Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

Australia And The Future of Deterrence Against China 

Australia And The Future of Deterrence Against China 
 Mathieu Duchâtel
Resident Senior Fellow and Director of International Studies

Last February, French Defense Minister Florence Parly announced that the French Navy deployed the nuclear attack submarine (SSN) Émeraude to the South China Sea in what she described as an “extraordinary patrol” and “a striking demonstration of our Navy's ability to deploy far away and for a long time, together with our Australian, American, and Japanese strategic partners”.
There is a certain irony in the fact that Australia interrupted the conventional Barracuda program five years after the conclusion of a historic deal for the Anglo-American SSN. The "deal of the century" for the French arms industry was for a conventional version of the Barracuda program, the French Navy's new SSN, whose first ship went into service in November 2020. Naval Group's offer sought to answer the specific needs defined by the Australian government regarding naval power and the country’s defense industrial base, in a deal that involved significant technology transfers. As Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who signed the agreement, wrote in his memoirs, “one of the advantages of the partnership with the French is that if Australia were to choose nuclear propulsion in the future, it would have a partner, Naval Group, with experience in nuclear submarines, and a hull design that could accommodate nuclear propulsion”.

Australian SSNs in the South China Sea?

Australia has finally decided to acquire "at least eight SSNs" but without France, without Naval Group, and without even considering upgrading  the Barracuda program to nuclear propulsion, as envisioned by Turnbull. When will the Australian Navy be able to deploy an SSN in the South China Sea, as France did last  February? It is impossible to tell. At this stage, Australia only has a political agreement with the US and the UK, in the framework of the enhanced security partnership AUKUS (Australia, UK, US), announced on September 15. Following an 18-month consultation period, the three sides should reach a technical agreement on the specific performances of the SSN program, along with an industrial roadmap detailing the division of labor and the nature of technology transfers.

Despite the uncertainties regarding the timeline of deployment, Australia's strategic choice is important to understand. The conventional Barracuda program matched a national security vision for the country which revolved around the defense of its maritime territories, and in particular, the protection of access routes through the north of the continent.

By acquiring SSNs, the Australian government is clearly expressing its intention to operate far from the coast.

By acquiring SSNs, the Australian government is clearly expressing its intention to operate far from the coast. The Australian Navy is consequently reconsidering its priorities. It is turning to power projection scenarios in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, with the ambition to influence China's future strategic calculations. In other words, acquiring SSNs places the Australian Navy at the heart of the new deterrence posture that the United States is building in the Indo-Pacific.

As pointed out in a study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a conventional (diesel-electric powered) submarine based in Perth could operate for only 11 days in the South China Sea, when in contrast, a nuclear-powered submarine allows for more than two months. North of Taiwan and in the East China Sea, the capability difference between both types of submarines is even starker: a conventional submarine deployment from Perth would simply be out of reach, whereas a nuclear-powered one could operate for over 70 days.

Granted, these 2013 figures do not reflect the exact endurance and range performance of Naval Group's conventional Barracuda program, of which technical specificities were still being negotiated on the day Australia cancelled the contract with the French shipbuilder. The program was designed to meet the Australian Navy's ambition to have a diesel-electric propulsion system with performance as close as possible to that of an SSNs. It would have represented an impressive leap in diesel-electric propulsion capability - but it still would not have made it an SSN.

China’s access denial and the end of American air and sea power supremacy

From an American perspective, the United States sealed a deal ensuring Australian strategic alignment without conceding (so far) as much technology transfer as the French program. The US interest must first be understood as following a pure military balance logic. An Australian navy equipped with nuclear attack submarines would affect the China/US balance of naval forces in East Asia, whether in a peacetime or wartime scenario. Being able to operate within the first island chain, which extends from Japan and through Taiwan to Borneo, is a significant distinction from diesel-powered submarines, even if Naval Group's Barracuda system was planned for long-range oceanic deployment. But this is not the only distinction. If the program is finalized, what missions can we expect the Australian SSNs to perform?

  • First, we can anticipate operations against Chinese surface ships and submarines, to exploit the weaknesses of the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) anti-submarine warfare technologies. This was most likely the thinking behind the conventional Barracuda problem. In addition to different endurance performances, there will be differences in the weaponry, which is currently unknown. The acoustic signature and noise levels of both types of submarines depend on the maritime environment in which they operate. The spokesman for France’s Defense Ministry is right to point out that "the discretion of a conventional submarine remains paradoxically better than that of a nuclear submarine in certain circumstances". But not all. 
  • Secondly, because of their speed properties, they will have an escort function during fleet deployments, in order to protect surface vessels against various threats.
  • Third, compared to the Barracuda program, we should expect a superior deep strike capability against Chinese military infrastructure. The Australian Navy has just announced it is acquiring Tomahawk missiles for its surface fleet. The choice of the Tomahawk appears logical for its future SSNs, based on the US Navy's Los Angeles class, which has 12 vertical launch tubes.
  • Finally, the SSNs make up the classic defense against nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN). If Australian SSNs enter service in an environment of  a prolonged Sino-American Cold War scenario in the 2030s or 2040s, it is not unthinkable to imagine deployment for tracking Chinese SSBNs after they leave the Yulin base in Hainan or when they dive into the deep waters of the Pacific, after passing through one of the straits of the first island chain to enter on deterrence patrol, something they do not systematically do today. In a wartime scenario, an Australian capacity to neutralize Chinese SSBNs would affect the risk assessment and evaluation of escalation options by both the US and China.

