Acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines has been described as ‘the single biggest leap’ ever in Australia’s defence capabilities.
Published On 14 Mar 202314 Mar 2023
United States President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have unveiled a plan that will see Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines, allowing the country to become only the seventh in the world with such military technology.
Under the deal, Australia will buy three US Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines from the US by the early 2030s and has an option to buy two additional vessels if required.
The submarine agreement is part of what is known as the AUKUS pact — an acronym for Australia, the UK and the US — a security agreement that was announced in 2021 by the three countries and seen as a counterweight to China’s growing military presence in the Asia Pacific.
Acquiring nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS pact is expected to be Australia’s biggest-ever defence project and the acquisition has been described by the Australian prime minister as “the single biggest leap” in the history of his country’s defence capabilities.
Beijing has made no secret of its opposition to AUKUS and said this month that it “firmly objects” to the pact, accusing the three countries of harbouring a “Cold War mentality” that risks greater escalation in the region.
Australia has stressed that though their new submarines will be nuclear-powered, that does not mean they will be carrying nuclear warheads.
So why does Australia want nuclear-powered submarines, and what is involved in the deal?
Why nuclear-powered submarines?
Submarines can either be diesel-electric or nuclear-powered and either type can be used to launch nuclear warheads, though Biden also stressed on Monday while announcing the deal that the Australian submarines will not have nuclear weapons on board.
Diesel-electric submarines involve diesel engines that power electric motors to propel the vessels through the water. But those engines require fuel to operate, which necessitates that the submarines resurface regularly for refuelling.
When a submarine emerges from the deep and surfaces, it is easier to detect, diminishing its effectiveness as a weapon of stealth.
Nuclear-powered submarines generate their own energy source — nuclear propulsion technology — and are not as constrained by the need to refuel as diesel-electric subs. They generate steam using an onboard nuclear reactor which is used to turn the vessel’s turbines.
Nuclear-powered submarines can remain hidden at sea without detection — potentially for years — and are limited primarily by their supplies of food and water for crews.
“Australia’s submarines face long transits between ports, let alone to potential distant hot spots,” John Blaxland, professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University, wrote of the country’s current conventional submarines. “Advances in artificial intelligence and persistent surveillance make detection easier to the point where a short ‘snort’ to recharge batteries is detectable. To lose stealth is to lose the key advantage of submarines, so something had to give. Nuclear-powered subs can stay underwater for far longer than diesel-electric models,” Blaxland wrote in The Conversation earlier this month.
First transfer of nuclear propulsion technology in six decades
Compared with conventional submarines, nuclear-powered subs are usually larger and need more expensive infrastructure and maintenance.
The majority of submarines in operation currently are conventional diesel-electric models, which are smaller and generally cheaper to maintain.
Australia does not have the expertise to build its own nuclear submarines so it had to buy or acquire the ability to build its fleet from either the US or the UK.
Australia had originally planned to buy diesel-powered submarines in a 90 billion Australian dollar ($60bn) deal agreed with France in 2016, but it abruptly scrapped that agreement in 2021 in favour of joining AUKUS. The decision set off a diplomatic firestorm with Paris, which has just recently abated with the election of Albanese.
The submarines deal marks the first time US-derived nuclear submarine technologies have been shared in more than 60 years. The previous and only other time was when Washington helped London design its undersea fleet.
Under the plan announced on Monday, the UK and Australia will eventually produce and operate a new class of nuclear-powered submarines — SSN AUKUS — which will be jointly built in both countries and will include the latest US technologies.
Australia’s acquisition of nuclear submarines will place it in a group of just seven countries that have such vessels, joining the US, Russia, China, the UK, France, and India.
AUKUS and fears of a regional arms race
The Australian submarine deal is part of the AUKUS security agreement Washington, Canberra and London, first announced in September 2021.
The leaders of the tripartite pact have insisted that AUKUS is not intended to be adversarial towards any other nation. But few doubt that the alliance’s greatest concern is China.
