Paul Keating has blasted Scott Morrison over the decision to build nuclear submarines, saying they will be impotent compared with Chinese naval power by the time they are ready in about 2040.
The former Prime Minister said the boats will be so outdated that using them would be like throwing toothpicks at a mountain.
‘Eight submarines against China in 20 years’ time, a handful of toothpicks at the mountain,’ he told the National Press Club on Wednesday.
Former prime minister Paul Keating appears virtually to address the National Press Club
In September, Mr Morrison cancelled a contract with France for 12 conventional submarines in favour of a new partnership with the US and UK which will give Australia the technology to build nuclear boats for the first time.
But Mr Keating said they will take too long to arrive and pale in comparison to China’s navy which already has six nuclear-powered subs and more than 50 diesel-powered subs.
Mr Keating, who led Australia as a Labor Prime Minister between 1991 and 1996, said the eight US-style nuclear submarines would have no impact militarily.
‘These Virginia-class submarines were designed in the 1990s – by the time we have half a dozen of them it’ll be 2045 or 2050 – they’ll be 50 or 60 years old.
‘In other words, our new submarines will be old tech – it’ll be like buying an old 747.
‘And here we are, we’re going to wait 20 odd years to get the first one and 35 to 40 years to get the lot. For what will be then very old boats.’
Mr Keating said instead of partnering with the UK and US, Australia should have asked the French about nuclear-powered submarines.
‘If we were unhappy with diesels, the obvious choice was the most modern submarine in the drawing board, which is the French nuclear submarine,’ he said.
This graphic compares the strength of the US navy and Chinese navy
Mr Keating said Australia was falling in line with the US strategy to use nuclear ‘hunter killer’ submarines to contain China.
‘The whole point of these hunter killer submarines is to round up the Chinese nuclear submarines and keep them in the shallow waters of the Chinese continental shelf before they get to the Mariana Trench and become invisible,’ he said.
‘To stop them having nuclear capability towards the United States.’
The 77-year-old insisted that China has no desire to expand its territory in the east and said Australia should be focussing on its own defence with conventional subs.
‘[Former Deputy Prime Minister] Kim Beazley and I built the Collins [class submarines]. I built the Anzac frigates, they were built for the defence of Australia. Their range was to stop any incoming vessels, military vessels against us,’ he said.
But Mr Morrison wants US or UK-style nuclear-powered submarines, which are faster, stealthier and can stay at sea longer than conventional submarines, by 2040.
Mr Keating also blasted the Morrison Government over its April 2020 call for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19, which infuriated China and prompted huge tariffs on Australian imports such as barley and wine.
He accused Mr Morrison of ‘wantonly leading Australia into a strategic dead end by its needless provocations against China’.
Instead, he said Australia should show China respect for the way it has brought millions of people out of poverty with rapid economic growth over the past few decades.
‘I think what the Chinese want is the acknowledgement of validity of what they have done and what they have created,’ he said.
Mr Keating, who has frequently defended the Chinese Government, said Australia also should not get involved in Taiwan.
China claims Taiwan as its own territory and has vowed to take it by force if necessary while Taiwan says it is an independent country and will defend its freedoms and democracy.
‘Taiwan is not a vital Australian interest,’ he said.
‘We have no alliance with Taipei, none. Australia should not be drawn in my view into a military engagement over Taiwan, US-sponsored or otherwise.’
Last month Taiwan reported 148 Chinese air force planes had flown over its air defence zone (pictured) over a four day period beginning on the same day China marked a key patriotic holiday, National Day
The latest criticism of the submarine program comes after French ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault accused Australia of stabbing France in the back for the way it failed to tell Paris it was dropping the contract.
Mr Morrison denies lying to President Emmanuel Macron before the announcement and claims France should have realised the $90billion deal was on the rocks – but Mr Thebault said this was ‘fiction’ and used a telling example to prove that France was deceived.
He referred to a joint statement released on August 30 after a video conference between French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly and their Australian counterparts Marise Payne and Peter Dutton.
The statement said the ministers discussed the importance of the submarine deal – but at the same time Australian officials were planning to scrap the agreement and announce a new partnership with the US and UK.
An awkward handshake in Rome between Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (right) and French President Emmanuel Macron (left) at the G20 summit this week
A joint statement (above) released on August 30 said Australia and France had discussed the importance of the submarine deal. Just two weeks later it was scrapped
‘What is a hard fact is that still on August 30, French and Australian ministers of foreign affairs and defence had a dialogue, and they agreed a joint communique,’ Mr Thebault said.
