Australia is set to join the elite group of countries that own nuclear-powered submarines. Currently, only six nations on the planet have the technology to run these submarines and two of them, the US and the UK have formed a tripartite collaboration with Australia, to share the technical know-how in multiple areas, Reuters reported.
Although it went unsaid in the press interactions of the leaders of these nation-states, the collaboration, dubbed AUKUS, is aimed at countering the growing military strength of China in the Indo-Pacific region. Australia, which had a good business rapport with China, has been facing a backlash after questioning the origins of the COVID-19 virus. The US is looking to use this opportunity to strengthen its ties with Australia even further and has agreed to share information and technical expertise in areas like artificial intelligence, cyber, quantum, underwater systems, and long-range strike capabilities, Politico reported.
What has distinctly caught media attention is the agreement to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines. It is currently unclear if these will be built on Australian shores or shipped from the US. Either way, this is only the second time in history that the US will share details about its nuclear-powered submarines. The first one was back in 1958 with the UK, the third party in the recent collaboration, Reuters reported.
The three countries will spend the next 18 months ironing out details of the plan, especially the fissile material needed to power these submarines. Despite holding the largest reserves of uranium in the world and being one of the largest producers of radioactive material, Australia does not use nuclear power and has even signed an agreement with the US to not ‘enrich’ it on its soil, Politico reported. Emphasizing this, US President Joe Biden said that Australia is not seeking a nuclear weapon, but will only use the technology for propulsion systems.
Housing a small reactor, a nuclear-powered submarine uses the energy generated from nuclear fission of uranium to power the propeller or produce steam that moves the turbines. Unlike combustion, this method of power generation does not air and reduces the frequency of surfacing for the submarines.
As ABC pointed out these submarines are relatively quieter, can travel faster, and even travel for longer distances without being detected when using electric motors. Capable of being armed with surface to air and cruise missiles, these submarines can help combat multiple threats apart from the ones at sea.
Due to their larger size, these vessels are not ideal for shallow waters and leave a thermal print of their presence as they rely on dissipation to cool the reactor. But due to their stealth capabilities, they are ideal for making a sudden appearance, something AUKUS would like to do more in the disputed region of the South China Sea.
While this is bound to irk China, France is another country unhappy with the development. In 2016, Australia signed an AU$90 billion (US$44 billion) agreement with the French Naval Group for 12 diesel-electric submarines that have remained in choppy waters since. Sparring over the sourcing of parts and price escalation, the deal has now been scrapped, leaving the European nation quite miffed and drawing parallels between Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump, Reuters reported.
There is bound to be some backlash in Australia as well with several activists and policy groups against the use of nuclear power in any form. In the past, Australia has strictly monitored the docking of US nuclear-powered vessels, ABC reported. Its neighbor, New Zealand has already clarified that the Australian nuclear-powered fleet would not be welcome in New Zealand waters.