But the deal has also worried some of Australia’s largest regional allies, with Indonesia and Malaysia questioning whether it could prompt a nuclear arms race in Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific.
All three countries have insisted the deal is defensive in nature although having nuclear-powered submarines would give Australia the capability to launch attacks or counterattacks in the event of a conflict.
In a joint statement announcing the deal, the three leaders said that their nations had “stood shoulder to shoulder” for more than a century to protect “peace, stability, and prosperity around the world” and also in the Indo-Pacific region. “We believe in a world that protects freedom and respects human rights, the rule of law, the independence of sovereign states, and the rules-based international order. The steps we are announcing today will help us to advance these mutually beneficial objectives in the decades to come,” they said.
The deal has also faced criticism in the US where the chair of the influential US Senate armed services committee, Democrat Jack Reed, warned Biden in December that selling nuclear-powered submarines to Australia could undermine US naval prowess.
Referencing the current “darkening clouds in international affairs”, Blaxland of the Australian National University notes that the AUKUS plan is “ambitious, costly” and not without risks. “But these are challenging times. It’s an important plank for bolstering resilience and deterrence and, in turn, reducing the likelihood of adventurism,” he says. “It’s often said that weakness invites adventurism, even aggression.”
Boost for Australian jobs and nuclear industry
An Australian defence official told the Reuters news agency that the project would cost 368 billion Australian dollars ($245bn) by 2055.
Though the deal is worth tens of billions of dollars, experts say its significance goes beyond defence.
AUKUS is expected to be Australia’s largest-ever defence project and offers the prospect of creating jobs not only in Australia but in the UK and the US too.
Albanese said on Monday that AUKUS would create “20,000 direct jobs for Australians in every state and territory” in the country. “Already, Australian personnel are upskilling on nuclear propulsion technology and stewardship alongside British and American counterparts,” he said in a series of tweets.
Those jobs are expected to develop over the next 30 years, but Australia would see a 6 billion Australian dollar ($4bn) investment in industrial capacity over the next four years, Albanese said.
Influential Iraqi Shiite cleric and political leader al-Sadr announced Friday, April 14, 2023, that he would suspend his movement for one year, citing “corruption” among some of his followers. (AP Photo/Anmar Khalil, File)
BAGHDAD (AP) — Influential Iraqi Shiite cleric and political leader Muqtada al-Sadr announced on Friday that he would suspend the movement he leads for one year, citing “corruption” among some of his followers.
A group within his Sadrist movement, which has dubbed itself the “Owners of the Cause,” believes that al-Sadr is Imam Mahdi, a Shiite religious leader said to have vanished more than 1,000 years ago and who is expected to return leading an army of the faithful to defeat evil in the world.
On Friday, Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council announced that an investigative court had ordered the arrest of 65 alleged members of the “Owners of the Cause,” which it described as a disruptive “gang.”
Al-Sadr resigned from politics last August, following a nearly yearlong deadlock in the formation of a new Cabinet. His party won the largest share of seats in the October 2021 parliamentary elections, but not enough to secure a majority government.
Al-Sadr’s refusal to negotiate with his Iran-backed Shiite rivals and his subsequent exit from the talks catapulted the country into political uncertainty and volatility amid intensifying intra-Shiite wrangling.
After al-Sadr announced his resignation from politics, hundreds of his angry followers stormed the government palace and clashed with security forces. At least 15 protesters were killed.
WASHINGTON/PARIS/DUBAI – Even as the United States and its European allies grapple with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rising tensions with China, the smoldering crisis over Iran’s nuclear program threatens to reignite.
In a sign of European concern, Britain, France and Germany have warned Iran they would trigger a return of U.N. sanctions against Tehran if it enriched uranium to the optimal level for a nuclear weapon, three European officials said.
The threat, made last year in a previously unreported letter sent by the countries’ foreign ministers, underscores Western fears that Iran could produce bomb-grade uranium of 90% purity.
Those concerns intensified in February after U.N. inspectors revealed their discovery of uranium particles of 83.7% purity at an Iran nuclear facility built deep underground to protect it from air strikes.
