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Why is Australia making nuclear submarines with help from US and UK?

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Australia will build a fleet of nuclear submarines to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific as part of a new strategic partnership with its two most important allies. 

Scott Morrison said the submarines would be built in Adelaide in co-operation with the US and the UK which, unlike Australia, have experience in making and running the boats.

The move means Australia has torn up its deal with French company Naval Group to build 12 diesel-electric submarines to replace its six ageing Collins-class subs. 

It comes after China has spent years building up its military with a defence budget six times higher than Australia’s.

Beijing boasts 42 times more soldiers, 55 times more tanks, 13 times more submarines and 16 times more fighter jets.

China has vastly built up its military in the past few years and now possesses six Shang-class nuclear powered attack submarines, equipped with torpedoes and cruise missiles. This graphic shows a comparison of the two militaries

Across land, air and sea, China has Australia covered with 3.3 million troops in service compared to Australia’s relatively feeble 80,000 

Beijing will soon have the largest fleet of submarines in the world when it surpasses the US Navy in 2030.

America’s naval force is projected to have about 66 submarines by the end of the decade, while China will have around 80 – most of them nuclear powered.

At the moment Australia only has six and new nuclear powered sub marines will not be available until 2040.

The People’s Liberation Army also has us outgunned in the sky with 1,200 fighter jets compared to Australia’s 75.

While Canberra has 72 next-generation American Joint Strike Fighters at cost of $17billion set to be delivered in the next few years, China has ordered about 500 ‘Mighty Dragon’ J-20 jet fighters.

It’s a similar story when it comes to hardware on the ground.

China has 3,205 battle tanks – including many 99A high-altitude tanks – compared to Australia’s 59.

To make up ground Canberra has ordered $4.6billion worth of new M1 Abrams tanks but it remains unclear when they be delivered.

Communist forces remain well-equipped with 2,250 advanced long-range rocket projectors.

Australia is building 18 new truck-mounted rocket launchers – a far cry from what would be need in all out conflict.

 So how will the nuclear submarine help and why build them?  

Why nuclear submarines?

Nuclear submarines are powered by nuclear reactors which produce heat that creates high-pressured steam to spin turbines and power the boat’s propeller. 

They can run for about 20 years before needing to refuel, meaning food supplies are the only limit on time at sea.

The boats are also very quiet, making it harder for enemies to detect them and can travel at top speed – about 40kmh – for longer than diesel-powered subs.

The first nuclear submarines were put to sea by the United States in the 1950s. They are now also in use by Russia, France, the United Kingdom, China, and India. 

A senior US defence official told reporters in Washington DC: ‘This will give Australia the capability for their submarines to basically deploy for a longer period, they’re quieter, they’re much more capable. 

‘They will allow us to sustain and to improve deterrence across the Indo-Pacific.’

Zack Cooper, a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, said nuclear submarines would hugely boost Australia’s military capability.

‘They are going to be much, much more capable in the large, expansive ocean that is Australia has to deal with,’ he told the ABC.  

Will Australia have nuclear weapons? 

Scott Morrison made it clear that the nuclear-power submarines will not have nuclear missiles on board.

Australia has never produced nuclear weapons and signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1973 which prevents non-nuclear states which don’t already have them from developing nuclear weapons.

Mr Morrison also said the Australia has no plans to build nuclear power stations which are widely used around the world. 

‘But let me be clear, Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability,’ he said.

‘And we will continue to meet all our nuclear non-proliferation obligations.’  

Are they safe? 

The nuclear reactors are shielded from the rest of the submarine in a separate section to protect the crew from dangerous radiation. 

The US has an excellent safety record with its nuclear-powered fleet although early Russian subs suffered a few accidents which caused 20 servicemen to die from radiation exposure between 1960 and 1985.

At the end of their 20-year lifetimes, the contaminated parts of nuclear reactors need to be disposed deep underground in special waste storage cells. 

Anti-nuclear campaigners say any leaks of radioactive waste could lead to an environmental disaster. 

Greens leader Adam Bandt called the submarines ‘floating Chernobyls’ in reference to the 1986 nuclear power plant explosion in the Soviet Union.

Pictured: The Sheean in Tasmania in April. The deal will mean Australia will walk away from its controversial deal to spend up to $90 billion buying French diesel-powered submarines

Pictured: The Sheean in Tasmania in April. The deal will mean Australia will walk away from its controversial deal to spend up to $90 billion buying French diesel-powered submarines

Why now?

Australia needs to replace its six ageing Collins-class submarines. 

