Here's why the news about Australia getting nuclear submarines with the help of the US and UK is a big deal

If you haven’t noticed, there’s been a lot of hype around today about a deal to make Australia one of the few countries in the world equipped with nuclear submarines.

After all, it’s not every day the UK Prime Minister and US President join Prime Minister Scott Morrison for a live defence announcement (even if the latter appeared to forget Mr Morrison’s name, referring to him as “that fellow Down Under”).

But if you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, and why the government cares so much about submarines, here’s what you need to know.

Why is Australia getting nuclear submarines?

Australia already has a fleet of submarines, known as Collins Class, but they’re getting old.

For more than a decade, Australia has been seeking to upgrade and replace them, and we were several years into a deal with a French shipbuilder to have 12 new submarines built.

But that program has come with delays and blowouts, and would have delivered conventional diesel-electric submarines, like the Collins Class.

Australia’s instead going to pull out of that deal and form a new partnership with the US and UK. Those countries will share their secrets to get an Australian nuclear fleet off the ground (or under the water).

Why would the UK and US do this? 

They trust Australia with their technology and know that a boosted Australian presence in the Indo-Pacific will exert Western influence in the region as China’s power grows.

“This is about investing in our greatest source of strength — our alliances — and updating them to better meet the threats of today and tomorrow,” US President Joe Biden said of the partnership.

Mr Morrison said it was now in Australia’s interest to  bail on the deal with France and instead go nuclear.

“[It] is not a change of mind, it’s a change of need,” he said.

“The developments that have occurred since 2016 do now make a nuclear-powered submarine fleet a feasible option for Australia.”

Which countries have nuclear submarines?

A small number of countries are capable of running nuclear submarines, and all are nuclear-armed powers.

Only the US, UK, France, Russia, China and India currently have nuclear subs in the water, so the deal will see Australia joining an exclusive club.

But Peter Jennings from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said the real impact was what this meant for Australia’s naval capability and influence in the waters surrounding it.

“America is going to be looking to Australia to play a leading role in this part of the world, stabilising the Pacific Islands region and South-East Asia,” he said.

“It’s not surprising that the countries of the Indo-Pacific, including the United States, now feel that there has to be some response [to China’s growing power].”

However Chris Barrie, who was the chief of defence in the late 90s and early 2000s, said nuclear submarines had been discussed for decades and would not dramatically transform the region.

“Some in China might well say this is a response to our concerns over China, but, you know, the conversation about acquiring nuclear-powered submarines has been going on since the 1960s,” he said.

In general, submarines are also incredibly expensive. The 12-submarine project that Australia just ditched was worth $90 billion.

There’s no word yet on how much the new nuclear deal may cost and it’s unclear how much Australia might have to pay to scuttle its deal with France.

Mr Morrison said $2.4 billion had already been spent on that program.

What does it mean that these submarines are nuclear?

There’s a difference between a nuclear-powered submarine and a nuclear-armed submarine. 

The subs being acquired by Australia won’t have nuclear weapons, but they will have nuclear reactors instead of conventional diesel-electric propulsion systems.

That gives them a huge advantage over conventional submarines, as they’re faster, quieter, need to surface less often and don’t need to be refuelled.

But there are those with concerns about the safety of nuclear reactors.

Greens leader Adam Bandt referred to nuclear submarines as “floating Chernobyls”, and said his party would vehemently oppose the new partnership.

Australia doesn’t have much domestic nuclear capability, and the UK, US will work with Australia over the next 18 months to determine how the plan will be delivered, including how the subs will be fuelled.

“The management of waste, the disposal of the submarine at the end of its life, all of those are issues where we will be engaging with our US and UK partners,” Defence department secretary Greg Moriarty said.

So what happens to the France submarine deal?

Australia will be pulling out of the deal to have French shipbuilder Naval Group deliver a dozen conventional submarines, however the details on how that will happen and what that might cost remain unclear.

“As a Prime Minister, I must make decisions that are in Australia’s national security,” Mr Morrison said. 

“I know that France would do the same.”

The deal was inked in 2016. Responding to Australia’s decision to end it, the French government said it could only “note and regret” the move.

“This is a decision contrary to the letter and the spirit of the cooperation that prevailed between France and Australia,” a French Foreign Ministry statement said.

Mr Jennings said the decision to ditch the French deal in favour of nuclear subs was not without irony.

“When we chose the French-designed submarine a few years ago, we actually took a nuclear-powered submarine and have been spending millions of dollars turning it into a diesel submarine,” he said.

“We appear to be walking away from that.”

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