced on September, 16 in an online trilateral public address by heads of state on AUKUS. In fact, this programme was the only concise point mentioned during the rather short announcement. A trilateral working group was to be established to work out the best way to provide the Australian Navy with nuclear-powered submarines over the next 18 months, taking into account the experience of the U.S. and UK in this domain. “Compatibility, unification and mutually beneficial cooperation” were emphasized. This can be understood as follows:

  • the “Australian” variant will be based on the current or prospective American or British project;
  • common knots are likely to be used, including the reactor and sections of the vessel (this practice already exists as the promising British Dreadnought-class ballistic missile submarine will use the same missile compartment as U.S. submarines[7];
  • the final construction from ready-made blocks and equipment with ready-made systems will be carried out in Australia with the bulk of the work done in Britain and the States, which would allow to receive orders for the military-industrial complexes of all countries.

“No fewer than eight” nuclear submarines are to be built and put into operation, preferably by 2036.

Already under the requirements of the SEA 1000 programme, the submarine—alongside the conventional torpedo weaponry—was to be armed with cruise and anti-ship missiles. Since the submarine will be multipurpose with its commissioning to occur in the 2030s and a long service life expected, something coupled with unification requirements with promising U.S. submarines of the same class, it is likely that the requirements will come to include universal vertical launch systems for cruise and ballistic missiles, similar to the Payload Tubes installed on Virginia-class submarines for six to seven “Tomahawk” missiles or three IRCPS (medium-range missiles loaded with hypersonic precision glider bodies C-HGB). If necessary, such vertical launch systems can be used to transport and launch unmanned underwater vehicles since it seems that the capacity for their use could well be deemed necessary. It could also be possible to install weapons that are new for the submarine fleet; in particular, it is planned to install a powerful laser to combat UAVs and light surface targets on the American Virginia-class. Australian officials have already said that “nuclear-powered submarines have the capacity to carry more advanced, and a greater number of weapons” than the previously planned non-nuclear submarine could. The submarine will almost certainly be equipped with an American information and control system, which will be familiar to Australian sailors and works well with American weapons.

It is unlikely that a specific project for the submarine has already been chosen by decision-makers. Even so, the options are few and can be classified as follows:

  • i) Serial-produced submarines and their modifications

    (1) The British Astute-class: construction of the final two out of seven is nearing completion;

    (2) The U.S. Virginia-class: active construction is under way, with serial production planned for the coming decades.

  • ii) High-potential national submarine project and its modification/a project based on it

    (1) The UK SSN(R) programme;

    (2) The U.S. SSN(X)/”Improved Virginia”;

  • iii) A fully national project specifically designed for Australia

At first glance, it seems tempting to use the ready-made projects. Yet, this is coupled with serious difficulties as serial production of the Astute-class is already coming to a close and it is quite possible that the cooperation in production has already been disrupted. The submarines are built for British weapons systems (they can use the “Tomahawk”, though), and there are no vertical launch systems or compartments for special tasks. Virginia-class submarines would probably be an ideal solution but it is unclear whether the U.S. Navy will be able to “cede” at least eight such submarines to the Australian ally. When similar proposals were made in the early to mid-2010s, the situation in the world was more stable. The U.S. Navy currently has 50 multipurpose submarines, including 19 Virginia, 3 Seawolf and 28 Los Angeles-class submarines, with the latter requiring replacement. In the long term, the number of Virginia-class submarines would preferably be increased to 66–72[8]. Amid the current developments, two submarines a year need to be ordered (perhaps, even three later on), especially since the industry will soon have to reallocate its resources to the production of Columbia-class missile submarines.>

Designing the Australian submarine as a variant of the potential projects looks more promising. The day after AUKUS was made public, the British Navy announced three-year contracts with BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, each GBP 85m worth, for designing a prospective SSN(R). Still, several years ago, the development of the Astute-class was postponed at this stage, partly due to delays, which necessitates a change in the early 2040s. Previously, only early conceptual design was carried out under contracts of some GBP 20m. The announcement of a new contract in sync with AUKUS should be taken as an application. Speaking of the American SSN(X) submarine, their earlier planning cannot be asserted: the current programmes suggest that the order for the first (experimental) sub is planned for the 2031 fiscal year[9]. The United States seems to lack the capabilities to speed up the process since the industry and the engineering staff are actively engaged in other high-priority programmes. Besides, the role of the UK in this process is unclear. Should the Americans really attempt to build on the capabilities of the Australian nuclear fleet (whether that be Virginia or SSN(X)), “assistance” coming from the former “mistress of the seas” will only hinder their progress.

