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Australia’s Nuclear Submarine Deal: Could More Nations Go SSN?

Australia's Nuclear Submarine Deal,
Astute-class Submarine. Image: Creative Commons.

What does the AUKUS deal mean for nuclear proliferation? The answer depends on how the deal plays out for Australia, and on the risk tolerance of other major navies.

With respect to nuclear weapons, concerns over proliferation are understandable but manageable. Australia can be safely excluded from nuclear fuel cycle issues and in any case, has been a reliably good nuclear citizen. The larger proliferation issue involves the decisions that other states across the Asia Pacific (and indeed, around the world) about the future of their submarine fleets.

There are certainly contexts in which diesel-electric submarines are preferable to their larger nuclear cousins. Conventional submarines are generally cheaper and can operate more quietly than SSNs. They do not require intense human capital development in order to manage reactors, handle nuclear material, and prevent accidents. However, the Pacific Ocean is large, and nuclear submarines have obvious advantages in such an environment.

The nuclear question seems to have made France quite upset. Reportedly France offered Australia the opportunity to convert to nuclear submarines, but Australia had already soured on the prospects for a deal. Australia also came to the understandable conclusion that the United States represented a more responsible long-term partner than France. And perhaps the biggest problem for France is that its boats are simply not well-regarded in the submarine community.

But several other countries around the world now have difficult decisions to make about their submarine fleets. Brazil is already constructing a nuclear attack submarine with French assistance, a decision that may have influenced Australian thinking. South Korea, Japan, and Canada all have difficult decision to make about the future of their submarine programs. A.B. Abrams has made the case that South Korea and Japan have different strategic needs than Australia, and consequently do not require SSNs. But while South Korea and Japan are in less demanding “tyranny of distance” situations than Australia, it is not at all difficult to imagine scenarios in which either could benefit from the long-range presence that only an SSN can offer.

Canada is an interesting case. With access to three oceans, Canada could certainly use the range offered by nuclear boats. Canada contemplated nuclear submarines in the 1950s, but eventually opted for conventional boats. In the 1980s Canada once again considered the acquisition of SSNs, with partnerships with either France or the United Kingdom on the table. Indeed, the United States reacted with hostility to the Canadian proposal in the 1980s, in part because of concerns about deconfliction in the Arctic and in part because of the potential for French or British participation. However, Canadian political culture remains more pacific than Australian, likely making the acquisition of nuclear technology a tougher sell. On the other hand, Canada is still in a dispute with China over the imprisonment of its citizens, which could make the Canadian public more receptive to a plan that would enable Canadian ships to operate with Australian and American units in the Western Pacific. Moreover, given US support for Australian SSNs, it would be very difficult for the US to offer any opposition to a similar deal for the Canadians.

Of course, much can still go terribly wrong. Australia’s Collins-class submarines have not been regarded as a success, and while most of the fault with the French submarine deal lies with France, some also belong to Australia. Construction of components of the subs in Australia could still go wildly over-budget in ways that make it impossible for Australia to continue.  A new Australian government, facing pressure from China, might back away from the deal with catastrophic diplomatic repercussions. If any of these things happen, the attraction of nuclear submarines for non-nuclear powers will undoubtedly diminish. If the deal goes well, however, it opens the prospect for the Royal Australian Navy to become a major player in the Western Pacific.  This is something that each of Seoul, Tokyo, and Ottawa will watch carefully.

Seawolf-class Submarine

US Navy Seawolf-class submarine. Image: Creative Commons.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.



  1. Slack

    September 22, 2021 at 3:04 pm

    Other countries now have no reason not to acquire nuclear subs. Australia has opened the floodgates and in the future, the world will witness nuclear subs of various navies chasing and shadowing each other under the water.

    Biden and johnson have been totally RECKLESS in hustling australia to join the anglo nuclear club. Talk about relentless diplomacy.

