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  • Writer's pictureIan Fletcher

Nuclear Boats


The anxious watch over the latest Covid lockdowns in New Zealand has kept much of our national focus off the Aukus deal, announced mid-month, where the US agreed to supply technology to let Australia build eight nuclear attack submarines (attack submarines hunt other subs, and ships; they don’t carry ballistic missiles). Australia dumped a commitment to buy twelve non-nuclear boats from France. The new boats will come into service (all being well) in the middle of the next decade.

Ian Fletcher, the former head of the GCSB weighs in on the Aukus deal.

How significant is this?

Militarily, it’ll make quite a difference: if completed, Australia’s eight boats would outnumber the UK’s current six attack boats globally. The US has over 50 in service, spread over all the world’s oceans. Maybe half the total will be available at any time. Technically, even the French agree the nuclear boats are better than the alternatives. If there’s a war, the US and Australia would be able to largely contain China’s navy to its home waters and threaten mainland targets with cruise missiles.

And it’s all about China. The US/China rivalry has sharpened in recent years into a real contest for dominance, especially in our part of the world. China’s military testing of Taiwan, the rendering of Hong Kong into political submission, various rivalry-by-reclamation projects in the South China Sea have all added up. Australia has been quite a target and has clearly decided to ostentatiously defend itself. The submarine deal is the high point – so far.

In practice, all this new hardware will also defend New Zealand, just because we will be in the shadow of the Australian and US navies to our North. But there are risks: China’s ‘grey zone’ (between peace and war) activities risk escalation, and almost all our imports and exports are shipped through potentially contested waters. China will want to act sooner rather than later before the Australians and Americans get organised. The political temperature has just gone up sharply.

The fallout from the Aukus deal, struck by the USA and Australia, could rub off on New Zealand's reputation, Ian Fletcher says.

In making this announcement, the US and Australia treated France shabbily. Other allies will be reluctant to fully trust America and Australia for a long time.

Some of that reputational damage will rub off on us. New Zealand will still hope that it has an independent foreign policy. But that’s not worth much if we can’t either defend ourselves or have much to offer in other ways. Irrelevance looks like impotence. Time to take a long hard look at ourselves.

Ian Fletcher is a former chief executive of the UK Patents Office, free trade negotiator with the European Commission, biosecurity expert for the Queensland government and head of New Zealand’s security agency. These days he is a commercial flower grower in the Wairarapa and consultant to the apiculture industry with NZ Beekeeping Inc.


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