Developing an exclusive nuclear submarine for Australia from scratch—more precisely, on the basis of the unfinished drafts of other projects—seems highly unlikely since it would imply unnecessary costs and run counter to the declared goals of mutual benefit and strengthening the integration of “Anglo-Saxon maritime democracies.”

Taking the above into account, it may be assumed that it would be preferable and most logical to develop a nuclear submarine project for Australia based on the British SSN(R) with an active involvement of American specialists. Meanwhile, Australian submarines might be given priority, with British ones following suit. If the Australians provide additional financial resources and assume responsibility for the final stages of work and if they receive technical assistance and ready-to-go components from the U.S., this will enable Britain to cut development and production time. Separate opinions are already expressed that “the UK will play a leading role in developing the submarine’s reactor.” At the same time, new British jobs will be created and the Americans will simultaneously link both allied fleets with their military-industrial complex as suppliers of weapons and systems. This spans beyond just two fleets. One might recall the Canadian fleet’s need for new submarines, while they had a programme for the construction of nuclear-powered Canada-class submarines in the late 1980s, which was shut down owing to the then negative attitude of the U.S.

An interesting question is how crews will be trained. The timely leasing of one of the U.S. or British submarines looks rather tempting. For example, the Indian Navy, which gained experience with the help of Russia, did so before their own nuclear submarines were built. In the meantime, this has already been announced at a press conference by Minister for Defence Peter Dutton. If it comes to leasing, then it is almost certain that an American submarine will be chosen. This could either be a more or less modern and suitable sub of the Los Angeles-class or one of the first Virginia-class submarines. Previous-generation British submarines are already “jankies”, as one would say of a car, whereas no Astute-class subs are currently available for leasing.

Nuclear-powered submarines are expected to boost the Australian Navy’s capabilities to the long-awaited whole new level. The principal factor, alongside obtaining much more powerful combat units, is the time of their deployment in remote regions. According to the estimates provided by the CSBA analytical center [10], a large non-nuclear submarine, upon leaving its home base, will be able to be on duty in the Strait of Malacca for 14 days, while a nuclear-powered one, owing to its higher speed and autonomy, could spend 78 days there. As for the Spratly Islands, the figures respectively stand at 11 and 77 days. Furthermore, the authors argue that a non-nuclear submarine will be unable to be on standby in the East China Sea, whereas a nuclear-powered one can be deployed for 73 days. Perhaps, these calculations are a bit too over the top, ignoring the fact that the Australians, in fact, wanted a non-nuclear submarine, unique in its autonomy; however, the general efficiency ratio is probably correct. What this means is that eight nuclear-powered submarines may turn out to be much more than 12 non-nuclear ones in terms of deployment at the focal points in the Indo-Pacific.

Construction of nuclear-powered submarines with Anglo-American assistance by a non-nuclear party to the NPT and member of the IAEA raises serious questions as regards non-proliferation. On the one hand, the submarine reactor is certainly not a weapon in itself but this definitely implies a transfer of nuclear technology and supplies of nuclear fuel for military purposes. Moreover, in the case of the Anglo-American technologies, we are talking about highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium (HEU)[11], the supply of which, according to the IAEA policy, is only permitted for scientific purposes and under strict control. When it comes to submarine reactors, though, only the initial delivery can be monitored. The proponents of the deal mention such advantages of HEU as no need to recharge/refuel the submarine throughout its life cycle. The AUKUS nations speak of Australia’s strict adherence to its non-proliferation commitments and its readiness to cooperate with the IAEA, while China will apparently make the most out of the issue, claiming that the countries have breached their obligations. The IAE still seems to be in two minds over how to react to all this.

