How Provocative Are Australia’s Nuclear Submarines?

At the beginning of his presidency, Barack Obama realized that the US was "overweighted" in the Middle East, fighting wars against countries that could not challenge American hegemony and "underweighted" in the Asia-Pacific region where there was a country, China, that could. So, Obama pivoted to Asia.

The National Security Strategy of December 2017 ranked China beside the "jihadist groups" as a threat. A month later, the National Defense Strategy identified "inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism" as "the primary concern in US national security." First on the list was China.

The pivot to China reached a rhetorical crescendo with Biden’s foreign policy world view that China has "an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world. That’s not going to happen on my watch, because the United States is going to continue to grow and expand." He framed the new Cold War battle as "a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies." Our "children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded, autocracy or democracy," he said.

Vice President Harris and US diplomats have fanned out over Asia attempting to seduce countries into a new Cold War block against China while Taiwan has become the stage for diplomatic and, occasionally, military provocations of China.

But the biggest provocation by far is the September 15, 2021 announcement that the US will "commit to a shared ambition to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy."

This commitment is the most provocative for two reasons. The first is that, according to Frank von Hippel, senior research physicist at Princeton University and a specialist in nuclear power, nuclear energy and nuclear arms control and proliferation, for the purpose of defending your maritime property against invading navies, "a modern conventional submarine is adequate."

The US announcement is provocative because Australia canceled a $66 billion contract with France for twelve conventional submarines. In announcing the change from French conventional submarines to American nuclear submarines, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morris explained that there were “very real issues about whether a conventional submarine capability” would address the "changes in the regional situation." But the only change in the regional situation that would justify the change from conventional to nuclear submarines is the change from a defensive strategy to an attack strategy. Less than five years ago, Australia rejected nuclear submarines in favor of conventionally powered ones. And that is very provocative.

A full forty countries have attack submarines, but only the five original nuclear weapons states have nuclear-powered submarines, though Brazil and India may be planning to. Interestingly, US submarines are powered by very highly enriched 93.5% weapons grade uranium; Chinese submarines are powered by low enriched uranium.

The enriched uranium used to power nuclear submarines is the second reason the US announcement is so provocative. It is so provocative because of the US willingness to push the borders of the nuclear non-proliferation agreement (NPT).

The agreement does not violate Article 1 of the NPT because the US is not transferring "nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices" to Australia. However, it pushes hard against the borders of Article 4.1, which guarantees non-nuclear weapons states like Australia the use of "nuclear energy for peaceful purposes" and Article 4.2, which permits exchange of nuclear equipment "for the peaceful use of nuclear energy." As the first reason why the agreement is so provocative has made clear, nuclear-powered submarines are not defensive, but for attacking, which is not a "peaceful purpose."

Nonetheless, Professor von Hippel explained to me in a personal correspondence, supplying Australia with nuclear-powered attack submarines does not violate the NPT. The reason is because of the "submarine loophole."

Under the NPT, non-nuclear weapon states cannot make nuclear explosive devices, and all nuclear materials for peaceful purposes must be placed under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. But in 1972, the "submarine loophole" was inserted. Called the "Non-Application of Safeguards to Nuclear Material to Be Used in Non-Peaceful Activities", the loophole allows non-nuclear states to remove nuclear materials from IAEA monitoring for any military purpose other than the "production of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices". That means nuclear-powered submarines. Up until now, no non-nuclear weapons state has invoked the submarine loophole.

Though the agreement is not a violation of the NPT, von Hippel told me that "it does undermine the nonproliferation regime." He said that the deal is especially concerning because "US and UK submarines are fueled with weapon-grade uranium rather than the low-enriched uranium used by France and China."

The US announcement further tempts the NPT because though international law allows non-nuclear weapons states to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, "it discourages other countries from providing enriched uranium for non-peaceful activities." The US, however, supplies the UK with highly enriched uranium. Von Himpel told me that he assumes the US would also supply the enriched uranium to Australia. This, too, undermines the nonproliferation regime.

Both because the US-UK-Australia agreement transforms Australia’s submarine fleet from one that can defend against Chinese vessels to one that can attack Chinese vessels and because of the extraordinary US willingness to undermine the nuclear nonproliferation regime, the new agreement brings American provocation of China to a threatening new level.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.