Operation Marsupial
by Michael Brenner on 07 Oct 2021 2 Comments



This affair should be viewed as a school-boy prank rather than a serious, consequential strategic move. The United States, as currently constituted and led, is incapable of designing and executing a serious strategy of scope and sophistication. 




The initiative came from Boris Johnson whose tousled head is full of sepia-tinged fanciful visions of how to restore “the land of hope and glory” to its eminence East-of-Suez pre-Singapore and Europe post-Wellington. He easily sold the idea to Scott Morrison, the pliable Prime Minister of Australia, who feels privileged to be a member of the Anglo-American club. The scheme resonated with Washington’s dominant school of hegemonic big thinkers whose own thoughts were running in the same direction. They feel strongly that America is in a titanic struggle with China to be the world’s king of the hill. Australia was an ‘Asian’ feather in America’s cap.


These are the same people who fixed on John Bolton’s bright idea of taking hostage, and holding in detention for three years, the CFO of Huawei (and sister of the founder) as a thumb in the eye of Beijing and a warning to all and sundry that the US would stop at nothing in its project of imposing its will on Iran. (Imagine the uproar were China to seize Sheryl Sandberg in Hong Kong). She was detained on totally specious charges that have no standing in international law except as customized for the occasion by the Department of Justice and its subordinate authority in Ottawa.


The transaction will not be consummated before 2040 – if then. That means that the submarine project can have no military impact for at least a generation.


On the technical side, France could have provided a nuclear-power submarine fleet with the same capabilities had Australia chosen to contract for them (rather than conventionally powered boats) either in 2016 or in a modified contract this year.


Australia lacks the technical/industrial assets and skilled manpower to maintain and operate nuclear submarines; it can barely manage to keep at sea its present boats.


The US Navy will gain access to a modern naval base on the Indian Ocean (Perth) which Canberra will pay for. It also will staff and command the developing submarine fleet on a lease basis until such time in the unforeseeable future that the Australia will be ready to relieve them.


39% of Australia’s exports go to China. It receives 27% of its imports from China.


Military Effects


The submarines in question are attack submarines (hunter-killer) rather than missile platforms (‘boomers’). They are intended a) to protect ‘boomers’ and large surface vessels; and b) to attack both types of the enemy’s fleet. Nuclear-powered varieties have greater range and can stay on station longer than conventional-powered ones.


This project, in straightforward military terms, is a commitment to a large expansion of American naval capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region.


Perth is 4,250 miles from Shanghai; Honolulu is 4,800 miles from Shanghai; Guam is 1,400 miles from Shanghai; Subic Bay in the Philippines is 2,160 miles from Shanghai; San Diego is 6,000 miles from Shanghai.


In the event of a conventional war with the United States (the Taiwan Straits), the Pentagon simulations point to a Chinese victory.


Question: would the United States be prepared to escalate to the nuclear plane e.g. deploying Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs)? Would China reciprocate in kind? Could such nuclear exchanges stop short of strategic exchanges (Doomsday)?


At present, the United States has a strategic nuclear ‘advantage.’ That is to say, the American arsenal is much bigger (3,820 vs <300); are solid-fueled – therefore can be launched much more quickly – than the liquid-fueled Chinese missiles; and probably more accurate – a factor of little importance if the target is cities not missile silos. It is estimated that China has deployed 250-300 nuclear missiles; there is no certainty whether they have multiple warheads. The PRC also has 7 nuclear ‘boomer’ submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles. Like the American missile-launching submarines, the latter are not detectable and could not be neutralized in the event of strategic war.


China has initiated a program to upgrade and to increase its nuclear force. Washington has condemned evidence of its doing so as provocative and another concrete sign of its strategy to expand its global power, i.e. diminish American nuclear ‘superiority’.


