AUKUS — a 21st century Skybolt?

AUKUS — a 21st century Skybolt?
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The diplomatic brouhaha of the year entails an acronym that sounds like a harsh bird call. AUKUS involves a $66 billion cancelled contract for 12 diesel submarines of questionable strategic and operational value; three English-speaking states – Australia, the UK and U.S. – gazumping the French and replacing that contract largely in secret; the angry withdrawal of ambassadors from Canberra and Washington by Paris and a chill in relations not seen in years; and howls of protest from  Beijing.

So far, even tentative plans for safely transferring very complicated and inherently very dangerous nuclear technology to a country that is neither keen on nor experienced in the field have not been made public. Thus, raising questions at this stage is more appropriate than offering what could be uninformed criticism.  

But we have been here before. In the 1950s, the U.S. Air Force began developing an air-launched ballistic missile with a range of about 1,000 miles. The British believed that this capability was so important that it based its entire future deterrence strategy on it. The missile was called Skybolt.

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Technical problems, including the size and weight of the thermonuclear warhead, proved insurmountable. Against the strongest British protests, Skybolt was cancelled in the early 1960s. Britain was left high, dry and enraged. Relations with the U.S. declined almost to where they were during the 1956 Suez crisis. Since the first of these new AUKUS nuclear submarines is unlikely to be delivered before 2040, could Australia follow the fate of the UK and Skybolt? 

Here are a few key issues. First, the original contract with France’s Naval Group certainly was suspect. Cost increases of 25 percent and substantial building delays were ominous signs. Paying nearly $6 billion per diesel submarine is exorbitant, especially if the first ship won’t be delivered until around 2040. 

Attempting to convert the French Barracuda nuclear submarine (SSN) into the “shortfin” diesel-electric (and without the most modern air independent propulsion -AIP- system) was a colossal misjudgment akin to making a 787 into a DC-4. AIP allows submarines to operate submerged on battery for up to three weeks as opposed to a few days.

Second, while nuclear power gives virtually unlimited submerged endurance,  it  is as limited as its diesel sisters by its weapons, food and logistics loads. Further, presumably more diesel AIP submarines could have been procured, meaning keeping one on station on a permanent basis can negate long transit times. And carrying Tomahawk cruise missiles offsets some of the advantages of nuclear power  because of the flexibility its 1,000-mile range affords operators. 

Third, the logistics of constructing these ships present Gordian-knot-like problems. The costs of physical and human nuclear infrastructure are enormous. Safety cannot be overly emphasized. Even welding demands the most stringent requirements and training. Who will train nuclear crews? What about refits and repairs? Can Adelaide, the proposed construction yard, be upgraded to provide these capabilities? Where will the reactors and propulsion systems be built and then assembled?  

Given that the UK has the less expensive Astute class with some development problems and the U.S. the more advanced and expensive Virginia class, which design will be chosen and how will the contract be divided? Given national construction plans for SSNs, is there sufficient capacity to accommodate building 12 more ships for Australia? Given possible grounds for disagreement on the contract, how will these be resolved? These questions have not yet been publicly addressed. 

Fourth, why were the French not invited to participate in AUKUS in some form to ease the pain of a “stab in the back,” as Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian bellowed?

China views AUKUS as a clear and present danger. That may not be a bad thing. But if China takes the long view, 2040 is a long way off and this consortium is ripe with pitfalls and lurking technological land mines. 

Other options are feasible. Australia could lease a nuclear submarine on a trial basis. U.S. or UK yards might build some ships to reduce the pressure on Adelaide. And reconsideration of AIP designs could be undertaken.

There are far too many unknowns and imponderables to predict with certainty how well or badly AUKUS will evolve. But as this unfolds, do not forget Skybolt.

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, served in both the Royal Navy and U.S. Navy. He is a  senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His latest book, due out in the fall, is The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.”