Thomas Mahnken

Dr Thomas Mahnken: Going Nuclear – Submarines, AUKUS and Great Power Competition

Dr. Thomas Mahnken is President and CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He currently serves as a member of the Congressionally-mandated National Defense Strategy Commission and as a member of the Board of Visitors of Marine Corps University. 

His career in defence is extensive and includes service as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning. 

He is the author of numerous books, including The Gathering Pacific Storm: Emerging U.S.-China Strategic Competition in Defense Technological and Industrial Development.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Tom to discuss all things nuclear subs, including why this is was the right call for Australia, the significance of the AUKUS agreement, restoring diplomatic relations with the French, how Australia can get subs before 2038 to avoid capability gaps, the lessons from historic great power competition and what total technological competition with the Chinese Communist Party looks like.

Please keep rating and reviewing the show.  If you have a question, send it through to us on any of our social media channels or directly to Misha.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:

Misha Zelinsky:

Tom, welcome to Diplomates. Thanks so much for joining us.

Tom Mahnken:

It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, huge news over the last week, the announcement related to AUKUS, the awkwardly named acronym. Although, I should say from the outset, Australians, we love acronyms. We basically shorten everything. But awkwardly named AUKUS.

Misha Zelinsky:

But maybe just starting here, you might just explain the significance of this announcement. It’s made a huge splash, not just at home in Australia, but around the world. Why is this so significant, compared to other announcements?

Tom Mahnken:

Well, I think it is tremendously significant. I think it’s tremendously significant for Australia. I think it’s tremendously significant for the United States, and for Great Britain. Because it represents an opportunity to move forward and collaborate closely on cutting-edge capabilities. To enhance the security of each of the parties, but also, the collective security of all three nations.

Misha Zelinsky:

So you’ve been, for a long time, personally … You were telling me before that you’ve been arguing the case, I suppose. So, maybe give us a little bit of the history about we got to this AUKUS announcement, and the history and the arguments around this particular debate relating to a particular nuclear capability.

Tom Mahnken:

Yeah. Well, you’re right. It seems like, as good as the news was last week, it was a long time coming. Because, particularly in the nuclear domain or the nuclear-powered submarine domain, it’s an argument that I’ve been making for the better part of a decade. And not just me, but a number of folks on both sides of the Pacific.

Tom Mahnken:

And I think the reason … Well, there’s multiple reasons why we’ve gotten where we have. But the logic, seems to me, has always been compelling. I think we’ve just gotten to the point now, where we’ve now gotten the political willpower and political imagination to bring that to fruition.

Tom Mahnken:

But the logic behind it, well, first it stems from Australia’s geo-strategic circumstances. That, fortunately for Australia, throughout much of her history, she’s a long ways from those who seek her harm. But of course, the ability to reach out and touch Australia and her interests is growing. So, the capability edge is needed. I think that’s certainly one dimension of it.

Tom Mahnken:

And then, of course, the capabilities of nuclear propulsion when it comes to submarines, I think are particularly appealing to Australia and to Australia’s strategic circumstances.

Misha Zelinsky:

Before we get to the tick itself, I think it’s also important to talk about just how rare it is for a nation to share its nuclear technology. The United States has only previously shared its technology in 1958, so a long time ago, about 60 years ago. And that was with the other partner of AUKUS, the United Kingdom.

Misha Zelinsky:

So maybe explain just exactly the significance of that decision in and of itself.

Tom Mahnken:

Well, look, I think it represents just a statement about just how closely the United States, Australia, and Britain are able to collaborate. So I think it really builds off of, as you say, literally decades of close cooperation in a whole range of areas between the United States and Australia. And now extending that cooperation into the nuclear realm. As you say, heretofore, it’s only been the United States and Great Britain, because of the sensitivity of the technology involved.

Tom Mahnken:

But Australia is a wholly trusted ally, and a wholly trusted partner of the United States, so it makes sense to extend cooperation into this realm. And I would hasten to add, of course, AUKUS is not just about nuclear propulsion for submarines. It envisions collaboration in a whole variety of high-leverage, cutting-edge capabilities.

Tom Mahnken:

This, I think, will just be the first significant case of what I certainly hope will be collaboration in various other areas, as well.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, I think that’s interesting. Because a lot of the detail’s been missed in the politics of it, I suppose, or the reporting, which is focused so much on this monumental decision for Australia to acquire nuclear subs, and break its deal with the French Naval Group maker.

Misha Zelinsky:

But that other component is so critical; it’s almost bigger in some senses. So, just turning to the subs, and you touched on it at the beginning there, but the capability question. Why is it that … Was it almost inevitable that we’d go down the nuclear propulsion path?

Misha Zelinsky:

Maybe for people that don’t quite understand subs, which, I’m one … Why is nuclear superior to diesel technology?