In 2016 it signed a deal with French Company Naval Group to build 12 diesel-electric attack subs – but the parties were in dispute over the amount of building that would be done in Australia.

That deal has now been torn up in favour of nuclear powered subs aided by the US and UK who will provide the technology to Australia.

The West is becoming increasingly concerned about the growing assertiveness of China in the Indo-Pacific region where it has made huge territorial claims in the South and East China seas, clashed with Indian troops and repeatedly flown planes over Taiwan.

Mr Morrison wants Australia to have serious defence capability to deter China from encroaching in the Pacific and long-range nuclear submarines are just the ticket. 

China has vastly built up its military in the past few years and now possesses six Shang-class nuclear powered attack submarines, equipped with torpedoes and cruise missiles.   

Australia will now work with the US and UK to launch an 18-month effort involving technical, strategic and navy teams to identify ‘the best ways for Australia to pursue nuclear-powered submarines.’

Questions that need to be answered include how Australia will maintain the submarines given it has no experience with nuclear power and how much support from the US and UK will be required to build them.

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison pictured centre during a virtual press conference on Thursday morning with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison pictured centre during a virtual press conference on Thursday morning with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden

China has inflamed tensions in the South China Sea in recent years by expanding its claimed territory, to the objection of its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific

China has inflamed tensions in the South China Sea in recent years by expanding its claimed territory, to the objection of its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday morning unveiled Australia’s role in a landmark tripartite security group, known by the acronym ‘AUKUS’, to switch to nuclear-powered submarines with help from its two of its biggest allies.

Mr Morrison was joined virtually for the announcement by US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a historic joint press conference.

The deal will mean Australia will walk away from its controversial deal to spend up to $90 billion buying French diesel-powered submarines.

This is the first time Australia has ever embraced nuclear power after decades of debate – and the first time the US and UK have shared their nuclear submarine technology with another nation.  

Mr Morrison said though Australia has no plans to acquire nuclear weapons or build its own nuclear power capabilities.

Australia has at least 40 per cent of the world’s uranium supplies and the new submarine deal could pave the way for the country to embrace nuclear power to drastically reduce carbon emissions. 

The US president meanwhile appeared to briefly forget Mr Morrison’s name at one point during the announcement – referring to him only as ‘that fellow Down Under’.  

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday morning unveiled Australia's plan to build its own submarine fleet alongside US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday morning unveiled Australia’s plan to build its own submarine fleet alongside US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson

The move has been described as 'China's Worst Nightmare' in a strategic bid to counter its influence in the region

The move has been described as ‘China’s Worst Nightmare’ in a strategic bid to counter its influence in the region

‘Thank you Boris. I want to thank that fellow Down Under. Thank you very much pal,’ Mr Biden said.  

The move towards a nuclear Australia has been described as ‘China’s Worst Nightmare’ in a strategic bid to counter its influence in the region – especially in the South China Sea. 

‘Our world is becoming more complex, especially here in our region – the Indo-Pacific. This affects us all. The future of the Indo-Pacific will impact all our futures,’ Mr Morrison said. 

‘To meet these challenges, to help deliver the security and stability our region needs, we must now take our partnership to a new level.

‘So AUKUS is born – a partnership where our technology, our scientists, our industry, our Defence Forces, are all working together to deliver a safer and more secure region that ultimately benefits all.’ 

Mr Morrison said the submarines would be built in Adelaide in co-operation with the US and the UK. 

Thursday’s announcement came just days before Mr Morrison travels to Washington DC for the first in-person summit of the four ‘Quad’ nations – Australia, US, Japan and India.

Australia’s relationship with China has become increasingly hostile ever since Mr Morrison demanded an inquiry into the origins of the Covid pandemic, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019. 

Pictured: Chinese ships at Garden Island Naval Base in Sydney in June 2019. The move towards a nuclear Australia has been described as 'China's Worst Nightmare' in a strategic bid to counter its influence in the region

Pictured: Chinese ships at Garden Island Naval Base in Sydney in June 2019. The move towards a nuclear Australia has been described as ‘China’s Worst Nightmare’ in a strategic bid to counter its influence in the region

Australia will follow its allies the US and UK, which both use nuclear technology, by building its own nuclear-powered submarine fleet

Australia will follow its allies the US and UK, which both use nuclear technology, by building its own nuclear-powered submarine fleet

Arbitrary bans and trade tariffs were imposed on billions of dollars worth of key Australian exports to China including barley, wine, beef, cotton, seafood, coal, cobber and timber. 