As for any non-proliferation commitments, one might recall how Australia announced plans to simultaneously acquire “Tomahawk” cruise missiles to arm their Hobart-class destroyers in the near future, without waiting for the new submarines. The United States thereby continues to ignore the Missile Technology Control Regime. Plans to procure the AGM-158B JASSM-ER aircraft cruise missiles and their anti-ship modification, the AGM-158С LRASM, have been confirmed. In February 2020, the U.S. approved the delivery of 200 LRASM to Australia, which is indicative of the scale. It was also announced that the joint development of hypersonic missiles [12] with the United States would remain as it is, with a purchase of Precision Strike Missiles (PrSM), whose range is about 700-800 km, staying on the agenda as well. Besides, the two countries announced their willingness to deepen cooperation and integration of their armed forces, which entails more frequent joint exercises, improved infrastructure for more frequent calls by the U.S. Navy warships at Australian ports and a regular basing of “all types” aircraft on a rotational basis. The latter is the most important. As European experience demonstrates, one can expect in Australia an almost permanent stationing of the ever incoming and outcoming U.S. strategic bombers and maritime patrol aircraft of different squadrons. Moreover, when asked about any future deployment of U.S. medium-range missiles at a press conference, the Australian Minister of Defence replied, “I do have an aspiration.”

***

Unless the partnership falls apart for some reason in years to come, AUKUS may well mark a watershed for a number of reasons. For one, it may be remembered as one of the key steps in the establishment of an anti-Chinese alliance or as a demonstration of the new “pro-allied” Biden Administration’s stance towards Europe, with Donald Trump’s policy being no exception but rather an inception of a new long-term policy, or as a trigger to proliferation of the nuclear submarine fleet (with South Korea standing next in line).

From Russia’s perspective, this news stands out in the sense that the notorious Anglo-Saxons are fencing off and arming themselves with China rather than Russia in mind. What this means is that traditional rebukes and indignation seem to be totally out of place. Russia tends to declare its interests in the region in such a weak and indistinct fashion (they are limited to the country’s immediate neighborhood) that it makes it hard to somehow infringe on them. Moreover, the emerging situation may be used as a precedent and a new experience of being on the periphery and not on the frontline of an emerging Cold War. It would be ideal for Russia to try and replace the Australian supplies of mineral resources to China (which, given Beijing’s discontent, are unlikely to grow in the years to come but will probably fall) and take advantage of the EU’s hard feelings towards its overseas partner.

  1. The Islamic State is a terrorist organization banned in the Russian Federation.
  2. These have not been yet contracted by Australia. Strategic documents suggest that the LHDs can be used to host allied aircraft, though. Australia seems likely to acquire the F-35B in the future, thus following the path of South Korea and Japan, which originally bought land-based F-35A only.
  3. A larger version of the Spanish Álvaro de Bazán-class frigates. For a destroyer, they are rather weakly armed, with only 48 main universal vertical launch systems.
  4. In particular, Australian warships will have the Aegis combat information and control system and Mk 41 standard vertical launch systems, while British frigates have them in combination with the Sea Ceptor all-weather, air defense weapon system developed in the UK.
  5. 2020 FORCE STRUCTURE PLAN, page 22.
  6. In particular, CAST, the leading think tank on military-technical cooperation, expressed the following opinion, “It is obvious that the leadership of the Australian fleet (possibly with the support of American colleagues) sabotaged the choice of a non-nuclear submarine from the very beginning and carried out systematic work to promote building nuclear submarines, crowned with success. In particular, according to Australian media reports, retired US Vice Admiral William Hilarides, who heads the Morrison government’s Naval Shipbuilding Advisory Panel, played a significant role in this and will now reportedly be “a key figure in the transition process” in the acquisition of the nuclear submarine.”
  7. Common Missile Compartment (CMC). More precisely, the American Columbia-class submarine will have four blocks of the same type, each with four missile launching tubes, while the British one would have three.
  8. Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service, RL32418, 14 September 2021, page 3
  9. Navy Next-Generation Attack Submarine (SSN[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service, IF11826, September 15, 2021
  10. “Gateway to the Indo-Pacific: Australian Defense Strategy and the Future of the Australia-U.S. Alliance”, 9 November 2013 Jim Thomas, Zack Cooper, Iskander Rehman, page 33
  11. Historically, France has used reduced-enrichment fuel in its submarines, which provides legal grounds for exporting them. The Brazilian nuclear submarine programme, which is being implemented with French assistance, does not cause serious controversy…perhaps, of course, because no one believes in its long-term success and construction in the foreseeable future.
  12. The US has been actively cooperating with Australia on a number of hypersonic programmes, such as the recently signed contracts for developing and testing hypersonic cruise missile prototypes under the Southern Cross Integrated Flight Research Experiment (SCIFiRE). The Australian side’s contribution to the “joint” experiment includes providing the necessary infrastructure for testing (it is difficult to find test sites large enough in the US) and, of course, assisting with funding.