The consequences of Australia's decision are clear. The future Australian navy is being built to fit into America’s ongoing strategic shift to counter China, in an East Asian environment where sea control and air superiority are no longer guaranteed for the US. During the 1995-96 crisis, the Clinton administration deployed two aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait. This was done in retaliation to Chinese ballistic missiles launched near the Taiwanese coast in the context of the first direct presidential elections held on the island. A power projection of this scale today would no longer be possible without risking significant losses.

The consequences of Australia's decision are clear. The future Australian navy is being built to fit into America’s ongoing strategic shift to counter China.

Among the most concerning developments for US power projection in East Asia is the Chinese Navy's long-range anti-ship capability. China is further investing in what Deng Xiaoping would have called a “pocket of excellence” as more 055 class destroyers (two are already in service today), which have 112 vertical launch cells, combining firepower and versatility, will be commissionned in the next decade. At the Huludao shipyard, a nuclear submarine is built every 15 months. At this rate, we can expect China to have 13 operational nuclear submarines by 2030 - a serious threat to foreign naval deployments within the first island chain. These naval developments should not hide the fact that the PLA is already deploying an air defense system that would seriously complicate US air operations, even though it appears that its most capable system, the S-400 purchased from Russia, has not yet been deployed on its eastern coast.

The end of US naval air supremacy within the first island chain forces the United States to consider the geographic disposition of its forces in a wider perimeter, safe from Chinese ballistic missiles—hence the vital role of Australia. It also forces the US to accumulate the systems that will allow it to penetrate the first island chain, an environment that will be increasingly saturated with Chinese defense systems, underlying the importance of the SSNs.

The challenge of deterring the Chinese use of force 

In this context, the challenge is to convince China that it will not achieve political gains through military means. The ability to inflict considerable losses on the Chinese - if not to "sink it in 72 hours" as suggested by Michele Flournoy (Biden’s potential Defense Secretary pick) - then becomes the guiding thread for US and allied deployment in the Indo-Pacific. If there are real threats to the very survival of its navy, will China risk invading Taiwan?
The US Navy's investment plans will not be sufficient to restore American supremacy. Not that the naval construction plan submitted to Congress by the Department of Defense in December 2020 is not ambitious. It foresees a Navy size between 382 and 466 ships in 2051, at an annualized cost of $34 billion per year, 4% of which is for unmanned systems. The US Navy's annual budget would increase from its current $200 billion to $279 billion in 2051. These plans revise the 308-ship Navy format adopted in 2015, as well as the 355-ship Navy format adopted in 2016.
Given that this investment is not enough, Biden’s Department of Defense will seek more allied alignment on this post- air and sea power supremacy deterrence posture toward China. This need is reflected in the notion of “integrated deterrence”.

The need to maintain a credible deterrent requires the ability to operate within the first island chain.

Rather than a new deterrence doctrine, the term seems to stress the importance of capitalizing on existing US assets, and better integrating allies into a position to prevent unilateral Chinese action. Australia obtaining SSNs can be seen as a testament to American orientation.

However, the SSN episode overshadows what could become more decisive for the China-US balance of power in the next decade, namely the ways in which defense innovation, and the possibilities offered by AI and robotization could be integrated to serve US deterrence. This dimension is at the heart of the AUKUS, which should allow for greater results by promoting interoperability, as Bruno Tertrais highlights. In terms of anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare within the first island chain, unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) and unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) have a crucial role to play. Here, the United States holds a significant advantage due to its web of alliances and partnerships.
The Biden administration's common thread in this issue is its assessment of the future military balance of power with China. The need to maintain a credible deterrent requires the ability to operate within the first island chain, while China's strategy to bar access to foreign forces is rising in credibility. This prospect explains why Japan and Taiwan clearly favor the emergence of the AUKUS.

What autonomy is left for France?

This episode puts France in a losing position regarding its strategic partnership with Australia - essential to the balance of the Indo-pacific vision that the French Ministry of Defense has been defending for nearly ten years. The crisis highlights the limits of coherence between France's naval action in the Indo-Pacific space and the current shift in the US deterrence posture. All of the following are concrete actions entirely compatible with the US approach and its priorities: the regular presence of the French Navy in the South China Sea, thought to contribute to an allied effort to render Chinese unilateralism more difficult (and summarized by a French admiral as a policy of "counter-bullying"), the signals sent in 2021 with the deployment of the Émeraude SSN, and the amphibious exercises conducted with the United States, Japan, and Australia in May. On the one hand, the Australian affair underscores that the US priority is unequivocal alignment on its immediate needs to deter Chinese aggression. On the other hand, some in Washington do not recognize the significance of the French  contribution, and even tend to consider that actions taken outside of close coordination with the US could transform into vulnerabilities. The challenge for France, and the best way to gain leeway in the Indo-Pacific, will be to prove to the Biden administration that autonomous actions in arms exports and military deployments ultimately reinforce this US posture.




Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English