It has been brought to the attention of congressional researchers that a potential roadblock to the Aukus nuclear-powered submarine contract could be Australia’s perceived unwillingness to fight alongside the United States against China in the event of a conflict.
The United States plans to sell Australia between three and five Virginia-class submarines in the 2030s, according to a new research report. However, the paper suggests that this notion “could weaken deterrence of potential Chinese aggression.”
In this stage of the arrangement, the parties hope to help the Australian capital of Canberra close a “capability gap” before the nuclear-powered submarines manufactured in Australia start to enter service in the 2040s.
The purpose of the report, which was compiled by the Congressional Research Service, is to offer members of the United States Congress an objective summary of important points that are expected to be used by those who are in favor of the proposal as well as those who are opposed to it.
It provides a list of six “potential arguments from sceptics,” one of which states that the sale could result in a reduction in deterrence “if China were to find reason to believe, correctly or not, that Australia might use its Virginia-class boats less effectively than the US Navy would use them.”
This lessening of Australia’s ability to prevent Chinese aggression may also occur if Beijing came to the conclusion “that Australia might not involve its military, including its Virginia-class boats, in US-China crises or conflicts that Australia viewed as not engaging important Australian interests.”
The report highlighted remarks made by the Australian minister of defense, Richard Marles, in March, in which he stated that the Aukus contract did not include any pre-commitments to the United States regarding involvement in a hypothetical future conflict over Taiwan.
The following was added to the report: “Virginia-class boats are less certain to be used in a US-China conflict over Taiwan, or less certain to be used in such a conflict in a way that the United States might prefer, if they are sold to Australia rather than retained in US Navy service.”
The article mentioned “the challenges that the US submarine industrial base is experiencing in achieving a desired construction rate of two Virginia-class boats per year,” which is another issue that may give Republican opponents of the submarine sale more confidence.
According to the publication, it was “uncertain” whether or not the United States would be able to construct replacement submarines of the Virginia-class boats that had been sold to Australia. This information was initially revealed by the Australian Financial Review.
The paper also made the suggestion that the costs for Australia to acquire, operate, and maintain Virginia-class submarines “could reduce, perhaps significantly, funding within Australia’s military budget for other Australian military capabilities” – particularly in the event that the figures “turn out to be higher than expected.”
“If this were to occur, there could be a net negative impact on Australia’s overall military capabilities for deterring potential Chinese aggression,” the author writes. “[T]here is a possibility that China could become more aggressive.”
Despite assertions from former prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Paul Keating that the multi-decade arrangement relies on US support and diminishes Australia’s capacity for movement, the Australian government has frequently stated that it will retain sovereign control of the submarines. This is despite the fact that the former prime leaders have argued that the arrangement reduces Australia’s room for maneuver.
However, the new research stated that it would be “more cost-effective to pursue a US-Australian division of labor,” in which US submarines would carry out missions for both the United States and Australia “while Australia invests in other types of military forces.” It referred to these kinds of arrangements that had been made between the United States of America and its NATO members.
Even though it stated that the Australian navy was “a fully professional force that would operate and maintain its Virginia-class boats in a manner fully adhering to the US Navy’s strict and exacting safety, quality-control, and accountability standards,” the paper also mentioned concerns about the impact that a potential accident could have.
It was stated that the sale “would unavoidably make another country responsible for preventing an accident” with a submarine that was manufactured in the United States. Furthermore, it was stated that any substantial problem “might call into question for third-party observers the safety of all US Navy nuclear-powered ships.”
On the other hand, the paper said that supporters of the Aukus deal could argue that it “would substantially enhance deterrence of potential Chinese aggression by sending a strong signal to China of the collective determination of the United States and Australia, along with the UK, to counter China’s military modernization effort.” This was one of the arguments that was presented in favor of the Aukus deal.
“The fact that the United States has never before sold a complete SSN [nuclear-powered submarine] to another country – not even the United Kingdom – would underscore the depth of this determination, and therefore the strength of the deterrent signal it would send,”
Instead of waiting for Australia to build its own submarines, an interim sale of Virginia-class submarines in the 2030s “would substantially accelerate the creation of an Australian force” of nuclear-powered submarines. This could be done by eliminating the need to wait for Australia to build its own submarines.
This would “present China much sooner with a second allied decision-making center” for submarine operations in the Indo-Pacific region. This “would enhance deterrence of potential Chinese aggression by complicating Chinese military planning,” and it would “present China with a second allied decision-making center” for submarine operations in the Indo-Pacific region.