AUKUS Plan B: delivering greater military power faster – the B-21 Raider
B-21 stealth bomber

The B-21 has now had its first public flight. It will enter service in the mid-2020s. Image: US Air Force.

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

After the release of the damning – self-written – summary of the Defence leadership’s failed advice to the government on the $45 billion Hunter frigate, no one can have any confidence that other key decisions on military capability are any better. In their own words, Defence gave poor advice on the material outcomes, affordability, compliance and risks in the project. There’s not much else involved.

And the biggest of these other decisions – at $368 billion it’s eight times as big as the Hunter – is the advice to then prime minister Morrison that Australia should acquire eight nuclear submarines in partnership with the US and UK.

In a different world, where Defence was meeting its core obligations to provide cogent, well-founded advice to support government decision making, we would expect that there had been a proper analysis of alternative ways of increasing Australia’s deterrent capabilities and long range strike against the backdrop of a dangerous region centred on an aggressive China.

But it is almost certain that this did not happen in the lead up to the AUKUS announcement. 

Instead, the same key defence leadership that has self-proclaimed its failures in an analogous chain of advice and decision making was a part of a tiny coterie of people around the then prime minister who were solely focused on ‘how can Australia acquire nuclear submarines?”

Looking at deterrence and strike through a straw that only lets the answer be a submarine is an oddly blinkered position to take on something that is about an essential element in our national defence.

It also doesn’t let you think clearly about the huge opportunity costs involved in the financial and human capital tied up in the AUKUS subs plan and the consequences these have for the rest of our military power.

A short article can’t do a complete analysis of alternatives, but it can set out the core attributes of the AUKUS plan and a B-21 Raider bomber alternative.

The submarine ‘pillar’ of AUKUS gives Australia eight nuclear submarines costing $368bn dollars, arriving between 2032 and the 2050s—with around two out of eight available at any one time.  Each submarine carries advanced torpedoes for sinking ships and submarines and missiles for ship and land attack. A design contract has just been let by the UK Government to BAE to begin the detailed design for the joint AUKUS submarines – with the first Australian one meant to arrive in 2042.

Before these yet to be designed submarines are built, Australia is proposed to get two of the US Navy’s in-service Virginia Class submarines and up to another three newly built ones in the late 2030s onwards.  The US Navy has not got enough submarines for its own needs and will be at a low point in the 2030s, just when Australia wants the Virginias.  So, it appears AUKUS doesn’t increase allied submarine capacity in our region until sometime around 2040 and then achingly slowly.

The submarines have Highly Enriched Uranium nuclear reactors that have to be kept safe and operated under a novel arrangement to be agreed with our AUKUS partners and the International Atomic Energy Agency to meet a high bar for non-proliferation. They require Australia to locate and build a new base somewhere on our populated East Coast and to also locate and run a high-level waste repository to hold the retired reactors and associated highly radioactive material.

What’s the capability we get in return for the cost and risk? The submarines are stealthy and have long endurance.  As a deterrent weapon in peace, nuclear propelled submarines are very powerful because they can be almost anywhere.

In war, it’s difficult for an adversary to know where a submarine is unless it’s in port or has just fired its weapons.  Around 75% of the time it will be in port or overhaul. And once a submarine has fired its weapons – as happens in war – its location is known and it can’t be somewhere else for some time. Reloading a submarine requires a transit back to a capable port or base and a transit back to its operational area.

Now the B-21. The design contract for this new stealth strategic bomber was signed between the US Government and Northrop Grumman in 2015.  Development has been based on not reinventing everything that is already in existence on platforms like the B-2 and other stealth aircraft. It’s also employing contemporary design techniques such as digital twins. This has sped up the program.  The first B-21 aircraft has just made its first public flight and the US Air Force is scheduled to receive its first B-21s in the mid-2020s.

The US plans to buy 100 B-21s to replace its B-2 and B-1 Lancer bombers.  The B-21 has a very long range – a figure of probably considerably more than 4,000km seems likely – and very high degrees of stealth (much better than the F-35 and at least a generation in advance of the B-2) and does not require other crewed aircraft to accompany it on strike missions – so no wider force wrapping of air to air refuellers, fighter escorts, electronic attack aircraft for suppression of adversary radars and air defence. 

