Saturday 21st of May 2022

scomo's submarine strategy...


On ABC Radio this week I was reminded of another time, another Australia. We were discussing Australia's place in the world after former prime minister Paul Keating's National Press Club appearance criticising our handling of the rise of China.

Many of the callers were lamenting Australia's recent record on climate change, refugees and racism. We were on the wrong track. We were alienating other nations like France. One man said he had returned to Australia after living abroad to find we had, in his opinion, gone backwards.




Then a lady called in to remind us it was Remembrance Day and asked why, amid the criticism of Australia, no one had thanked those who had paid the ultimate price and given the greatest sacrifice for us to enjoy the freedom of living in a liberal democracy and building the country we have become.

It was a clear-eyed moment of reflection that added a much-needed sense of perspective. Yes, we are free to criticise our country but should we also not be mindful that others have paid for that freedom with their lives.

People like my great uncle; an Indigenous man who signed up to fight in World War I and never returned from the fields of France. His body lies there still.

His brother, my grandfather, fought in World War II, a Rat of Tobruk. Aboriginal men who defended our country abroad at a time when they were not fully recognised as equal citizens at home.

My cousin has continued the tradition. A lifelong army officer who served in Iraq.

They believed that if their fight for justice here was going to mean anything they would also have to fight for their country alongside other Australians.

Where is that self-sacrifice today? Where is the belief that there is something bigger than ourselves?

A contest for recognition

Such virtues can seem out of step today. Worse they are often derided. Family, duty, service, nation, faith — how often are they mocked in a world that values identity or personal liberty above all.

It is a flimsy basis for a society. And it reflects a slow unravelling.

In his book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, religious scholar Carl Trueman argues we have swapped an honour society for a dignity society.

It is an inheritance of the European Enlightenment, the elevation of the individual above society. He traces it to thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau whom he describes as "one of the strangest geniuses in the history of Western society".

Rousseau famously declared people are born free, but everywhere are in chains. The chains are society: community, religion, kinship. In Confessions, Rousseau says all he needs to do is to "look inside myself".


Gusnote: Rouseau was a mad misogynist. See:


That encapsulates our age; the inner life, the importance of the self. Being our "best selves" or "real selves" matters above all. Recognition and identity are supreme. Society becomes a contest for recognition.

It more often resembles an arm wrestle: whose identity matters more?

Trueman points to a philosophical tradition that dispenses with notions of objective truth. Philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, who said there is no truth only interpretation.

Without truth what holds us together? Is one's "personal truth" all that matters?

Trueman argues we live in a therapeutic age; we reach for words like grief, trauma, suffering to buttress our identities.

As he writes: "The big political questions of our time are those of identity, and modern identities have a distinctly psychological aspect."

Trueman is indebted to the late sociologist Phillip Rieff, who in the '60s described the rise of "therapeutic culture" — or as he put it "anti-culture".

Rieff, himself agnostic, believed faith anchored society. It formed a "sacred order", a set of what he called "interdicts" prohibitions – thou shalt nots – that framed culture.

The modern West upended that order, cast off those interdicts, becoming, Rieff believed, unmoored. There is no "sacred order", instead a "social order" that can easily descend into a free-for-all.

Society ceases to have inherent meaning and meaning becomes a matter of feeling of personal choice or individual belief.

The rise of the self

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor sees this as the rise of the self. We are all "expressive individuals" unbound from a greater sense of responsibility or duty. Economic growth, technological change, globalisation all have eroded the sense of hierarchy or culture.

As Trueman argues: "Notions of honour no longer fit the patterns of social engagement and therefore recognition in today's society. That role is now played by the notion of dignity ..."

He poses this question: "How does society understand identity, and what range of identities does it consider to be legitimate?"

So we arrive at the endless culture wars. We form our tribes and arm ourselves for battle.

To talk about notions of honour or society can seem hopelessly conservative today. Even reactionary. Indeed some of those old "shalt nots" that ordered society were terribly oppressive and entrenched exploitative relationships of power. They are well rid of, but the question remains: what do we replace them with?