“Worrisome possibilities include that Iran tested a way to produce near-weapon grade uranium without … detection,” said a report by the Institute for Science and International Security, a think tank that closely tracks Tehran’s program.
A renewed crisis over Iran would come at a bad time for U.S. President Joe Biden who is focused on maintaining allies’ support for the war in Ukraine and on rallying Western countries to push back on China’s military and diplomatic ambitions.
But while some White House aides may prefer to keep Iran off the president’s desk, officials and analysts suggested they may not have that luxury.
“They are busy with Ukraine, Russia and they don’t want, for the time being, to open another front,” said a Western diplomat on condition of anonymity. “Therefore, they want to do everything in their power to prevent this (90%) from happening.”
‘Snapback’ of U.N. sanctions?
Western officials fear a nuclear-armed Iran could threaten Israel, Gulf Arab oil producers and spark a regional arms race.
Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons.
U.S. and European officials have been searching for ways to curb Tehran’s program since the breakdown of indirect U.S.-Iranian talks on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.
The accord, aimed at keeping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, required Tehran to accept restrictions on its nuclear program and more extensive U.N. inspections, in exchange for an end to U.N., U.S., and EU sanctions.
The deal, which had capped Iran’s uranium enrichment at 3.67%, was abandoned in 2018 by then-U.S. President Donald Trump, who argued it was too generous to Tehran.
The deal had set out a procedure for the veto-proof “snapback” of the U.N. sanctions on Iran — including an oil embargo and banking restrictions — in response to Iranian violations. Any of the states who signed onto the original deal can trigger the snapback.
U.S. sanctions — even with their secondary effects — have failed to keep Iran from producing ever-purer levels of uranium and China has flouted them by buying Iranian oil, making it unclear if the U.N. measures would be any more effective.
But Iran might refrain from enriching to 90% to avoid the public rebuke implicit in the return of U.N. sanctions.
A senior Iranian nuclear official said Tehran would not take the revival of U.N. sanctions lying down.
“If the other parties under any pretext trigger it, they will be responsible for all the consequences,” he said. “Iran’s reaction could range from leaving the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) to accelerating our nuclear work.”
Leaving the NPT would free Iran to develop nuclear arms.
The Iranian official’s threat was more explicit than comments by an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, who on Monday said only that Iran had told Western powers how it would react.
It remains unclear if the 83.7% particles were created deliberately. But Western officials and analysts say that Iran’s production of 90% uranium would demand a significant response.
A U.S. State Department spokesman said Biden “is absolutely committed” to making sure Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon.
“We believe diplomacy is the best way to achieve that goal, but President Biden has also been clear that we have not removed any option from the table,” the spokesperson added, hinting at the possibility of military action.
‘Face a crisis at some point’
While Western officials want to leave the door open for diplomacy, tensions with Russia and China make that harder.
If the deal is dead, the West has three broad options: deterrence, military action, or a new negotiated arrangement.
Deterrence has a downside: it could give Tehran time to creep toward a nuclear weapons capability.
Dennis Ross, a veteran U.S. diplomat now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank, suggested Biden may have to do more to make Iran fear the consequences of enriching to higher levels.
“If you don’t do enough to persuade the Iranians of the risks they are running, you will face a crisis at some point because they will go to 90%” or move toward weaponization, he said. “What you are seeing is an effort to walk that tightrope.”
The ongoing evacuation of a town close to the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia power plant in Ukraine has prompted the UN nuclear watchdog to warn of an increasingly unpredictable situation. Meanwhile, Russia’s Wagner mercenary group appeared to ditch plans to withdraw from Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, saying they had been promised more arms by Moscow. Follow our blog to see how the day’s events unfolded. All times are Paris time (GMT+2).
1:43am: At least five wounded due to Russian strikes on Kyiv, city officials say
At least five people were wounded due to Russian strikes on Kyiv, city officials said early on Monday, as Moscow launched another large-scale attack on Ukraine.