Tom Mahnken:

Yeah. Nuclear propulsion for submarines provides a mixture of speed, range and endurance that’s unmatched by other means of propulsion. So, particularly if you are a continent-sized nation like Australia, located at the crossroads of the Indo-Pacific, you need … The Royal Australia Navy needs submarines with range, with endurance, and with speed.

Tom Mahnken:

So, either that is a nuclear-propelled submarine, or it’s the world’s largest, most capable conventionally powered submarine.

Misha Zelinsky:

Which is what the French were going to build us, basically, or …

Tom Mahnken:

Well, look, so I think Australia has faced, previous to AUKUS, Australia faced a dilemma. Which was, on the one hand, the geo-strategic logic pushes Australia toward nuclear-propelled submarines. On the other hand, to state the obvious, Australia, even though the largest or second largest repository of uranium ore in the world, doesn’t have nuclear power, civilian nuclear power. Doesn’t have a nuclear industry. So, it seems like a little bit of a strange fit.

Tom Mahnken:

And I think, if one looks closely and carefully at Australian defense policy over decades, I think you can see different attempts to deal with that dilemma. And I think fortunately, we’re in a position now, where that dilemma can be solved properly. But yeah, look, if you go back to the process that led to the choice of the Shortfin Barracuda to fulfill the requirement to replace the Collins-

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s the Japanese submarine.

Tom Mahnken:

The Barracuda’s the French design.

Misha Zelinsky:

French, French. Sorry. It was the Soryu [crosstalk 00:07:28].

Tom Mahnken:

Yeah. There were three contenders for that. There was a German contender, a European contender. There was a Japanese contender in the Soryu. And then there was the French contender in the Barracuda, which became the attack class.

Tom Mahnken:

And if you look at that process, and if you look at what the Australian government was looking for … again, in terms of characteristics, in terms of design attributes like speed, range and endurance, they were looking for a nuclear submarine.

Tom Mahnken:

In other words, the only propulsion plant that could really deliver those capabilities was a nuclear propulsion plant. And yet, for all sorts of understandable reasons, the … I would say the Australian government didn’t ask, and the United States didn’t volunteer, at that time.

Tom Mahnken:

But again, fortunately, we’re at a time now, and I think it speaks to the times we’re living in, where the three governments involved were able to make this happen.

Misha Zelinsky:

Was it a mistake to engage Naval Group to build this hybrid submarine that you described there? We sort of, for political reasons, tied ourselves into a pretzel to come up with this … basically converting a nuclear submarine to a diesel submarine, and making it much, much more difficult.

Misha Zelinsky:

And Australia seems to do this a lot. We build these bespoke products that no one else has, which raises the cost and extends the timetable in building them. But was it a mistake to not have bitten the bullet then, in 2016, when the Naval Group contract was signed?

Tom Mahnken:

Look, I think the options that were on the table at the time, each bore with them risks, and risks of different sort. Going the European route would have really put a dent in the Royal Australian Navy’s power projection capability. So really would have been much … resulted in much more of a coastal submarine force.

Tom Mahnken:

The Japanese alternative posed another set of risks. First, Japan at the time had just recently lifted its restrictions on exporting defense articles. And this would have been a big ask for the Japanese government to deliver on. Also, I think the Japanese were looking to continue manufacturing the Soryus in Japan. Whereas, the Australian government was obviously looking for manufacture in Australia. But there was risk there.

Tom Mahnken:

And then, the risk for the French design was … Well, among other things, it was a technical risk. The French design is the design of a nuclear-powered attack submarine, converted to a diesel submarine. And one can argue, as people have argued, that it was nonetheless a proven design.

Tom Mahnken:

But really, switching out the power plant in a submarine renders it a new design. It’s like, I don’t know, taking a six-cylinder BMW and putting a four-cylinder diesel engine in it. Now, the worst thing that can happen, if you were to do something like that with an automobile, is you get a clunker. The worst thing that happens in a submarine if you do something like that is sailors lose their lives.

Tom Mahnken:

So I think there was another set of risks involved there. All this points back to the fact that the best, the optimal solution, back a handful of years ago, was not on the table. And that best optimal solution then was a nuclear submarine.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, interestingly, the talk’s now … people said, “Well, we’ve made the French turn inside-out, to … ” as you say, redesign a nuclear submarine to our specifications. Wouldn’t it have made more sense just to build a French nuclear submarine, just that the one that they were already building?

Misha Zelinsky:

But is that an attainable outcome against the technology that is available through the Virginia-class United States tech, or the Astute-class of British tech? Or is that actually not a good comparator? Because people say it’s like for like, but …

Tom Mahnken:

I think one element has to do with propulsion. So, a nuclear design would have been superior to the world’s largest, most capable, conventional design, which is what you’re looking at. But I think interoperability with the United States is also a key element. So, they’re having a US combat system, as the attack class was to have. And hopefully, the next generation submarine will also have. I think that’s an important part of it, as well.