    Nuclear subs are offensive weapon systems because they’re designed to carry out missions far away from home, especially mischievous missions like injecting sabotage teams, raid merchant ships far from your home waters and provoke others to do the same. People don’t realise that subs can be tracked by satellites such as the NOSS system in conjunction with ‘coastal watchers’ such as seabed sensors and aircraft with MAD sensors.

    Australian nuclear subs will one day make basic mistakes like sailing into somebody’s coastal waters unaware they have been tracked until BOOM! the subs are torn apart and sparking international crisis with mega power declaring intention to intervene eventually sparking WW3. Biden and johnson are fools of highest order.

  2. Jimmy John Doe

    September 22, 2021 at 5:50 pm

    Australia has boasted its nuclear subs will be ‘superior’ and that other guy with his inferior gear will never be any the wiser. He will lose big time.His ships will go under, one after another. How hopeless for him.

    What dinkums don’t know is that global rivals have been improving their techniques and technology all the time australia was so busy with defenceless afghan civilians.

    Today advanced systems like CERES, Yaogan, SOKS and others can track nuclear subs more efficiently than aussie special forces were able to track militants. Nuclear subs leave behind chemical traces and signals as well as disturbance in water and other many signatures which can be triangulated and tracked by ASW personnel.

  3. Matthew Schilling

    September 23, 2021 at 8:34 am

    I’m old enough to remember when construction of the Virginia class subs wasn’t a national embarrassment. Yet now there will be at least a two year gap between when the US commissioned its most recent VA class sub and when it commissions its next one – hopefully in the spring of ’22. We’ve devolved from “Two Per Year, Maybe Even Three!” to “One Every Other Year If We’re Lucky”.

    Add to this the decade long fiasco of the most expensive hole in the water ever dug by man (the USS Gerald Ford), plus the recent history of multi-billion dollar destroyers running into slow moving, massive civilian ships… throw in supersonic jets that can’t fly at supersonic speeds, add in a multi-billion dollar ship gutted by arson just after it emerged from an expensive upgrade and you come to the daunting realization that America is a sick patient and its Navy is its fever.

  4. Duane

    September 23, 2021 at 9:35 am

    The author seems to believe that the only advantage nuke subs have over diesel electrics is longer range. Actually, the range of a diesel electric boat is not short at all – the old Collins class DEs have a range in excess of 11,000 nm. And it’s not as if there aren’t a gazillion friendly ports in the western Pacific and eastern Indian Oceans where a DE boat could refuel.

    The author also asserts that DEs are quieter. Actually, no the current generation of SSNs and SSBNs is just as quiet as any DE.

    And of course, a DE boat can only cruise quietly for very short ranges – if they have to go to flank speed they quickly discharge their batteries within a couple hours at most, or for perhaps 24 hours at very slow speeds.

    A nuke boat can cruise effectively forever at flank speeds, or any lesser speed. They are also faster than most surface warships today, unlike DEs, and are much faster than any DE or AIP boat. What that does is give a massive advantage to nuke boats in terms of maneuvering toward an attack point, and in maneuvering away from an attack point – areas that are severely limited for DEs and AIPs.

    A nuke boat can literally run down a target ship or formation of ships underwater. While a DE or AIP must depend upon the target ship or ships practically cruising right over their position underwater.

    Sure, a DE can snorkel and run their diesels while submerged, and go faster .. but talk about noisy! Two to four diesel engines running at power is extremely noisy, and relying upon a snorkel means a DE can only barely get underwater, with a big fat snorkel sticking above the surface that is easily detectable by modern MM wave radars and making a massive wake on the surface if the boat is traveling at anything above a crawl.

    Nuke submarines are vastly more capable in actual warfighting maneuvers than any DE boat, or AIP boat.

  5. tony

    September 23, 2021 at 9:44 am

    F the French.

  6. Icepilot

    September 23, 2021 at 6:46 pm

    “Conventional submarines … can operate more quietly than SSNs.” – False.

    “Today advanced systems like CERES, Yaogan, SOKS and others can track nuclear subs” – False. (If true, name the location, date & sub detected. I’ll wait.)

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