It also does not need to stand off at range and employ expensive, long-range missiles to attack adversary ships or ground targets. It works well with ‘the small, the cheap and the many’, so it can employ drones and connect to other weapons or operate alone. Its stealth allows it to operate close enough in to use relatively cheap and dumber weapons – like guided bombs. 

Unlike even a fast nuclear submarine, the B-21 can be relocated to very different parts of the globe very quickly – and it can return to base, rearm and be somewhere very different rapidly.

Now, the program side of the B-21 alternative.  My SAA colleague, Marcus Hellyer and Andrew Nicholls did a much longer and deeper report on the B-21 a little while ago.  It put figures around a 12 aircraft B-21 fleet for Australia, and arrived at an acquisition cost of $17 billion, with a further $28 billion for bases and support systems, and a sustainment bill of $900 million a year.  A 40 year life gives a total cost of $81 billion.

A larger fleet of 36 B-21s would be likely to have a program cost more like $160bn ($AU1.4bn each, with twice as much in operating and program costs).  Per aircraft costs fall a bit and facilities and other support costs contain one offs whether the fleet is 12 or 36.

The B-21s will be in service with the US Air Force from the mid 2020s. If Australia joined the program as we have with the F-35 and EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft, we could have early aircraft around 2030 and at least the first 12 in service before 2035. This is not hypothetical – it is based on Northrop’s current production system and relies on Northrop keeping to the normal production maturity cycle used successfully in multiple other aircraft programs – low-rate initial production followed by full production. There would be no Adelaide assembly factory.

Politically and practically, the B-21 requires no nuclear waste repository, has no IAEA entanglements, provokes no nuclear proliferation concerns around reuse of highly enriched uranium, and doesn’t require nuclear reactors to be based permanently near Australian population centres.  Australia could proceed with the forward basing of UK and US submarines without having our own nuclear submarines. 

And we could also maintain our investment in the US and UK industrial bases to increase overall allied submarine numbers, but without the high costs of purchasing and operating our own.

Australia becoming a partner in the B-21 creates a larger pool of these key deterrent and strike weapons in the Indo Pacific.  In contrast, the AUKUS submarine deal requires rationing of scarce submarines for decades before numbers eventually lift.

The US Department of Defense is likely to welcome Australia becoming a partner as we have in the Growler and F-35, instead of an Australian Government having to continue to charm future presidents to release submarines the US Navy desperately needs itself.

Even if Australia were to acquire a large fleet of 36 B-21s, making it one of the most powerful air forces on the planet, we would still have $200 billion in national treasure to spend on other things – defence and otherwise – in comparison with the current AUKUS Pillar 1 plan.  Even if $50 billion of this were reinvested in the fast moving digital part of AUKUS – Pillar 2 – to get it moving, AUKUS would no longer be sucking the oxygen out of the rest of the Defence Force because of its scale and cost and demands for scarce, skilled people.

If the Albanese government had made key decisions on the AUKUS submarine deal to truly get it underway on a path to succeed, this might all be academic.  But aside from announcement of the ‘optimal pathway’ in March this year and encouragement of the Americans to change their laws and build more submarines, the government has taken no actual big decisions that have required spending political capital to make the AUKUS sub deal happen. 

So, on the subs pillar of AUKUS, we have political ‘sunk costs’ but, unlike the disastrous Attack Class sub program, we have not yet sunk billions of dollars into project spending, contractual damages and wasted facilities construction. Already, though, as with the Hunter frigate program, the political and practical difficulties and complexities are growing, and not many seem to have been grappled with well prior to the initial announcement or to date.

That’s a top-level analysis of alternatives.  Defence can release its own or the Defence Strategic Review’s hopefully more detailed version to the Parliament and the Australian public so that we can understand the wisdom of current choices. 

But, of course, the B-21 is not a submarine.

This article was first published in Defence Connect.