Tom Mahnken:

And whether that could have been accommodated … On one hand, you would have gotten a truly proven design. On the other hand, it would have been potentially less interoperable. I think that’s yet another factor that weighs here pretty heavily.

Misha Zelinsky:

And what about the fact that, as I understand it, one of the advantages, and certainly, our prime minister Scott Morrison, was talking this up quite a bit … that a British or American nuclear submarine is a once-off fueling proposition. Whereas, the French, you would require a domestic nuclear energy industry to fuel it as you need. Can you maybe explain that? Because I think that’s a fascinating thing that these subs can run on one charge.

Tom Mahnken:

Yep. That’s right, and that’s yet another variable, is the lifecycle of the submarine and the need, or not, to refuel it. American and British nuclear submarines use one variety of reactor for propulsion. The French have gone another path. In terms of the nuclear fuel cycle for the submarine, it ideally would be a one and done for an American or British design.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, what’s the lifespan of a submarine, then, on a …

Tom Mahnken:

Well, it depends on how it’s deployed, essentially. It’s, if you imagine, the plant has so many hours on it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Sure.

Tom Mahnken:

But you’re talking decades of service life.

Misha Zelinsky:

One of the things that I’m really interested about, and you touched on it, the jobs question, and that political economy question. I represent a union at home that has people that work in ship-building. And there’s going to be a lot of jobs in South Australia, particular from the French build.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, trying to work through exactly how long it takes. But one of the things that is … I’ve never quite understood, and maybe you can explain it to me and to people listening, is … Okay. We made this decision in 2016 to build 12 ships with Naval Group. And they’re talking about the first ship hitting the water in 2035. It just seems crazy.

Misha Zelinsky:

And then today, if we were to press Go on an Astute-class or Virginia-class, or something in between, we’re told like 2038. It’s 18 years, pretty much. I can raise a child in that 18 years into an adult, and go out and do things. So, why does it take so long? Explain it as a lay person, it just seems a crazy long lead time.

Tom Mahnken:

Well, I think in specifics, for Australia and Australian skills in Australian ship-building, a key part of this is building those skills. So, going from not having an active submarine production capability to having one, requires a lot of recruitment, a lot of skills development.

Tom Mahnken:

And again, at the front end of the selection process for the Collins replacement, there was actually some very good work done … literally surveying the skills base across Australia for the types of skills and the quantity of skills needed to produce, at that point, a very capable, large conventionally propelled attack submarine.

Tom Mahnken:

And what that analysis showed is … to state the obvious, you didn’t have a lot of highly skilled submarine techs and engineers just sitting around on the beach, waiting to be employed.

Tom Mahnken:

That the skills would have to be developed or brought in from adjacent trades, and folks being trained up. This was actually something that the United States faced in its own way, briefly, in the early to mid 1990s, after the end of the Cold War. Where for us, the question was, what was the minimal production run for our, then, our Los Angeles-class attack submarines, to keep the skills base intact.

Misha Zelinsky:

To avoid the valley of death, as its called.

Tom Mahnken:

Exactly. And now, and I think this will figure into AUKUS going forward … I think now, actually, the challenge that we face is, even though we’ve got a very solid submarine production base, it’s running close to flat-out right now. And there’s growing demand just from the US Navy for attack submarines than obviously our next generation of ballistic missile submarines.

Tom Mahnken:

So even for us, we’re looking at having to probably expand the skills base in some ways. But again, for Australia, starting from zero. Again, it’s not like the last of the Collins-class is just coming off the production line, and now you just roll over to something else.

Tom Mahnken:

No, there’s been a gap. And when you have a gap, hey, look … This is a lesson that on the surface ship side, the Australian government has learned. So, you currently have a continuous build for surface ships, but you don’t have a continuous build for subs. And some of those skills there are just very specialized.

Misha Zelinsky:

That makes sense, in a way. But what it doesn’t address is the fact that arguably, we need subs now. How worried should Australian policy makers be about 2021 today? Make the announcement for the geo-strategic reasons you touched on. We can dig into that in a sec.

Misha Zelinsky:

But this gap between ship in the water in 2038, Collins is going to have to be extended. What sort of problem does that represent for Australia’s defense policy?

Tom Mahnken:

Look, arguably, it’s, again, with political will and political imagination, arguably, the nuclear option can alleviate that window of vulnerability that was, again, that was going to occur because of the age-out of the Collins-class.

Tom Mahnken:

And the way you would alleviate that is through some arrangement. And I’ll just say the US version of that arrangement would be purchase or lease of some number of Virginia-class submarines. You could imagine a parallel conception, where it would involve purchase or lease of British attack submarines. But I’ll stick to what I know best, and I’ll talk about the Virginia-class.

