By: Vaibhav Borude, Research Analyst, GSDN
AUKUS is a trilateral security organization made up of Australia, the United States of America, and the United Kingdom that focuses on the Indo-Pacific region. As part of AUKUS, a meeting was held on March 13, 2023 in USA. It was attended by US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
This meeting is significant as on September 15, 2021, these 3 parties committed to finding an optimal pathway so that Australia can be provided access to a nuclear-powered submarine while remaining within the limits of non-proliferation standards.
The rising threat of China’s plan to increase its naval power and to displace the USA as a net security provider in the region and become a new world superpower creates a serious challenge for the countries around the Indo-Pacific region, and so Australia is forced to look at better defense infrastructure that include developing conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines (SSN), and the trilateral partnership of Australia, the USA, and the UK fits in this proposition.
In this meeting, an ambitious plan has been put forward so that Australia can be provided with conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine (SSN) capability as soon as possible and also to ensure that Australia has the capability to safely operate, maintain, and regulate this technology, along with setting the highest standards for nuclear proliferation. A phased approach has been put forward, along with the commitments of each nation that include,
- Embedded personal and port visits – The main objective behind this is to accelerate the training and development of Australian Navy personnel. The USA plans to increase the number of SSN visits starting in 2023, and the UK will increase this beginning in 2026.
- Submarine Rotational Force – UK and USA, beginning by 2027, would try to establish the rotational presence of one UK Astute class submarine and two USA Virginia class submarines under the initiative of ‘Submarine Rotational Force-West.” It would also fully comply with the Australian position of no foreign bases within its territory. Australia aims to increase its defense and industrial workforce with this ambitious effort.
- Sale of Virginia Class Submarines – By the start of 2030, the USA aims to sell Australia three Virginia Class submarines after approval from the US Congress. This will provide Australia with SSN capability at the earliest possible time so that it can be in a better position to secure the interest.
- SSN-AUKUS – To meet the long-term defense needs of Australia and bolster its trilateral industrial cooperation, the USA and UK aim to deliver best-in-class submarines to Australia.
This approach would enable Australia to develop its individual capacities to operate a nuclear-powered conventionally armed nuclear submarine. With the enhanced port visit, the capacity of the Australian Navy would be increased, and after the sale of a Virginia-class submarine at the earliest time possible, it would enable Australia to have the capacity at the earliest date possible to protect its interests in the Indian Ocean and ensure smooth transport of goods through the international trade routes.
Australia would ensure responsible stewardship of naval nuclear propulsion technology. Considering the enormity of this endeavor, Australia is committed to ensuring that the safety records of the naval nuclear propulsion programs in the UK and USA are maintained by it. For over 60 years, both the UK and USA have an unmatched safety record; they have operated more than 500 naval nuclear reactors and have collectively traveled more than 150 million miles, which equals over 300 trips to the moon and back from earth.
The nuclear-powered submarine is bound to generate nuclear waste; considering the radioactive nature of this waste, safe disposal of this waste is needed to maintain Earth’s overall health. Australia has committed to maintaining all this nuclear waste in Australia with the best of technology. UK and USA would also assist Australia in developing capabilities to handle it effectively. Australia will manage the nuclear waste effectively so no spillover effects happen.
Further, the AUKUS members have firmly committed to their promise of maintaining nuclear non-proliferation, setting the highest nuclear non-proliferation standards, and also protecting classified information. Australia is a non-nuclear weapon state, and thus it would not seek to acquire nuclear weapons. As part of its commitment, it has also held that it would not enrich the uranium or reprocess the spent fuel to make nuclear weapons. Along with that, they have also committed that they would not produce their own nuclear fuel for their SSN.
The UK and USA will provide Australia with nuclear material in complete units, and these welded units will not require refueling during their lifetimes. The nuclear fuel provided without chemical processing cannot be used to make nuclear fuel, and as Australia lacks this chemical processing, the non-proliferation agreement would not be breached. This initiative is also within the framework of Australia’s Comprehensive Safeguard Agreement and an additional protocol with the International Energy Agency.
This initiative would result in the development of infrastructure and industrial capacity in Australia. The development of submarines would lead to significant investment in Australia’s domestic defense industry and also would lead to job creation, thus boosting their economy. However, the UK and USA would also need to increase their investment in submarine development and complete it within the time period. The US has committed itself to increasing the investment by $2.4 billion from 2023 to 2027. UK is also increasing its investment in the submarine delivery system, which would lead to a further boost in the economy and increase investment in the country as the defense sector has linkages in different sectors.
However, the Chinese challenge remains a constant threat, and according to China, AUKUS and QUAD represent a cold war mentality and are called “small cliques. China is also trying to woo the second line of defense in the Pacific Ocean by bringing in the smaller Pacific nations into their fold. The threat of China was one of the reasons for the coming together of these democratic countries, as the USA, as a global superpower, knows that one who controls the ocean controls the world. However, the United States is trying to bring an increasing number of like-minded countries into its fold to counter the threat of China. India would also benefit from this initiative as it would help counter the Chinese threat in the Indo-Pacific.
The success of AUKUS depends on meeting this bold commitment, and as the Chinese bide their time by hiding their strength, the success of AUKUS depends on hiding the strength of the UK, USA, and Australia and increasing their preparedness to meet any challenge they face in the Indo-Pacific.