Australia will follow in the path of the US and UK, who both use nuclear technology, with speculation it would tear up the submarine deal with France. 

Senior Australian ministers were involved in a flurry of late-night meetings on the top-secret shipbuilding program on Wednesday, with Anthony Albanese and other senior Labor MPs briefed on the matter. 

Pictured: The USS Rafael Peralta (DDG 115) is seen firing the 5-inch gun for Naval Surface Fire Support during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2021 in Queensland

Pictured: The USS Rafael Peralta (DDG 115) is seen firing the 5-inch gun for Naval Surface Fire Support during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2021 in Queensland

HMAS Rankin conducts helicopter transfers in Cockburn Sound, Western Australia in February

HMAS Rankin conducts helicopter transfers in Cockburn Sound, Western Australia in February

The Prime Minister reportedly held concerns French-owned shipbuilder Naval Group would be unable to deliver submarines until 2030 with deadline and price disputes.

Mr Morrison reportedly tried to speak with the French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday regarding the new deal. 

News of Australia’s decision was instead reportedly disclosed to Paris by the secretary of the Defence Department, Greg Moriarty, the ABC reported.

The Australian Naval Institute has repeatedly criticised the troubled French submarine project while welcoming the use of nuclear technology. 

‘With regional tensions increasing, then building our own one-off type submarines which will arrive in the early 2030s is not good enough. We have no guarantee they will work,’ the article stated. 

‘When we built the Collins class submarines (at exorbitant expense) they did not work properly for several years.

‘Instead we should buy 12 of a proven design which is already in the water. We want long-range hunter-killer vessels. We also want them to be able to stay submerged for long periods to avoid detection. Nuclear does this in spades.’ 

It is speculated the US had planned to operate some of its nuclear submarines from Perth’s naval base HMAS Stirling. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison (pictured) made the major security announcement on Thursday morning

Prime Minister Scott Morrison (pictured) made the major security announcement on Thursday morning

The UK, which also uses nuclear technology, is expected to support Australia with the move in the three-nation security pact. 

Sources say plan is a move to counter China’s rise in the technology and military sectors. 

It is one of a string of initiatives designed to demonstrate Washington’s global role after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Biden will next week host his first in-person summit of leaders of the Quad nations — made up of Australia, India, Japan and the United States — which have been coordinating against China’s growing reach.

‘Hosting the leaders of the Quad demonstrates the Biden-Harris administration’s priority of engaging in the Indo-Pacific, including through new multilateral configurations to meet the challenges of the 21st century, said Press Secretary Jen Psaki as she announced the September 24 summit in a statement.

How China’s feud with Australia has escalated

2019: Australian intelligence services conclude that China was responsible for a cyber-attack on Australia’s parliament and three largest political parties in the run-up to a May election.

April 2020: Australian PM Scott Morrison begins canvassing his fellow world leaders for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. Britain and France are initially reluctant but more than 100 countries eventually back an investigation. 

April 15: Morrison is one of the few leaders to voice sympathy with Donald Trump’s criticisms of the World Health Organization, which the US president accuses of bias towards China. 

April 21: China’s embassy accuses Australian foreign minister Peter Dutton of ‘ignorance and bigotry’ and ‘parroting what those Americans have asserted’ after he called for China to be more transparent about the outbreak.  

April 23: Australia’s agriculture minister David Littleproud calls for G20 nations to campaign against the ‘wet markets’ which are common in China and linked to the earliest coronavirus cases.  

April 26: Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye hints at a boycott of Australian wine and beef and says tourists and students might avoid Australia ‘while it’s not so friendly to China’. Canberra dismisses the threat and warns Beijing against ‘economic coercion’. 

May 11: China suspends beef imports from four of Australia’s largest meat processors. These account for more than a third of Australia’s $1.1billion beef exports to China. 

May 18: The World Health Organization backs a partial investigation into the pandemic, but China says it is a ‘joke’ for Australia to claim credit. The same day, China imposes an 80 per cent tariff on Australian barley. Australia says it may challenge this at the WTO. 

May 21: China announces new rules for iron ore imports which could allow Australian imports – usually worth $41billion per year – to be singled out for extra bureaucratic checks. 

June 5: Beijing warns tourists against travelling to Australia, alleging racism and violence against the Chinese in connection with Covid-19.  

June 9: China’s Ministry of Education warns students to think carefully about studying in Australia, similarly citing alleged racist incidents.   