Misha Zelinsky:

You wouldn’t be a patriot if you weren’t selling the US product.

Tom Mahnken:

Well, look, I also think that there’s, back to the industrial base, and back to the size of our submarine force, I think there are probably some in the US Navy who-

Misha Zelinsky:

Won’t love the idea?

Tom Mahnken:

… won’t like what I’m about to say. But, given the size of our submarine force and our procurement, I think there’s greater scope for a non-traditional approach like that, than there is, say, for the British sub force, which is just a much smaller force.

Misha Zelinsky:

Though, as I understand it, the Brits, they’re reaching the end of what they propose to build for themselves. So there is some attraction for them, in terms of capacity in the way you described.

Tom Mahnken:

But either way, I think a key element of this is getting hulls in the water sooner. Again, as you say, not waiting 18 years, or not having to wait 18 years. It’s also skills development, because Australian crews will have to get used to crewing a nuclear powered submarine. And that has challenges of its own.

Misha Zelinsky:

And they’re bigger, right? Even just by themself. So you need more people. But also, speaking of skills, as I understand it, essentially, the captain of a nuclear submarine is essentially a nuclear scientist or an engineer. Right?

Tom Mahnken:

Exactly.

Misha Zelinsky:

So they need to understand how the core works, and the engine works. Because, anything goes wrong, it can be catastrophic.

Tom Mahnken:

And not just the commanding officer, but really, the whole ward room and your senior enlisted folks are highly skilled, highly trained professionals. And the US Navy, the Royal Navy, have over decades, developed training, education pipelines, security apparatuses, to maintain the highest levels of safety and security and readiness, with their nuclear submarine forces.

Misha Zelinsky:

So how would you imagine then, could you foresee a situation where, say, we buy one off the shelf initially, whilst working out how to build them at home, or lease one, as you described. Can you imagine jointly crewing these, and learning alongside US or British sailors? Is that possible under these arrangements?

Tom Mahnken:

I think it borders on the mandatory, not just possible. I think that’s what needs to happen. Now again, that’s perhaps less of a stretch than many, most Australians, might imagine. In that there is a history of collaboration/cooperation between the US submarine force and the Australian submarine force.

Tom Mahnken:

And certainly, there are Commonwealth manning arrangements between the UK and Australia. In other words, there are decades of ties and relationships that take this from being just some pie in the sky idea, to something that is imminently practical.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, you talked about safety there; you talked about … A number of times, you’ve talked about this is a highly technical piece of equipment. So, one of the comments … so, “Fortunately, this has been, has bipartisan support in Australia.” The Labor party, as you know, I’m close to, and the Labor Party supporting it, which is good, on the proviso that we don’t have domestic nuclear energy production.

Misha Zelinsky:

Which, funnily enough, I actually think we should have. But I have a fringe position. I’ve also thought we should have nuclear subs sometimes. But nevertheless, that’s the position of the Labor Party leadership at this time.

Misha Zelinsky:

The Greens Party, who are sort of the far left party, have described nuclear submarines as floating Chernobyls … Maybe you can talk a little bit about the safety record of nuclear submarines. Because it’s actually very strong, as I understand it. But I’d be keen to hear from you on that.

Tom Mahnken:

Yeah, look, the safety record of American nuclear submarines or British nuclear submarines, of Western nuclear submarines … Let’s just take the Soviet Union out of it, is actually, yeah … is very strong. And that’s built on, there’s a technical dimension to that that has to do with reactor design. The reactors that the US Navy uses are quite safe.

Tom Mahnken:

It also has to do with education; it has to do with training. It has to do with personnel selection, a whole host of things. But yeah, the track record of not just the US Navy, but certainly including the US Navy on these matters, is really, really very strong.

Misha Zelinsky:

Good to hear. Certainly not floating Chernobyls, there.

Tom Mahnken:

No, not at all. Not at all.

Misha Zelinsky:

Noting the Soviet Union issue – which is perhaps a better analogy for the Greens Party, if they would like to pursue that, I’m thinking. But so, we’ve spoken a lot about the French. We need to really talk about the French reaction to this.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, in my view, it’s a bit of a failure of diplomacy, certainly on the Australian side of things. I’ve maintained the people of Australia’s been breaking hearts on these submarine deals, broke the Japanese hearts with Abe. Now, with the French and Macron. I don’t think he can break …

Misha Zelinsky:

And this is not a commentary on the United States, United Kingdom. But I don’t think he can break a $90 billion marriage via text message. So when you’ve seen ambassadors being recalled, not from the United Kingdom but from the United States and Australia, I think you’ve kind of mishandled the diplomacy.