‘It was available to the public and widely acclaimed for its ambition. It agreed the following sentence, ”the two countries underline the importance of the Future Submarine program”.
The deceit was intentional… the way it was handled was plainly a stab in the back
Ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault
‘Do you agree on such a communique when there’s the slightest doubt on something so massive as the official backbone of your co-operation? Maybe on Mars, but not that I know on this planet,’ he said.
Mr Thebault insisted his leader was ‘misled’ and this amounted to a lie among allies.
‘Was the president lied to? Yes, he was,’ he said.
‘Maybe there’s a difference between misleading and lying. But, you know, among heads of states and governments, when you mislead a friend and an aIly, you lie to him.’
A secret leaked text message (pictured) appears to show that Emmanuel Macron was given warning that Australia would torpedo its $90billion submarine deal with France
In a bid to prove he did not lie to President Macron, Mr Morrison’s office earlier this week leaked a personal text between the leaders to show the French President knew the agreement was on shaky ground.
President Macron wrote: ‘Should I expect good or bad news for our joint submarines ambitions?’
Quizzed by reporters in Dubai on Thursday – on his way back from the Glasgow climate summit – Mr Morrison did not deny leaking the text.
‘Claims had been made and those claims were refuted,’ he said.
Mr Morrison had conceded Mr Macron was not aware of negotiations with the US and the UK, but said the French leader was told as early as June that Australia was consulting on other options for submarines.
Why is Australia building nuclear-powered submarines?
Why nuclear submarines?
Nuclear submarines are powered by nuclear reactors which produce heat that creates high-pressured steam to spin turbines and power the boat’s propeller.
They can run for about 20 years before needing to refuel, meaning food supplies are the only limit on time at sea.
The boats are also very quiet, making it harder for enemies to detect them and can travel at top speed – about 40kmh – for longer than diesel-powered subs.
The first nuclear submarines were put to sea by the United States in the 1950s. They are now also in use by Russia, France, the United Kingdom, China, and India.
A senior US defence official told reporters in Washington DC: ‘This will give Australia the capability for their submarines to basically deploy for a longer period, they’re quieter, they’re much more capable.
‘They will allow us to sustain and to improve deterrence across the Indo-Pacific.’
Zack Cooper, a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, said nuclear submarines would hugely boost Australia’s military capability.
‘They are going to be much, much more capable in the large, expansive ocean that is Australia has to deal with,’ he told the ABC.
Will Australia have nuclear weapons?
Scott Morrison made it clear that the nuclear-power submarines will not have nuclear missiles on board.
Australia has never produced nuclear weapons and signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1973 which prevents non-nuclear states which don’t already have them from developing nuclear weapons.
Mr Morrison also said the Australia has no plans to build nuclear power stations which are widely used around the world.
‘But let me be clear, Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability,’ he said.
‘And we will continue to meet all our nuclear non-proliferation obligations.’
Are they safe?
The nuclear reactors are shielded from the rest of the submarine in a separate section to protect the crew from dangerous radiation.
The US has an excellent safety record with its nuclear-powered fleet although early Russian subs suffered a few accidents which caused 20 servicemen to die from radiation exposure between 1960 and 1985.
At the end of their 20-year lifetimes, the contaminated parts of nuclear reactors need to be disposed deep underground in special waste storage cells.
Anti-nuclear campaigners say any leaks of radioactive waste could lead to an environmental disaster.
Greens leader Adam Bandt called the submarines ‘floating Chernobyls’ in reference to the 1986 nuclear power plant explosion in the Soviet Union.
Australia needs to replace its six ageing Collins-class submarines.
In 2016 it signed a deal with French Company Naval Group to build 12 diesel-electric attack subs – but the parties were in dispute over the amount of building that would be done in Australia.
That deal has now been torn up in favour of nuclear powered subs aided by the US and UK who will provide the technology to Australia.
The West is becoming increasingly concerned about the growing assertiveness of China in the Indo-Pacific region where it has made huge territorial claims in the South and East China seas, clashed with Indian troops and repeatedly flown planes over Taiwan.
Mr Morrison wants Australia to have serious defence capability to deter China from encroaching in the Pacific and long-range nuclear submarines are just the ticket.
China has vastly built up its military in the past few years and now possesses six Shang-class nuclear powered attack submarines, equipped with torpedoes and cruise missiles.