How might the United States exploit that nominal ‘superiority’ in the event of war? Theoretically, it could attempt to intimidate the Beijing leadership by issuing a threat that either China cease to press an advantage in the conventional combat or risk escalation – the presumption being that the US would have ‘escalation dominance’ – and, that the threat was credible. In effect, Washington would be saying that it could devastate all of China – and neutralize some part of its land-based strategic nuclear forces - while China’s retaliation would produce ‘tolerable’ damage in the US.


For the sake of Taiwan’s independence, we would be prepared to expose the country to attack by minimally 24 nuclear warheads delivered by undetectable Chinese ‘boomers’. That is to say, our stake in a non-Communist Taiwan is so high that we’d be ready to sacrifice: Dallas, Fort Worth, Amarillo, Houston, San Antonia, El Paso, Austin, Beaumont, Laredo, Abilene, Biloxi, Nacogdoches, Silicon Valley, South Beach – Miami et al.


Credible?: probably not, but our main adversaries do now see the United States as a rogue power, politically unstable and under weak leadership (until a Super Trump reenters the White House in 2025).


No nuclear power has ever threatened another nuclear power in this manner. Indeed, none has overtly threatened a non-nuclear power - albeit Nixon and Kissinger did contemplate their use in Vietnam and Eisenhower did convey vaguely such a message to North Korea as the Panmunjeom armistice talks stalled. It has long been thought that Israel actually primed to launch its nuclear weapons at the depths of the 1973 war, but that is now proven to be untrue. Finally, the United States has refused to make a declaration of “no first use” – as have Russia and China. Indeed, a possible resort to Tactical Nuclear Weapons has been the centerpiece of official NATO strategy in Europe for almost 60 years.


Political Effects


* To the extent that anyone in Washington is doing any actual strategic thinking, the motive behind the Australia move is diplomatic. In the past, Canberra has striven to maintain cordial relations with Beijing while doing nothing to weaken its dependent ties with Washington. As to the latter, since it shifted in the direction of hostility and confrontation with China under Obama, Australia has felt it expedient to emulate the US. Prime Minister Morrison is a strong believer in the America First conception of his country’s external relations. He also is a weak person and not the sharpest tool in the kit. So, he was easily convinced to go along with the slapdash Anglo-American scheme at the cost of Australia’s designation as an “enemy” by China.


* The net effect is to lock Australia tightly in the grip of Uncle Sam while antagonizing China. If that means a deterioration in economic relations between Australia and China, so much the better as far as Washington is concerned. The latter have dogmatic faith that an American-led coalition of democracies can stymie Chinese growth and influence.


* The American approach to the challenge from China is a simplistic 21st century version of the Maginot line. Totally unsuited to the ‘threat,’ it is well-suited to the mindset of our foreign policy elites whose diplomatic aptitude and strategic acumen are severely limited.


* Biden was obliged to telephone President Macron of France so as to apologize for the United States’ insulting treatment of Paris, to promise to make amends at a personal meeting in Europe, and to support – in principle at least, Macron’s pet idea of a European Defense Force under EU auspices, something that Washington has been implacably opposed to for 25 years. The call was similar to the one he made to President Putin of Russia in the spring when American encouragement to Ukraine’s President Zelensky led him to mobilize his military for an assault on the secessionist provinces of the Donbass only to pull the rug out from under him when Russian counter moves portended disaster for Ukraine and humiliation for the US.


It also bore a resemblance to Biden’s call a few weeks earlier to President Xi of China reassuring him that the United States did not want a ‘fight’ with the PRC and urged that both sides observe restraint. That call was necessitated by a series of moves and declarations by senior administration officials indicating that Washington was considering promotion of Taiwan’s independence – actions that were in direct violation of the historic 1972 accord whereby we recognized the ‘one China’ principle. The clear implication is that Biden is not in full control of his government.


* What does the Australian electorate think about this? What will they be thinking if the national economy tanks? In dim awareness of this awkward reality, the Morrison government is hoping to complete desultory negotiations with the EU on a broad free-trade agreement – diverting a portion of its international commerce away from China. Success will depend on the attitude of two countries: Germany and France. Bonne chance!

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