Three people were injured in blasts in Kyiv’s Solomyanskyi district and two others were injured when drone wreckage fell onto the Sviatoshyn district, both west of the capital’s centre, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on his Telegram messaging channel.
Klitschko said drone wreckage fell on a two-storey building in the Sviatoshyn region, adding that blasts continued in Kyiv.
The city’s military administration said there was destruction as a result of the attacks.
12:45am: More than 1,600 evacuated from areas near Zaporizhzhia nuclear plan
Some 1,679 people, including 660 children, have been evacuated from areas near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, a Moscow-installed official in the Russia-controlled parts of the Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine said late on Sunday.
The head of the UN’s nuclear power watchdog warned on Saturday that the situation around the plant has become “potentially dangerous” as Moscow-installed officials began evacuating people from nearby areas.
Ukraine is expected to start soon a much-anticipated counteroffensive to retake Russian-held territory, including in the Zaporizhzhia region.
11:48pm: Brussels plans sanctions on Chinese companies aiding Russia’s war machine
The European Union has proposed sanctions on Chinese companies accused of selling equipment that could be used in weapons to support Russia’s war machine, the Financial Times reported on Sunday.
Seven Chinese businesses have been listed in a new package of sanctions that will be discussed by EU member states this week, the report said, citing a copy of the sanctions list seen by the FT.
According to the FT, the sanctions list includes two mainland Chinese companies, 3HC Semiconductors and King-Pai Technology, along with five from Hong Kong including Sinno Electronics, Sigma Technology, Asia Pacific Links, Tordan Industry and Alpha Trading Investments.
11:25pm: Russia’s Wagner group appears to do U-turn on Bakhmut withdrawal
Russia’s Wagner mercenary group appeared on Sunday to ditch plans to withdraw from Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, saying they had been promised more arms by Moscow and suggesting they may keep up their assault on what Russia sees as a stepping stone to other cities in the Donbas region.
Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin had said on Friday that his fighters, who have spearheaded a months-long assault on Bakhmut, would pull out after being starved of ammunition and suffering “useless and unjustified” losses as a result.
But in an audio message posted on his Telegram channel on Sunday, he said: “We have been promised as much ammunition and weapons as we need to continue further operations. We have been promised that everything needed to prevent the enemy from cutting us off (from supplies) will be deployed.”
8:44pm: Russian evacuations near Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility raise suspicions
As Russian forces evacuate residents from the town that serves the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine, residents of the region have become suspicious.
FRANCE 24 correspondent Gulliver Cragg spoke to a woman from the region who said the evacuations have “made everybody nervous”, because “one wonders what the Russians are playing at and why they are evacuating”.
7:45pm: Pro-Kremlin writer says won’t be intimidated after surviving car blast
Zakhar Prilepin, who was wounded in a car blast on Saturday that killed his friend and assistant Alexander Shubin, said he would not be scared off.
“Thanks to everyone who prayed, because it should have been impossible to survive such an explosion,” Prilepin said on Telegram, “I tell the demons: you will not intimidate anyone. God exists. We will win.”
6:00pm: Russians return at judo worlds, Ukraine boycotts
Russians returned to international judo competition on Sunday for the first time in nearly a year at the world championships as Ukraine boycotted the key Olympic qualifier.
Competing under the name of “Individual Neutral Athletes,” the Russians had a slow start in Doha as their first competitor, Sabina Giliazova, lost her opening contest to France’s Blandine Pont. Three more Russians are due to compete Monday.
3:48pm: Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant situation ‘very concerning’
As Russian evacuates residents from the town that serves the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine, the UN nuclear watchdog is expressing growing anxiety about its safety.
“The situation is very concerning,” Princeton University scholar Sébastien Philippe told FRANCE 24. Its operators are under “massive pressure” to keep the plant running safely, he said.
“Ideally, a buffer zone between the plant and any military operation that could happen would be created.”
Watch FRANCE 24’s interview with Philippe here:
12:24pm: Russia says it destroyed 22 Ukrainian drones over the Black Sea
Russia‘s air defences detected and destroyed 22 Ukrainian drones over the Black Sea overnight, the country’s defence ministry said on Sunday in a daily briefing.