Misha Zelinsky:

How important do you think the French are to this overall architecture of democracy, getting together in this Biden White House’s view that we need to stitch democracies together as a counterweight to autocracies? Pretty negative outcome, do you think? You got a NATO ally really with his nose out of joint about what the three nations have done here.

Tom Mahnken:

And I think it’s a shame. Because I think France is a world power. France-

Misha Zelinsky:

And an Indo-Pacific power.

Tom Mahnken:

Yeah. I was about to say, France is an Indo-Pacific power, and realizes it, and acts like it. And certainly, Franco-Australian relations have been closening around Indo-Pacific issues. So I think it’s regrettable that the French government has reacted the way it has.

Tom Mahnken:

And whether there was action or inaction on the part of the United States, Australia, UK, that contributed to that, that would also be regrettable.

Tom Mahnken:

But I think that France is an important actor moving forward. But I would say, look, just in, as I alluded to earlier, just in the case of the submarine deal, again, it’s … It struck me at the time, and it’s struck me in the year since. It was a little bit of a forced fit.

Tom Mahnken:

And when it is a forced fit, again, I’ll take countries out of it. I always like to say that when you’re doing something new, when you’re building something new … whether it’s military hardware or something else, you pay for it. You pay for it in money; you pay for it in time. And what Australia and France agreed to do was something new, in ways that maybe were variously acknowledged or unacknowledged by both parties.

Tom Mahnken:

So, when costs ballooned and when schedules stretched out, one shouldn’t have been surprised. But that did leave the capability gap that you talked about a few minutes ago. And seems to me that you can’t wait forever. And particularly, if there is a better solution, and a path to a better solution that also is … can be a more near-term one.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. I think any fair-minded analyst would say that it was always a complex decision that we entered into with Naval Group. The relationship, frankly, notwithstanding the way it’s blown up, so to speak, in the last fortnight … It was already in rocky territory.

Misha Zelinsky:

Morrison and Macron had had discussions about, had problems with it. Naval Group were not keeping up their end of the bargain, in terms of timetable, or engagement with domestic procurement in Australia there. And a lot of promises were made before entering into the agreement, which had not been followed up on.

Misha Zelinsky:

But how do you see … France is a key player globally, in the Indo-Pacific, key NATO player, key player in Europe. What can be done to repair that relationship, do you think? Is this a question of time, or are there things that could be done actively, to deepen them into … not just the ego piece, but what could be done on a practical way?

Tom Mahnken:

Well, look, I think … And again, far be it from me to tell the French government or French analysts what’s in France’s interest.

Misha Zelinsky:

I got it.

Tom Mahnken:

But I think, actually, if you step back and look at the vision of AUKUS, at least when it comes to … Or I’ll say particularly when it comes to the nuclear-powered submarines, what we’re talking about here is in France’s interest. And that is not just Australia getting into the nuclear submarine business, but the dimension that we haven’t talked about yet, which is keeping Great Britain in the nuclear submarine business. I think that’s a key part of it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Why is that important?

Tom Mahnken:

Well, I think it’s important to France in a NATO context, that the Royal Navy be as capable as possible. It’s also important, again, when you talk about nuclear submarines, you can go beyond the NATO context and the European context, or global context.

Tom Mahnken:

And France, as a democracy, with other advanced democracies, should want Great Britain, the Royal Navy, the Royal Australian Navy, the US Navy … to be as capable as they can be. So again, I think, step back, several deep breaths … That is hopefully the view that’ll emerge in Paris and elsewhere.

Misha Zelinsky:

I want to shift to the geopolitics of this. Last question I want to ask you is Collins. It’s had a bit of a bad rap over many years, though it’s, as I understand it, a pretty decent sub these days.

Tom Mahnken:

Absolutely.

Misha Zelinsky:

How capable is it going to be until we get our hands on some Virginia-class or Astute-class submarines, in the way that you described before? How problematic is it going to be relying on the Collins-class into the 2030s?

Tom Mahnken:

Look, as you noted, I think Collins has suffered from, in an unfair, longterm way, from teething pains that the boats had early on in their life. And again, that’s something that just happens. Again, particularly when it’s something new, you inevitably have problems. That gets bad press. You fix the problems; you get increased capability, but people remember the problems.

Tom Mahnken:

Look, the main problem with the boats is that they’re getting towards the end of their life. So, there’ll need to be some investments made in keeping them in fighting shape.

Tom Mahnken:

I think that the key judgment, and again, this is a judgment that the Australian government will have to make in this case and other cases … The case that US government has to make with a bunch of older platforms, is at what point are you just putting a disproportionate amount of money into upkeep. Because I think any weapon system’s life, you get to a certain point, it’s almost an asymptotic curve where you’re just spending more and more and more to maintain-

Misha Zelinsky:

Propulsion capability.