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Defense

What is driving Russia’s security concerns?

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The current discussions between Russia and NATO pivot on Russia’s requirement for the Alliance to provide legally binding security guarantees: specifically, that the alliance will not expand east, which will require revoking the 2008 NATO Bucharest summit decision that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO” .

It is useful to shed some light on the underlying points which drive Russia’s deep concerns. Moscow holds that the USSR was deceived on the issue of NATO expansion. At the same time, it is recognised that it was the fault of the Soviet leadership not to acquire legally binding guarantees at that time and the fault of the Russian leadership in the 1990s not to prevent NATO expansion per se. The current acrimony is caused by numerous examples of Western leaders making promises, blurred or straightforward, not to expand NATO further.

The Russian leadership after 1991 expressed this concern on many occasions, including the letters of Boris Yeltsin to Bill Clinton in October 1993 and then in December 1994.

But Russia’s proposals were not limited only to political statements. For example, in 2009 Moscow already put forward the draft of a legally binding European Security Treaty.

As to the issue of membership, it is unlikely that Moscow buys certain behind-the-scenes hints that the potential NATO membership of Ukraine is really only a rhetorical position. Often this approach is called “constructive ambiguity”. Moscow strongly believes, with good reason, that in the past all unofficial promises about the expansion of NATO were broken. Why would it believe them now?

Another fundamental point, from Russia’s point of view, is that beside the right to choose alliances, there is a crucial role for the concept of indivisible security, particularly the elements of equal security and the obligation that no country not to strengthen its own security at the expanse of the other. These principles are enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act (1975), in the Paris Charter (1990), in the NATO-Russia Founding Act (1997) and in the Charter of European Security (1999). Therefore, it should be the obligation of both sides to work out the parameters of indivisible security holistically and not to pretend that this is an invention of Moscow.

Arguably, indivisibility of security may include, for example, an obligation not to indicate the other side in military strategic concepts, doctrines, postures and planning as an enemy, rival or adversary. Among other things, it may also include an obligation to halt the development of military planning and military exercises, which designate Europe as a potentialtheatre of war between NATO and Russia. It is Pentagon, which in its official press statements indicate for example Georgia, Ukraine and Romania as “frontline states”.

A common Western argument against Russia’s current draft is that it is difficult to see how such a legally binding guarantee can be achieved when Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty stipulates that its parties, upon unanimous decision, can invite any other European state to join.

But to refer to Article 10 regarding the expansion of NATO after 1991 is not correct. In 1949 Article 10 of course did not envisage the open-door policy for the states that were in the Soviet bloc. After 1991 a qualitatively new situation arose. It was not Article 10 but a political decision of the United States in 1994-1995 to open a totally new chapter in the expansion. That decision was of a paramount importance.

Also, it is said that the United States is similarly unlikely to enter into a bilateral arrangement with Russia regarding NATO expansion, since this would violate Article 8 of the Treaty, whereby parties undertake not to enter into any international engagements in conflict with the Treaty.

Again, the point is not straightforward. The US de facto is the dominant member of NATO, which in most circumstances calls the shots there. According to history, when its national interests demanded, it took decisions that can be interpreted as conflicting or even undermining Article 8. For example, the security interests of the UK were clearly disregarded in 1956-1957 in the course of the Suez crisis due to the actions of the US. Or doesn’t the AUKUS run counter to the security interests of France? Or, for example, didn’t the way in which the US left Afghanistan undermine the security of some other members of NATO?

Short of the legally binding guarantee by NATO, what other options for a settlement might be satisfactory for Russia?

Russia deeply values the status of neutrality that several countries in Europe maintain. Indeed, it would be difficult to dismiss the fact that the international standing of Finland, Austria or Switzerland would have been much lower if not for their policy of neutrality. Moreover, one may say that the security of these countries is even higher than the security of some member states of NATO. So why not consider an option of neutrality, for example, for Ukraine, Moldova or Georgia, buttressed by certain international treaties like it was in the case of Austria?