Reuters was not able to independently verify Russia’s claim. A Russian-installed official said earlier that Ukraine had launched drones at Crimea overnight, without providing details.
Separately, the defence ministry said its forces had gained more ground in the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, claiming two “blocks” in the northwestern and western parts of the city.
A Polish border guard aircraft on patrol for the European Union’s border agency Frontex narrowly avoided a collision with a Russian fighter jet over the Black Sea near Romania on Friday, Romania and Poland said.
A Russian SU-35 jet carried out “aggressive and dangerous manoeuvres” approaching the Polish aircraft without keeping a secure distance, leading to turbulence, loss of altitude and a temporary loss of control of the plane by the Polish crew, Anna Michalska, a border guard spokesperson, wrote on Twitter on Sunday.
“The Russian jet flew just in front of the nose of the Polish plane, crossing its trajectory at a dangerous distance, estimated by the crew at about five metres,” Michalska said.
After three approaches the Russian jet flew away, Michalska added. The incident took place in international airspace.
12:23pm: Wagner chief says Moscow promised more ammo after Bakhmut pull-out threat
Russian paramilitary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Sunday he had received “a promise” of more ammunition from the Russian army after he threatened to pull his frontline Wagner troops out of Bakhmut.
“They promised to give us all the ammunition and armaments we need to continue the operations,” said Prigozhin, following his blistering attack on military chiefs over the situation in Bakhmut, the epicentre of Ukraine’s fight against Moscow’s forces.
He said they had been assured “that everything necessary will be provided” to fighters around Bakhmut.
11:00am: Russian evacuation prompts watchdog warning over Ukraine nuclear plant
The UN nuclear chief warned of dangerous conditions around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant as Russia’s evacuation of civilians from near the Zaporizhzhia station sparks fears of escalating conflict in the area.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has repeatedly raised concerns over the safety of the six-reactor plant in southern Ukraine, which has been on the front line since Russian forces seized it last year.
Blaming stepped-up shelling from the Ukrainian side, Russia last week ordered families with children and elderly to temporarily evacuate the nearby town of Enerhodar.
FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Ukraine Gulliver Cragg breaks down the reasons why the situation around Zaporizhzhia is becoming increasingly worrying.
10:53am: Ukraine attacks on Russia’s Belgorod damage gas pipeline and power lines, says governor
Overnight Ukrainian shelling of the Belgorod region on Russia‘s border with Ukraine damaged a gas pipeline and power lines as well as a house in the village of Spodaryushino, the region’s governor said on Sunday.
“Most importantly, there were no casualties,” Vyacheslav Gladkov wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
Reuters was not able to independently verify the report.
10:50am: Ukraine launches more than 10 drones on Crimea, says Russia-installed official
Ukraine launched more than 10 drones overnight on the Crimean Peninsula, including three on the port of Sevastopol, a Russian-installed official said early on Sunday. He added that air defence systems had repelled all the attacks targeting Sevastopol.
“No objects (in Sevastopol) were damaged,” Moscow-installed Sevastopol governor said on the Telegram messaging app.
There were no immediate details of any damage from the strikes elsewhere on the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Baza, a Telegram channel with links to Russia‘s law enforcement agencies, reported earlier on Sunday that according to the channel’s preliminary information, there were no casualties in what it said was a series of attacks on Crimea.
Key developments from Saturday, May 6:
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The chief of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner on Saturday asked Moscow to let him hand over his positions in the hotspot city of Bakhmut to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
“I ask you to issue a combat order before 00:00 on May 10 concerning the transfer of the positions of the Wagner paramilitary units in Bakhmut and its periphery, to the units of the Akhmat battalion,” Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a letter to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
The Akhmat battalion refers to the Chechen combat units under the command of strongman Kadyrov, who has ruled Russia’s Muslim-majority republic Chechnya for the last decade and a half.
Prigozhin said his fighters would be forced to pull out because of a long “ammunition famine”.