June 19: Australia says it is under cyber-attack from a foreign state which government sources say is believed to be China. The attack has been targeting industry, schools, hospitals and government officials, Morrison says.

July 9: Australia suspends extradition treaty with Hong Kong and offers to extend the visas of 10,000 Hong Kongers who are already in Australia over China’s national security law which effectively bans protest.

August 18: China launches 12-month anti-dumping investigation into wines imported from Australia in a major threat to the $6billion industry. 

August 26: Prime Minster Scott Morrison announces he will legislate to stop states and territories signing deals with foreign powers that go against Australia’s foreign policy. Analysts said it is aimed at China.

October 13: Trade Minister Simon Birmingham says he’s investigating reports that Chinese customs officials have informally told state-owned steelmakers and power plants to stop Aussie coal, leaving it in ships off-shore.

November 2: Agriculture Minister David Littleproud reveals China is holding up Aussie lobster imports by checking them for minerals.

November 3: Barley, sugar, red wine, logs, coal, lobster and copper imports from Australia unofficially banned under a directive from the government, according to reports.

November 18: China releases bizarre dossier of 14 grievances with Australia. 

November 27: Australian coal exports to China have dropped 96 per cent in the first three weeks of November as 82 ships laden with 8.8million tonnes of coal are left floating off Chinese ports where they have been denied entry. 

November 28: Beijing imposed a 212 per cent tariff on Australia’s $1.2 billion wine exports, claiming they were being ‘dumped’ or sold at below-cost. The claim is denied by both Australia and Chinese importers. 

November 30: Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao posted a doctored image showing a grinning Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child. The move outraged Australians. 

December 12: Australian coal is added to a Chinese blacklist.

December 24: China suspends imports of Australian timber from NSW and WA after local customs officers say they found pests in the cargo.

January 11, 2021: Australia blocks $300million construction deal that would have seen state-owned China State Construction Engineering Corporation takeover Probuild. The bid was blacked over national security concerns. 

February 5, 2021: China confirms Melbourne journalist and single mother Cheng Lei has been formally arrested after being detained in August, 2020.

February 23, 2021: China accuses Australia of being in an ‘axis of white supremacy’ with the UK, USA, Canada and NZ in an editorial.

March 11, 2021: Australia is accused of genocide by a Communist Party newspaper editor. 

March 15, 2021: Trade Minister Dan Tehan announced he wants the World Trade Organisation to help mediate discussions between the two countries over the trade dispute. 

April 21, 2021: Foreign Minister Marise Payne announces Australia has scrapped Victoria’s controversial Belt and Road deal with China using new veto powers. 

May 6, 2021: China indefinitely suspends all strategic economic talks with Australia, blaming the Morrison Government’s attitude towards the relationship. The move cuts off all diplomatic contact with Beijing under the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue, freezing discussions between key officials below a ministerial level.

June 22, 2021: China tries to ‘ambush’ Australia with a push to officially declare the Great Barrier Reef ‘in danger’ 

Mr Morrison, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will attend.

She added the leaders will discuss Covid-19, the climate crisis, emerging technologies, and promoting a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ – diplomatic speak for countering China’s ambitions.

Leaders will be focused on deepening our ties and advancing practical cooperation on areas such as combatting the pandemic, addressing the climate crisis, partnering on emerging technologies and cyberspace, and promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Bill Hagerty, Republican senator and former ambassador to Japan, welcomed the plan after the ‘debacle’ of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

‘Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal debacle made India’s neighborhood more dangerous & raises legitimate questions for Japan and Australia as well, so it’s good we will be hosting Quad partners soon,’ he said on Twitter.

‘We must repair & renew our alliances, and this one is key.’

Officials are increasingly concerned at the way China is laying claim to the South China Sea, ignoring other nations territorial claims. 

Under current international law Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Indonesia, China and Taiwan all claim a portion of the South China Sea.

A Congressional report from earlier in July found China ‘gaining effective control’ of the region in recent years, which is rich in oil and natural gas deposits, by increasing their military presence and building up artificial islands.

As a result, the US and allies make frequent ‘freedom of navigation’ voyages through international waters in the region, drawing angry rebukes from Beijing.  

Officials are increasingly concerned at the way China is laying claim to the South China Sea, ignoring other nations territorial claims (pictured, Chinese troops marching during a military parade in Tiananmen Square in Beijing)

Officials are increasingly concerned at the way China is laying claim to the South China Sea, ignoring other nations territorial claims (pictured, Chinese troops marching during a military parade in Tiananmen Square in Beijing)

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