There are parts of Trueman's arguments that I'm uncomfortable with. But he and other thinkers like him, challenge us to take stock of where we have come.

In a West too often preoccupied with cancel culture or Twitter pile ons, orders to stay in our lanes and shouting matches rather than civil discussion, we have to ask where does this leave us?

And this matters right now. We live at a time when democracy is being eroded. It is in retreat. Populist demagogues exploit fear and anxiety. Deep inequalities, legacies and lived realities of sexism, misogyny and racism diminish the West's moral standing.

What's worth fighting for?

The United States — the self-declared beacon of democracy, the shining city on the hill — has descended into often violent rancorous tribal warfare. It is a deeply divided, almost ungovernable society where mobs trashed the Capitol Building — the seat of democracy itself.


This at a time when China poses a direct challenge to a Western liberal democratic order. China under Xi Jinping certainly gives no sign of self-doubt. Xi unapologetically and brutally imposes his order on society, and he believes history is on his side.

As he says, the West is waning and China is rising.


Now Xi is all but ensconced as president for life. The Communist Party has declared Xi's world view as the "essence of Chinese culture".

That's what the world faces now: a confident rising China and a West that seems unsure of what it even is, let alone whether it is worth fighting for.

That caller to the ABC was right. Surely while we criticise — legitimately — our society, we can also give thanks. And this week I have remembered and given thanks for my great uncle and my grandfather; Aboriginal men who would have had reason not to fight for Australia, but believed it was their duty anyway.

Men of dignity, yes, but who believed that honour mattered more.


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nukular blues...

The controversial AUKUS deal has potentially dangerous implications for a global non-proliferation regime already facing an array of challenges. 


BY Dr Trevor Findlay — a principal fellow at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne, Australia. After an early career in the Australian Foreign Service, serving in Tokyo, Mexico City and Geneva, he held academic positions at the ANU, Carleton University in Ottawa, and at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.He has served on the United Nations Secretary-General's Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters and Board of Trustees of UNIDIR and chaired both bodies in 2017. His current research focuses on global nuclear governance, especially nuclear safety, security, and non-proliferation, as well as Asia-Pacific regional nuclear governance. He is a leading scholar on the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).




Assuming that Brazil, which is building its own nuclear-powered submarines, does not get there first, the AUKUS deal announced in September foreshadows that Australia will become the first non-nuclear weapon state to acquire a nuclear-powered submarine.

Yet despite its impressive non-proliferation credentials and the deal’s promise of gold-standard safeguards, transparency, verification and accountancy measures, Australia risks creating heedless complications for nuclear safeguards and paving the way for the wider proliferation of nuclear-powered submarines.

For decades Australia has been a dedicated supporter of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, and more recently of the global nuclear security arrangements designed to prevent the acquisition of nuclear materials or weapons by terrorists. It is one of the strongest champions of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its safeguards system which verifies compliance with the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Australia not only has a comprehensive safeguards agreement (CSA) as required by the NPT, but also imposes bilateral safeguards on Australian-origin uranium exports. It was the first country to sign an Additional Protocol to strengthen the safeguards system. It is an active member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and other export control arrangements.

In the nuclear security realm, Australia’s track record is also impressive. It is party to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and the 2005 Amendment, along with all other nuclear security conventions. It has consistently been rated number one by the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative in its annual Nuclear Security Index and has enthusiastically contributed to continuing efforts to strengthen nuclear security resulting from the four nuclear security summits held between 2010 and 2016.

One might imagine, then, that if any country were to become the first non-nuclear weapon state to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, ours would be the safest pair of hands. Indeed, some have argued that Australia could use its submarine acquisition plan to strengthen global nuclear governance. Better Canberra than Brasilia, or at worst, Tehran. Even so, the implications of the AUKUS deal for the nonproliferation regime are complex and potentially dangerous.