Tom Mahnken:

Exactly. And again, I would not presume to tell the Australian government what that point is. What I would say, again, back to the idea of leasing, purchase of submarines like the Virginia-class, is that it does offer some relief there.

Tom Mahnken:

It does offer some relief to transition crews off of Collins-class, and on to the next generation. And also, get those … alleviate those older boats from the operational burden, the deployment burden, while letting newer boats do that.

Misha Zelinsky:

I suppose the big question here is why now. Subtext to what you were saying, I think your term was not asked and not answered. Basically, in 2016, when we were looking at subs, I think had Malcolm Turnbull … was the Prime Minister at the time, picked up the phone, rung … It may have been late-stage Barack Obama, or early-stage Donald Trump presidency, and said, “Listen, mate. We’d like some of your submarine technology,” the answer would have been no. Fair to say?

Tom Mahnken:

Well, I think that’s a great question. I’d say the counterpart question is would any Australian prime minister around that period, have taken the political risk of doing so without knowing in advance … whether it was President Obama or President Trump on the other end of the phone, was going to say in advance.

Tom Mahnken:

I really do think it was the two things going together. And I do think, and this was the argument that I made for the better part of a decade, was … The argument that I made was frankly, that it was in the US interest to make it known to the Australian government that, should the Australian government ask this, that this option would be on the table.

Tom Mahnken:

Obviously, it’s a sovereign decision by Australia. But I think it would have made sense then, ultimately did make sense, to just put that option on the table. But short of that, again, you have this awkward dance between … even in an awkward dance even between very close allies, over, “Okay. Well, am I really going to lead with my chin on this one?” When the answer might be no, or might be, “We’ll study it.”

Tom Mahnken:

But I think that the … At the time, the US answer of “We’ll study it,” would be to turn it over to the bureaucracy. And I think the bureaucracy would have done what bureaucracies do. Bureaucracies, where good ideas go to die … so probably wouldn’t have survived contact with the bureaucracy.

Tom Mahnken:

But like I say, we’re in a position now, I think for good and bad reasons, generally speaking … where this now has become politically feasible.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, why is it then? What has changed in the geo-strategic environment, in the Indo-Pacific suddenly, that … why would Australia now decide, “Look, the diesel subs aren’t going to cut the mustard. We need to bite the bullet and go nuclear,” for the first time in history?

Tom Mahnken:

I don’t know. What could it be? I don’t know. Could be climate change; could be migration. Oh, it could be China, too. It could be China. And it could be increasing concern over a worsening military balance. And increasing concern, I would say both, about Australian defense. Again, neither, I think, you nor your listeners really need to have that rehearsed.

Tom Mahnken:

But you certainly have growing commitment in recent years by the Australian government, to national defense, which is a reflection of a worsening strategic environment. Concern over, I’d say, a looming period of danger. We don’t have, again, back to the … you don’t have 18 years and a lot of hope that the right thing will emerge just over time.

Tom Mahnken:

So, I think that certainly is a part of it. And I think, on the part of the United States, you have, I think, a very closely shared perception of that strategic environment. And also, a desire to do more and work more closely, particularly with our closest, most trusted allies.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, is this the start of a new Cold War? You got the Chinese Communist Party and its various mouthpieces, saying, “Oh, this is an outrageous provocation.” I would say it’s a response to the outward belligerence of the Chinese Communist Party and the construction in the South China Sea, militarized islands, and the false claiming of sovereignty there.

Misha Zelinsky:

Australia’s presently dealing with a number of billions of trade coercion as a result of domestic decisions around foreign interference, principally related to China’s Communist Party. Is it incumbent upon democracies to be more accommodative of this approach from the Chinese Communist Party? Or are they crying crocodile tears about this decision?

Tom Mahnken:

Look, I think you’re right to ask this question. I think we should all ask ourselves, what is it about Chinese behavior, truly concerns us. I think that’s a clarifying question. And as I try to answer that question, I really have four answers.

Tom Mahnken:

The first is, it is, in general, Chinese international behavior, and the pattern of Chinese international behavior. We care more about, and we’re more concerned about China today, because China is, and the Chinese Communist Party is, more active externally.

Tom Mahnken:

Second, and more specifically, its behavior in maritime Asia, maritime Asia-Pacific. That is what, I think, concerns Americans. I’d say it concerns Australians as well, more than, say, activity in other areas.

Tom Mahnken:

Third, it’s a Chinese Communist Party that has grown increasingly dissatisfied with the international status quo. And is more and more overt about wanting to change that status quo.

Tom Mahnken:

And then the first, the final, rather, point that, sometimes we don’t like to talk about it in polite company, is the fact that China is an authoritarian power.

Misha Zelinsky:

Totalitarian, I would probably just go further.