Another back-up option would be to consider any further theoretical expansion of NATO on the conditions that were applied to the territory of the former German Democratic Republic—i.e. that NATO integrated troops or NATO infrastructure is not deployed on this territory.

Alternatively, a further option could be to place a moratorium on a new membership, for example for 15-20 years, which would not undermine Article 10 per se. For example, Turkey now for 16 years is a candidate-country of the European Union but nobody in the EU pretends that it can become a member in the foreseeable future.

Mutual security concerns could be met if a significant complex of agreements is approved. Firstly, agreements could be made on military-to-military communication, on military drills and exercises, and on patrols of strategic bombers.

Secondly, there could be a NATO-Russia comprehensive agreement on the basis of well-known IncSea and dangerous military activities agreements.

Thirdly, there is scope for an agreement on an obligation not to deploy in NATO members, bordering Russia, any strike systems, either nuclear or conventional.

And fourthly, in the league of its own, there could be an agreement on a Russia-NATO legally binding moratorium on the INF land-based systems, both nuclear and conventional.

Finally, on Ukraine, it is often said that Ukraine is much weaker than Russia and has no ability to launch and sustain a large-scale offensive against Russia. This misses the point.

Russia is concerned about two things. First, that there is no guarantee that sooner or later a third country would not decide to sell to or deploy in Ukraine strike systems that will endanger Russia’s security. Second, that Ukraine may attack not Russia but Donbas, like Poroshenko did in 2015, to try to solve the problem with military means and at the same time to try to involve NATO in military confrontation with Russia. This could be called a Saakashvili style of doing things.

It is unlikely that Russia will ever agree to restrain the movement of troops on its own territory, which would be quite humiliating. This would be a matter for a new CFE treaty if such a treaty is ever revived. Another question is what is considered “in proximity to the Ukrainian border”? At present, the deployment of most additional Russian troops, described by Western sources as “in proximity”, is minimum 200-300 km from the border. Does it mean that Russian troops will be prohibited from approaching its own borders in proximity, for example, of 400-500 km?

Meanwhile, on the other side there are more than 100 thousand Ukrainian troops concentrated on the contact line with Donbas, and much closer to it than the distance between the Russian troops and the Russian border. It is interesting to note that maps, which Western media these days is so fond of printing and which show locations where Russian military forces are stationed or deployed on the territory of Russia, do not have any indication of Ukrainian troops disposition. What happens if Ukrainian troops receive orders to attack Donbas akin to orders that Saakashvili gave his troops in 2008 to attack Tskhinval? It is clear that Moscow will never let Kiev take Donbas by force destroying the whole edifice of the political process based on the Minsk-2 agreements, which, importantly, in 2015 became a part of the UN Security Council Resolution. The additional Russian troops deployments are intended to deter Kiev from attacking Donbas and they are not a harbinger of “invasion of Ukraine”.

At present there are conflicting signals coming from all sides, which can be interpreted in many ways. Warmongers shout that diplomacy is a waste of time and that only muscle-flexing and even application of hard power will teach the other a lesson. Still, most top policymakers in Moscow, Washington and major European capitals seem to prefer further consultations and dialogue, both public and confidential. In the sphere of arms control in Europe and CBMs, on which there is an ample pool of expert recommendations, the US and NATO have let it be known that they are ready to talk seriously with Moscow.

The situations in the Baltic region and in the Black Sea region require urgent and lasting de-escalation. A compromise on the issue of further expansion of NATO should be reached in a way that satisfies both sides in spite of each having to make necessary concessions. A final imperative is that the US-Russia tracks on the future of strategic stability and cyber security should proceed unhindered. The P5 statement of January 2022 on preventing nuclear war and avoiding arms races needs to be followed by a P5 summit – the Russian proposal that was unanimously supported in 2020.

In summary, Western and Russian diplomats, both civil and military, need time to continue their work, which is of existential importance.

From our partner RIAC

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Defense

In 2022, military rivalry between powers will be increasingly intense

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“Each state pursues its own interest’s, however defined, in ways it judges best. Force is a means of achieving the external ends of states because there exists no consistent, reliable process of reconciling the conflicts of interest that inevitably arise among similar units in a condition of anarchy.” – Kenneth Waltz,

The worldwide security environment is experiencing substantial volatility and uncertainty as a result of huge developments and a pandemic, both of which have not been experienced in a century. In light of this, major countries including as Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and India have hastened their military reform while focusing on crucial sectors. 2022 might be a year when the military game between big nations heats up.