Australia’s announcement, especially that it is partnering with two nuclear weapon states on the project, portends a further roiling of the political atmosphere around a regime already buffeted by numerous gales. The worst include the ongoing non-compliance cases of Iran and North Korea; the absence of India, Israel and Pakistan from the NPT; the continuing non-fulfilment of undertakings by the nuclear weapon states party to the NPT to achieve nuclear disarmament; the modernisation and expansion programs of almost all of the states with nuclear weapons; the decades-long lack of progress at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, especially in negotiating a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty; and the non-entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The AUKUS submarine proposal will add to this litany of woes at the Tenth NPT Review Conference to be held in January next year.

It is not that anyone suspects Australia of seeking nuclear weapons through the backdoor of nuclear submarine propulsion, but rather that the idea reeks of the hypocrisy that has always plagued a regime built on the premise of a more or less eternal divide between nuclear “haves” and “have-nots.” Unlike the IAEA statute, which envisaged no military use of nuclear material, the NPT carved out an exception for “non-explosive military use”, widely understood to be naval propulsion. The United States, which to date consistently refused to provide such technology to non-nuclear weapon states due to proliferation concerns, including to allies like Canada and South Korea, has now made an exception for Australia. Australia itself carved out an exception to its policy of not supplying uranium to non-NPT parties by doing a deal in 2014 with India, a state with nuclear weapons and which from the outset has sought to undermine the treaty. The constant chipping away at the fundamentals of the non-proliferation regime, especially by erstwhile champions, can only increase cynicism and undermine confidence in its longevity.

The precedent set by Australia will pave the way for other states to demand similar capability, either as a legitimate defence asset or as cover for a clandestine nuclear weapons program. Unlike Australia, some of the states that have expressed interest in nuclear-powered submarines, including Brazil and South Korea, also wish to enrich their own fuel. Exhibit A in this list is Iran, which has long argued, implausibly, that it requires enriched uranium for peaceful purposes, notably its Tehran research reactor and Bushehr nuclear power plant (currently supplied by Russia) but has now added nuclear-powered submarines to its list.

Australia would set another precedent by becoming the first state to take advantage of the “loophole” in comprehensive safeguards agreements that permits nuclear material for a non-explosive military purpose to be removed from safeguards for the duration of that use. If Australia chooses the “military to military option”, the reactors and an estimated four tonnes of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) fuel for eight submarines would be supplied by the US or British navies and returned to their control when the vessels are decommissioned. The “lifetime cores” of the reactors would operate for around 30 years and require no refuelling – a much prized characteristic of HEU-powered vessels. There would be no requirement for either removal or reapplication of safeguards since the material would originate from and remain in military use the entire time. But allowing a non-nuclear weapon state to import weapons-grade HEU outside of safeguards in this manner – in this case enough for an estimated 160 nuclear weapons – would make a mockery of the entire non-proliferation regime.

Fortunately, Australia’s CSA, like all others, requires that it notify the IAEA of its intention to acquire nuclear material for a non-explosive military purpose and help devise suitable verification arrangements with the agency. The sensitivity of the technology and the inaccessibility of the reactor to inspectors preclude the traditional approach comprising declarations of material, nuclear material accountancy, inspections, seals and remote monitoring. New approaches and methods will have to be devised to satisfy the IAEA that no diversion of nuclear material to weapons purposes takes place, while protecting confidential, proliferation-sensitive information. In working with the IAEA on this challenging task, Australia would, for good or ill, be setting a precedent for other states to exploit. Moral hazard lurks: Australia may succeed in making the world “safe” for the wider proliferation of nuclear-powered submarines to non-nuclear weapon states, some of which will be less scrupulous in complying with their obligations and some of which may be in our region.

Australia has already notified IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi of its intentions. Grossi has responded publicly, to date, only by noting that verification will be “very tricky”. For Australia itself the situation may become even trickier. Under the strengthened safeguards system, the IAEA accords a state the so-called broader conclusion when it is able to certify, based on the information available to it, that all nuclear material within the state has been accounted for. Just how this conclusion could be reached after nuclear-powered submarines have begun operating, especially at sea, is unknown. Australia has been particularly insistent that the IAEA should not automatically reissue the broader conclusion annually for each state without reassessing its current circumstances, as occurred for Libya when civil war prevented the agency from ensuring the continuity of safeguards in its territory.

