Australia to get nuclear submarines: All you need to know about them and why they are important in maritime security


The United States will arm Australia with nuclear submarine technology as part of a new defence partnership, known as AUKUS — an acronym of the three countries’ names — announced on Wednesday.

Biden said the work to enable Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines would ensure that they had "the most modern capabilities we need to maneuver and defend against rapidly evolving threats."

The submarines, stressed Biden and the other leaders, will not be nuclear-armed, only powered with nuclear reactors.

On the same, Australian prime minister Morrison said: Let me be clear: Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability. And we will continue to meet all our nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”

Australia said it intended to build eight nuclear-powered submarines under the agreement.

What is a nuclear submarine?

A nuclear submarine is a submarine powered by a nuclear reactor. The performance advantages of nuclear submarines over "conventional" (typically diesel-electric) submarines are considerable.

Submarines with nuclear propulsion systems have limitless range and are less detectable in operation. Conventional submarines, on the other hand, must surface periodically and have a comparatively limited range and are viewed as being outclassed by China's growing capabilities.

Numerous reports have also said that nuclear submarines can reach speeds of 55 kmph and more when submerged, and have a cruising speed of 38-47 kmph. Conventional submarines have a cruising speed of 10-27 kmph.

A nuclear submarine would give the Australian Navy the ability to patrol the Indo-Pacific for a longer time and further, venturing as far north as Taiwan.

However, for all its benefits, the nuclear submarine does have some disadvantages.

Nuclear submarines are often bigger and thus less manoeuvrable in shallow coastal waters.

Furthermore, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced that New Zealand will continue to maintain a ban on nuclear-powered vessels in its waters, reducing the areas that Australian submarines will be allowed to operate in.

Also, Australia does not have a domestic nuclear industry able to support the manufacturing of these vessels. This would also imply that Australia will have to rely on another nation for nuclear fuel.

Australia joins the Big 6

Only six countries in the world — America, Britain, China, France, India and Russia — currently operate nuclear-powered submarines.

It should be noted that this is the first time the United States has shared its nuclear propulsion technology with an ally since the US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement of 1958 after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik.

US officials said the sensitive nuclear propulsion technology was unlikely to be shared again soon.

China became the fifth country to have a nuclear-powered submarine in 1987 when it commissioned a Xia class submarine, whereas India joined the club in 2012 when the Russian Akula-II class submarine `K-152 Nerpa’ was commissioned into the Indian Navy as INS Chakra on a 10-year lease.

INS Arihant was commissioned in 2016 by then defence minister Manohar Parrikar. PTI

In 2016, India's first indigenous nuclear submarine, INS Arihant was commissioned.

China as of date has an existing fleet of six Shang-class nuclear submarines and an additional 50 diesel/electric submarines.

In India, the proposal to indigenously build six nuclear-powered attack submarines for Rs 96,000 crore has been stuck with the Cabinet Committee on Security.

French deal over

The new deal for the nuclear-powered submarine effectively means that Australia has scrapped its $90 billion submarine deal with France.

Australia had planned to acquire 12 new Attack-class submarines under a $90bn program with France’s Naval Group, but Australia’s biggest defence acquisition had been plagued by delays, cost blowouts, and disputes over local industry involvement.

The first of the new French-designed submarines was expected to be operational in 2034, with each subsequent submarine delivered every two years.

The decision has not gone down well with France, with the government saying it was "regrettable".

"This is a decision contrary to the letter and the spirit of the cooperation that prevailed between France and Australia," the French foreign ministry said in a statement.

"The American choice, which leads to the removal of an ally and a European partner like France from a longstanding partnership with Australia, at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region... marks a lack of consistency that France cannot but note and regret," it added.

China lashes out

China wasn't happy with the move, saying that "countries should not build exclusionary blocs targeting or harming the interests of third parties."

"In particular, they should shake off their cold war mentality and ideological prejudice," the Chinese embassy in Washington said.

With inputs from agencies

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Australia to get nuclear submarines: All you need to know about them and why they are important in maritime security
Australia to get nuclear submarines: All you need to know about them and why they are important in maritime security
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