The military competition between major powers is first and foremost a battle for strategic domination, and the role of nuclear weapons in altering the strategic position is self-evident. In 2022, the nuclear arms race will remain the center of military rivalry between Russia, the United States, and other major countries, while hypersonic weapons will become the focus of military technology competition among major nations.

The current nuclear weapons competition between major nations will be more focused on technological improvements in weapon quality. In 2022, the United States would invest USD 27.8 billion in nuclear weapons development. It intends to buy Columbia-class strategic nuclear-powered submarines and improve nuclear command, control, and communication systems, as well as early warning systems.

One Borei-A nuclear-powered submarine, two Tu-160M strategic bombers, and 21 sets of new ballistic missile systems will be ordered by Russia. And its strategic nuclear arsenal is anticipated to be modernized at a pace of more than 90%. This year, the United Kingdom and France will both beef up their nuclear arsenals. They aspire to improve their nuclear forces by constructing new strategic nuclear-powered submarines, increasing the quantity of nuclear warheads, and testing new ballistic missiles.

Russia will commission the Zircon sea-based hypersonic cruise missiles this year and continue to develop new hypersonic missiles as a leader in hypersonic weapon technology. To catch up with Russia, the US will invest USD 3.8 billion this year in the development of hypersonic weapons. Hypersonic weapons are also being researched and developed in France, the United Kingdom, and Japan.

Surviving contemporary warfare is the cornerstone of the military competition between major countries, and keeping the cutting edge of conventional weapons and equipment is a necessary condition for victory. In 2022, major nations including as Russia and the United States will speed up the upgrade of primary war equipment.

The United States will concentrate on improving the Navy and Air Force’s weaponry and equipment. As planned, the US Navy will accelerate the upgrade and commissioning of weapons and equipment such as Ford-class aircraft carriers, Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines, and F-15EX fighter jets, as well as develop a high-end sea and air equipment system that includes new aircraft carrier platforms and fifth-generation fighter jets.

Russian military equipment improvements are in full swing, with the army receiving additional T-14 tanks, the navy receiving 16 major vessels, and the aerospace force and navy receiving over 200 new or better aircraft. The commissioning of a new generation of Boxer armored vehicles in the United Kingdom will be accelerated. India will continue to push for the deployment of its first homegrown aircraft carrier in combat. Japan will also continue to buy F-35B fighter jets and improve the Izumo, a quasi-aircraft carrier.

The US military’s aim this year in the domain of electromagnetic spectrum is to push the Air Force’s Project Kaiju electronic warfare program and the Navy’s next generation jammer low band (NGJ-LB) program, as well as better enhance the electronic warfare process via exercises. Pole-21, Krasukha, and other new electronic warfare systems will be sent to Russia in order to increase the automation of electronic warfare systems. The electronic warfare systems of the Type 45 destroyers, as well as the Type 26 and Type 31 frigates, will be upgraded by the United Kingdom. To build combat power, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces will continue to develop the newly formed 301st Electronic Warfare Company.

Around the world, a new cycle of scientific, technical, and military upheaval is gaining traction, and conflict is swiftly shifting towards a more intelligent form. Russia, the United States, and other major countries have boosted their investment in scientific research in order to win future battles, with a concentration on intelligent technology, unmanned equipment, and human-machine coordinated tactics.

This year, the US military intends to spend USD 874 million on research and development to boost the use of intelligent technologies in domains such as information, command and control, logistics, network defense, and others. More than 150 artificial intelligence (AI) projects are presently being developed in Russia.

This year, it will concentrate on adapting intelligent software for various weapon platforms in order to improve combat effectiveness. France, the United Kingdom, India, and other countries have also stepped up their AI research and attempted to use it broadly in areas such as intelligence reconnaissance, auxiliary decision-making, and network security.

In the scope of human coordinated operations, the United States was the first to investigate and has a distinct edge. The US intends to conduct the first combat test of company-level unmanned armored forces, investigate ways for fifth-generation fighter jets to coordinate with unmanned reconnaissance aircraft and drone swarms, and promote manned and unmanned warships working together on reconnaissance, anti-submarine, and mine-sweeping missions.