Tom Mahnken:

Absolutely. And so, that actually is … a friend and colleague of mine coined the phrase a number of years ago, so I’ll steal it now. But I would say, China wants to make the world safe for totalitarianism. If for no other reason, to help the Chinese Communist Party perpetuate itself.

Tom Mahnken:

Those are the things that have brought us to where we are today. I think the … calling it a Cold War II, capital C, capital W, probably Roman numeral two. That may be overblown. Is it a lower case C, lower case W cold war, or a peacetime competition, or great power competition? I think that’s a little bit more … maybe less evocative, but I think that’s more accurate.

Tom Mahnken:

And look, China’s been competing with us for decades now. I think we, the Western democracies, have been a little bit late to wake up to that. But we are awake to it. And that means we need to protect, defend those things that we care about. Because if we don’t, we could easily see them go away.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just to quickly unpack something you said there, I think that we always look to history to try to see patterns, as Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.” But Cold War’s an imperfect analogy for many ways, but particularly because we’ve had very distinct and separate geographies and systems.

Misha Zelinsky:

What we have now is entwined economies, information systems enmeshed. And you’ve got competing political systems within that. And obviously, you’ve got a lot of asymmetry, too. That we remain relatively open, and China, Russia and others are completely closed, more or less. So, there’s no reciprocity.

Misha Zelinsky:

But how do you see that contest playing out? In these questions of systems competition, but also in that technological competition?

Tom Mahnken:

Yeah, look, I think you’ve stated it accurately. You mentioned the word reciprocity, and I should just pick up on that. Because I think it’s something that we haven’t thought enough about, and really should probably think more about.

Tom Mahnken:

And here’s where I will go back in history, to the capital C, capital W, Cold War. One of the things that the US and like-minded allies eventually adopted during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, was a policy of reciprocity. As a matter of fact, my godmother actually worked in the State Department office that sort of enforced reciprocity.

Tom Mahnken:

And I think it’s the type of idea whose time may have come again. Look, if the Chinese Communist Party is really serious about being treated as an equal, then I think we should take them at their word, and we should treat them on the basis of strict reciprocity.

Tom Mahnken:

Any access that they gain to our economies should be predicated on access that we have to theirs. Their access to our information sphere, our public, our population, should be predicated on equal access.

Tom Mahnken:

In the Cold War, it was, again, the diplomats had it down to a fine art. Which was, “All right. Well, what did American diplomats in Moscow get to do and not do? Okay, well, Soviet diplomats in the United States, you get treated the same exact way.” I think if we were to think about that, our relationship in that way, it might lead us down some very interesting paths.

Misha Zelinsky:

One thing I’m keen, just to follow along the conversation there … One of the things a lot of people talk about in all these areas we’ve discussed, is the competition piece. But then the inevitability. What China and the Chinese Communist Party like to project is linear inevitability, therefore, don’t bother.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, we see a lot of this sort of discourse in Australia. United States is in decline. The Chinese Communist Party and China are the inevitable new superpower that will eclipse everyone on any sort of linear projection.

Misha Zelinsky:

And therefore, how can you aim to compete? Don’t try. Try to live with the angry dragon, rather than antagonizing them. How do you see that narrative and that challenge, in a policy context, as well as a … I guess, a systems competition context?

Tom Mahnken:

Yeah. I’d respond in two ways. One is, just because we’re talking about competing with China, there’s no inevitability as to where that competition will go. If we go back and look at competitions between great powers historically, some of them have led to war. The Anglo-German competition bred two world wars.

Tom Mahnken:

Other times, competition actually leads to a satisfactory settlement to all concerned. The competition that I think many Americans forget about, or don’t like to think about, is the Anglo-American competition that went up until the beginning of the 20th century. We don’t think about it, by and large, because it was resolved amicably.

Tom Mahnken:

Now, I would just say parenthetically, maybe one of the reasons it was resolved that way was because ultimately, it was a competition between democracies. So, just hold that thought. But then again, if we go back to the big Cold War, the US-Soviet competition, that was sort of a middle case. It didn’t lead to war. It didn’t lead to war, thank God, between the United States and Soviet Union.

Tom Mahnken:

It ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it was sort of a middle case. So, I would caution against inevitability in that sense. Just because we’re talking about competition now, doesn’t mean we are destined for war, to quote Graham Allison’s book.

Tom Mahnken:

Now, but if we now just think about the United States and the Western allies versus China, I don’t think that there’s inevitability about China’s future trajectory, either. And again, here I’ll revert to history.

Tom Mahnken:

Look, from the perspective of the second half of the 1970s, early 1980s, it looked to many, to most in the West, that the Soviets were strong; they were powerful. Their gains just kept mounting. When in fact, there were some very deep weaknesses and systemic weaknesses of the Soviet system that were laid bare at the end of the decade. But those weak, systemic, catastrophic weaknesses of the Soviet Union were all but invisible to many, to most observers, including to specialists.

