The announcement of the optimal pathway for Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines has brought forth, quite rightly, an avalanche of dissection, commentary and analysis. During the past few weeks the national debate has swung from the informed to the concerned, from the supportive to the sometimes unedifying. Out of this cacophony has emerged several key concerns and criticisms.

Many observations have been thoughtful and erudite, warranting much deep thinking and explanation by government, while others lack intellectual rigour.

One of the leading criticisms is the notion of the lost opportunity cost. Some social commentators have used the argument that the cost of the nuclear-powered submarines could end the housing crisis in NSW or solve a crisis in our health system.

These views, while sincere, are misguided because the same could be said for any public policy issue. Ending spending on defence procurements is no more logical than arguing for the cancellation of spending on infrastructure and education to solve housing and health problems.

Ending spending on defence procurements is no more logical than arguing for the cancellation of spending on infrastructure and education to solve housing and health problems.

To undertake this view is analogous to building a house without a front and back door or windows. No one would skip plumbing to have a better backyard or pass on power to have a bigger lounge room.

To other critics of Australia’s AUKUS plans, the battlefield resides in questions of sovereignty. For those in the small but highly vocal minority opposed to the US alliance, AUKUS is further evidence of Australian subservience.

Arguments to break free from this, without jeopardising our ability to maintain our sovereignty, then fall along two alternative paths: first, that charted by Hugh White in his book How to Defend Australia; second, the path to armed neutrality.

White’s version of defending Australia would involve taking a large step away from the US ­alliance while reaping the rewards of continued access to US military technology and intelligence ­sharing – an ultimately unlikely scenario.

In doing so, White has proposed building a more independent military capability to defend the nation. As he argues, the cost of this endeavour and increased independence would be 4 per cent of gross domestic product on defence.

That is double the defence spending we have today. This would be an enormous impost on the budget, the taxpayer and the Australian community – with arguably less military capability to show for it – and with only conjecture as the basis for the argument that the AUKUS plans and current alliance arrangements impose costs on our sovereign national security decision-making.

Advocates of full “sovereign control” depend on the development of what journalist Graeme Dobell described as former prime minister Malcolm Fraser’s search for an “armed neutrality nirvana”. This would require a complete break with the alliance and developing our own sovereign defence industry. The cost of this approach is hard to ascertain but various arguments have put forward figures of between 5 per cent and 8 per cent of GDP on defence.

The other political option would be to adopt the peace movement and the Greens’ proposal of unarmed neutrality. This would mean an abandonment of national sovereignty altogether as it would be outsourced and put into the hands of the international community and the regional security environment – a position no Labor or Coalition prime minister or government would countenance.

What, then, of a midway path for more conventionally powered submarines (SSK) instead of AUKUS SSNs?

Former senior diplomat Peter Varghese noted recently that an SSK would “be smarter to design … which may give us less to offer in a war in northeast Asia but which may be more affordable and more effective in the defence of continental Australia”.

The most likely contender for such a shift is the Turnbull government’s proposed, now cancelled, French Attack-class conventional submarine. This program was costed in 2020 at $90bn to $100bn out-turned dollars to build 12 submarines.

Unlike the AUKUS costings, this price did not include sustainment costs for the life of the SSK program, which were estimated by Defence in 2020 to be $145bn out-turned dollars.

Thus for 12 SSKs the full cost was about $245bn. Factoring in efficiencies and reduced cost per unit across time but offsetting for inflation, a figure of $350bn to $450bn for doubling the fleet from 12 to 24 SSKs would not be unreasonable. In other words, 24 SSKs would cost as much, or possibly much more, than eight nuclear-powered submarines estimated at $268bn to $368bn.

But any assessment on alternative options warrants its own detailed scrutiny, and that scrutiny often raises more questions than it does solutions.

Original plans for construction of the 12 French Attack-class SSKs indicated a build starting in 2022-23, with the first boat entering service in the early 2030s – the same time as the first Virginia-class SSN would come into service – although the Attack-class program was already delayed and not expected to start until 2024. The Attack-class schedule required about a 24-year build period for all 12 SSKs, with final completion around 2048-50.

Tactically speaking, almost all of the advantages sit with the nuclear-powered boat: longer endurance, greater range, high weapons payload, greater overall stealth, extra power for more sensors and autonomous platforms, and no need to come to the surface to “snort” and recharge its batteries.

The major advantage of an SSK is its ability to operate more quietly in shallower littoral waters. However, increased intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance of our seas and oceans make SSK boats increasingly more difficult to operate. So in tactical terms it’s no comparison: the SSN is a far superior capability.

The AUKUS optimal pathway for nuclear-powered submarines is one of, if not the, biggest nation-building projects Australia has undertaken. It warrants ongoing interrogation.

But any assessment on alternative options warrants its own detailed scrutiny, and that scrutiny often raises more questions than it does solutions.

A much more sanguine debate would be to assess AUKUS pillar one relative to other defence projects – including AUKUS pillar two advanced capabilities – to ask why this specific capability, at this price, is more appropriate compared with other options, and is $368bn on nuclear-powered submarines the best value for money for Australia’s security in the current strategic circumstances.

However, as former Australian ambassador to the US Arthur Sinodinos noted on leaving office last month, “We can debate pros and cons (of AUKUS), but in the end a decision had to be made by the Australian government … they crossed the Rubicon. Our job now as a nation is to get on with it.”