Russia will work to integrate unmanned equipment into manned combat systems as quickly as feasible, while also promoting the methodical development of drones and unmanned vehicles. Furthermore, France and the United Kingdom are actively investigating human-machine coordinated techniques in military operations, such as large urban areas.

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Spotlight on the Russia-Ukraine situation

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The United States of America and Russia have recently been at loggerheads over the issue of Ukraine.

Weeks ago the leaders of the two superpowers behind the Ukrainian situation convened a meeting on the crisis. Although they both drew a clear line between them during the meeting, they made no political commitment, thus showing that the political chess game surrounding Ukraine has only just begun.

In what was seen as a “frank and pragmatic” conversation by both sides, President Putin made it clear to President Biden that he was not satisfied with the implementation of the February 11, 2015 Minsk-2 Agreement (which, besides establishing ceasefire conditions, also reaffirmed arrangements for the future autonomy of pro-Russian separatists), as NATO continues to expand eastward. President Biden, in turn, noted that if Russia dared to invade Ukraine, the United States of America and its allies would impose strong “economic sanctions and other measures” to counterattack, although no US troop deployments to Ukraine were considered.

Although they both played their cards right and agreed that they would continue to negotiate in the future, the talks did not calm down the situation on the Ukrainian border and, after the two sides issued mutual civilian and military warnings, the future development on the Ukrainian border is still very uncertain.

Since November 2020 Russia has had thousands of soldiers stationed on Ukraine’s border. The size of the combat forces deployed has made the neighbouring State rather nervous.

The current crisis in Ukraine has deepened since the beginning of November 2021. Russia, however, has denied any speculation that it is about to invade Ukraine, stressing that the deployment of troops on the Russian-Ukrainian border is purely for defensive purposes and that no one should point the finger at such a deployment of forces on the territory of Russia itself.

It is obvious that such a statement cannot convince Ukraine: after the 2014 crisis, any problems on the border between the two sides attract attention and Ukraine still has sporadic conflicts with pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country.

Firstly, the fundamental reason why the US-Russian dispute over Ukraine is hard to resolve is that there is no reasonable position or room in the US-led European security architecture that matches Russian strength and status.

Over the past thirty-two years, the United States of America has forcibly excluded any reasonable proposal to establish broad and inclusive security in Europe and has built a post-Cold War European security framework that has crushed and expelled Russia, much as NATO did when it contained the Soviet Union in Europe in 1949-1990.

Moreover, Russia’s long cherished desire to integrate into the “European family” and even into the “Western community” through cooperation with the United States of America – which, in the days of the impotent Yeltsin, looked upon it not as an equal partner but as a semi-colony – has been overshadowed by the resolute actions of NATO, which has expanded eastward to further elevate its status as the sole superpower, at least in Europe, after its recent failure in Afghanistan.  

Maintaining a lasting peace after the great wars (including the Cold War) in the 20th century was based on treating the defeated side with tolerance and equality at the negotiating table. Facts have shown that this has not been taken on board by the policy of the United States of America and its Western fawners and sycophants. Treating Russia as the loser in the Cold War is tantamount to frustrating it severely and ruthlessly, thus depriving it of the most important constituent feature of the post-short century European security order.

Unless Russia reacts with stronger means, it will always be in a position of defence and never of equality. Russia will not accept any legitimacy for the persistence of a European security order that deprives it of vital security interests, wanting to make it a kind of protectorate surrounded by US-made nuclear bombs. The long-lasting Ukrainian crisis is the last barrier and the most crucial link in the confrontation between Russia, the United States of America and the West. It is a warning to those European countries that over the past decades have been deprived of a foreign policy of their own, not just obeying the White House’s orders.

Secondly, the Ukrainian issue is an important structural problem that affects the direction of European security construction and no one can afford to lose in this crisis.

While Europe can achieve unity, integrity and lasting peace, the key challenge is whether it can truly incorporate Russia. This depends crucially on whether NATO’s eastward expansion will stop and whether Ukraine will be able to resolve these two key factors on its own and permanently. NATO, which has continued to expand in history and reality, is the most lethal threat to security for Russia. NATO continues to weaken Russia and deprive it of its European statehood, and mocks its status as a great power. Preventing NATO from continuing its eastward expansion is probably the most important security interest not only of Russia, but also of European countries with no foreign policies of their own, but with peoples and public that do not certainly want to be dragged into a conventional war on the continent, on behalf of a country that has an ocean between Europe and itself as a safety belt.