A final precedent relates to nuclear security. The Australian project would see the acquisition of HEU by a non-nuclear weapon state at a time when the US and others, including Australia, are attempting to minimise global holdings of HEU, including by converting reactors to using low-enriched uranium (LEU) and repatriating HEU to the US or Russia for disposition. While the nuclear material in submarine reactors is relatively secure, albeit non-stationary, the use of HEU for naval propulsion by a country that has hitherto been HEU-free goes against the grain of the impressive efforts in recent years to ensure that nuclear material does not fall into the hands of terrorists or other non-state actors.

Some observers have suggested that Australia use LEU for its submarines, perhaps in collaboration with France, which uses such fuel. This may assuage French fury at the cancellation of its contract to build Australia’s conventional submarines, whose design, paradoxically, was at Canberra’s insistence to be based on French nuclear-powered submarines. IAEA verification would, however, become more challenging, as LEU-fuelled submarines using existing technology require periodic refuelling. The US is researching the possibility of LEU lifetime cores but estimates that it would take 10-15 years before such technology would be available.

It remains to be seen whether the AUKUS submarine proposal will survive the 18-month study announced in September, as details emerge and the political, diplomatic, military, economic, nonproliferation, security and opportunity costs become clearer. In the meantime, the AUKUS partners need to tell us how they propose delivering the gold-standard safeguards, transparency, verification and accountancy measures they have promised.


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cost of the new subs...

The submarine deal, which forms part of the AUKUS pact, might come at a high price for Australians, one of the country’s think tanks revealed in a fresh report that estimates the project’s ultimate cost at up to US$121 billion.

The agreement that already saw Canberra ditching its US$90 billion diesel-electric submarine contract with France in favor of new partners – the US and the UK – might now hit the Australian taxpayers’ pockets as well, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) warned in a report published on Tuesday.


Australia is yet to determine the exact submarine designs it wants, and whether it will partner with the US or the UK to build them. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in September that this would be done “through the rather significant and comprehensive program assessment” over the next 12 to 18 months.

The ASPI admitted that “any cost estimation is an extremely assumption-rich activity” at this stage since most parameters of the deal are not yet agreed upon. However, the think tank still calculated the deal’s total costs under a set of various scenarios.

Should Canberra choose a set of smaller subs and opt to build them “in the most efficient manner possible,” the total costs in constant prices would amount to between AU$70 billion (US$49.86 billion) and AU$78 billion (US$55.55 billion). If inflation is taken into account, this price will rise to between AU$116 billion (US$82.62 billion) and AU$129 billion (US$91.88 billion).

If the Australian government goes with a more expensive ‘continuous build’ approach and prefers larger underwater crafts, the costs might increase to between AU$77 billion (US$55.55 billion) and AU$78 billion (US$61.96 billion) or AU$153 billion (US$108.97 billion) to AU$171 billion (US$121.79 billion) in out-turn prices.

The ASPI believes that the project will be “a massive undertaking and probably the largest and most complex endeavor Australia has embarked upon” while some local media reported that it is about to cut a major slice off Australia’s GDP.


The think tank’s analysts also believe that picking a partner for the project might be even more important than just determining the submarine design. The US is building underwater crafts 10 times faster than the UK. The British submarine program might begin by the end of the decade, while America might not start building the vessels until after 2030, the Australian media reported.

“Who has the capacity to ramp up to help us? If we want one every three years, the UK would have to double their production. The issue is which partner has the capacity to help us get there,”one of the report’s co-authors, Dr. Marcus Hellyer, told the Guardian Australia. He added that a collaborative approach that would let Australia’s industry be part of the project as well could save Canberra much time.

“That could make a huge difference to the schedule. It could aim for the early 2030s instead of the late 2030s or even early 2040s,” Hellyer said. The ASPI warns, though, that Australia’s existing six Collins-class submarines might retire well before the new underwater crafts become fully operational.

“It’s likely to be at least two decades and tens of billions of dollars in sunk costs before Australia has a useful nuclear-powered military capability,” the report said, adding that “we may have already reached the point at which it’s impossible to avoid a serious and potentially enduring decrease in submarine capability.”



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