Tom Mahnken:

So, lesson one, shame on them. Should have done a better job. But lesson two, things can change fairly rapidly, and they can change particularly rapidly in the face of strategic pressure. And that’s part of what the United States, its allies, did in … beginning in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. So, I reject wholeheartedly the idea that any of this is inevitable.

Misha Zelinsky:

One final technical question about this rivalry, going back to where we began, around subs, productions, navies. A lot of people, again, around this linear projection piece, say, “China has the world’s biggest navy now. It’s eclipsed the United States as a maritime power. And then if you look at production rates, China is putting a new sub into the water, one every year. Which is a pretty quick rate. And we, the royal we, the West behind. And therefore, we’re well behind in this contest.”

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve talked about some of the shortages that we’re seeing in the United States. So then, how do you see that? Is that an alarmist take? Is that an accurate take? Is that a ill-informed take?

Tom Mahnken:

Look, I think at the heart of it, at the very root of it, China is a continental power. China is a continental power, whose circumstances have permitted it to go to sea. And I mean its political circumstances, the fact that China’s continental borders have been largely peaceful.

Tom Mahnken:

And her economic circumstances, Chinese prosperity, have conspired to allow, to permit, to give China the luxury of expanding her navy and also, you could say, air forces.

Tom Mahnken:

But look, for the United States, and certainly for Great Britain, we’re maritime powers. It’s not elective. So, I think American superiority at sea is not willed by God. It is the product of men. But it is built on decades and decades of experience.

Tom Mahnken:

Whereas, I think the Chinese are … sure, they’ve been making some real gains, but from a pretty low starting point. They see the benefits; they see the attractiveness of sea power. Whether they can ever really get there, I think is an open question. Because again, historically, I would say China’s but the most recent in a series of continental powers that have sought to become sea powers.

Tom Mahnken:

Whether it’s 18th, 19th century France, 19th, early 20th century Germany, Soviet Union … And at least in those cases, ended badly for the continental power that aspired to be a sea power. It doesn’t mean that it’s destined to repeat this cycle. But I would be a little … It’s not a recipe for ignoring what the Chinese are doing.

Tom Mahnken:

But it should be a recipe for us to be more confident in our deep strengths. And to do more to exploit those deep strengths. And again, to take us full circle to AUKUS, that’s why I think that this is actually so important, so compelling, and so potentially consequential.

Tom Mahnken:

I say potentially, just because obviously, it depends on what governments do from here on out to make it real. But potentially, a very consequential development.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve touched on AUKUS, which is … I always note how bad my segues are, into this final question after a lot of heavy discussion of naval sea powers, continental powers, nuclear propulsion technology. Now we’re going to get into the real business with you, Tom, about … You are a foreign guest on my show.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, as a foreign guest, you are obliged … I’m sorry. You’ve got to bring three Australians to a barbecue. Hopefully, they’re not too obnoxious. But, who are they, and why, in the spirit of AUKUS?

Tom Mahnken:

In the spirit of AUKUS. Well-

Misha Zelinsky:

No Brits, though.

Tom Mahnken:

Yeah, no. Okay, right. Yeah. Because they wouldn’t know what to do. Well, you have to give me a little bit of latitude. Actually, the first would be John Howard.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right.

Tom Mahnken:

I presume I have to give you a reason why, right?

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, [crosstalk 00:51:28].

Tom Mahnken:

Because the last time I gave it because-

Misha Zelinsky:

Ok

Tom Mahnken:

… look, I would say Howard because he’s a compelling political figure. And because he was a close friend to the United States at a time when we needed close friends.

Misha Zelinsky:

He’s the only Australian prime minister to have ever enacted the protections under ANZUS.

Tom Mahnken:

He’s an easy one. The second one is Peter Garrett.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right.

Tom Mahnken:

And that’s because I’d like to see him at a barbecue with John Howard.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, they were in Parliament together for a period.

Tom Mahnken:

And maybe we’d need some entertainment. So, [crosstalk 00:52:07]-

Misha Zelinsky:

That would be … you might need to break up with some Midnight Oil music. Because I’m not sure they’d have a great deal in common, mate.

Tom Mahnken:

That’s the second one. The third one would be actually the late professor Coral Bell, who I think wrote just so insightfully about international politics and the Indo-Pacific. So, I would have to rely on a little bit of magic to bring her back for the barbecue. But she’d be a fitting companion for a good deep discussion of trilateral collaboration and the Indo-Pacific.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, hopefully, she’s got good diplomacy skills to break up Howard and Garrett. But that’s a fantastic way to end the conversation. So, Tom, thanks so much for coming on the show. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

Tom Mahnken:

My pleasure.