The current feasible solution to ensure lasting security in Europe is for Ukraine not to join NATO, but to maintain a permanent status of neutrality, like Austria, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, etc. This is a prerequisite for Ukraine to preserve its territorial integrity and sovereignty to the fullest extent possible, and it is also the only reasonable solution for settling the deep conflict between Russia and the United States of America.

To this end, Russia signed the aforementioned Minsk-2 Agreement of 2015. Looking at the evolution of NATO over the past decades, however, we can see that it has absolutely no chance of changing a well-established “open door” membership policy.  

The United States of America and NATO will not accept the option of a neutral Ukraine, and the current level of political decision-making in the country is other-directed. For these reasons, Ukraine now appears morally dismembered, and bears a striking resemblance to the divided Berlin and the two pre-1989 Germanies. It can be said that the division of Ukraine is a sign of the new split in Europe after Cold War I, and the construction of the so-called European security – or rather  US hegemony – ends with the reality of a Cold War II between NATO and Russia. It must be said that this is a tragedy, as the devastating consequences of a war will be paid by the peoples of Europe, and certainly not by those from New England to California.

Thirdly, the misleading and deceptive nature of US-Russian diplomacy and the short-sightedness of the EU, with no foreign policy of its own regarding the construction of its own security, are the main reasons for the current lack of mutual trust between the United States of America – which relies on the servility of the aforementioned EU – and Russia, terrified by the nuclear encirclement on its borders.

The United States took advantage of the deep problems of the Soviet Union and of Russia’s zeal and policies for the self-inflicted change in the 1990s – indeed, a turning point – at the expense of “verbal commitment” diplomacy.

In 1990, on behalf of President George H. W. Bush’s Administration, US Secretary of State Baker made a verbal promise to the then Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, that “upon reunification, after Germany remaining within NATO, the organisation would not expand eastward”. President Clinton’s Administration rejected that promise on the grounds that it was its predecessor’s decision and that verbal promises were not valid, but in the meantime George H. W. Bush had incorporated the Baltic States into NATO.

In the mid-1990s, President Clinton indirectly made a verbal commitment to Russia’s then leader, the faint-hearted Yeltsin, to respect the red line whereby NATO should not cross the eastern borders of the Baltic States. Nevertheless, as already stated above, President George H. W. Bush’s Administration had already broken that promise by crossing their Western borders. It stands to reason that, in the eyes of Russia, the “verbal commitment diplomacy” is rightly synonymous with fraud and hypocrisy that the United States of America is accustomed to implementing with Russia. This is exactly the reason why Russia is currently insisting that the United States and NATO must sign a treaty with it on Ukraine’s neutrality and a ban on the deployment of offensive (i.e. nuclear) weapons in Ukraine.

Equally important is the fact that after Cold War I, the United States of America, with its mentality of rushing to grab the fruits of victory, lured 14 small and medium-sized countries into the process of expansion, causing crises in Europe’s peripheral regions and artfully creating Russophobia in the Central, Balkan and Eastern European countries.

This complete disregard for the “concert of great powers” – a centuries-old principle fundamental to ensuring lasting security in Europe – and the practice of “being penny wise and pound foolish” have artificially led to a prolonged confrontation between Russia and the European countries, in the same way as between the United States of America and Russia. The age-old trend of emphasising the global primacy of the United States of America by creating crises and inventing enemies reaffirms the tragic reality of its own emergence as a danger to world peace.

All in all, the Ukraine crisis is a key issue for the direction of European security. The United States will not stop its eastward expansion. Russia, forced into a corner, has no other way but to react with all its might and strength. This heralds Cold War II in Europe, and lasting turmoil and the possible partition of Ukraine will be its immutable destiny.

The worst-case scenario will be a conventional war on the continent between NATO troops and Russian forces, causing millions and millions dead, as well as destroying cities. The war will be conventional because the United States would never use nuclear weapons – but not out of the goodness of its heart, but out of fear of a Russian response that would remove the US territory from the NBC security level.

To the point that that we will miss the good old days of Covid-19.

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