AUKUS | A three-way alliance in the Indo-Pacific

The trilateral agreement binds Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. together in a generational partnership for undersea military systems and strategic technology in the Indo-Pacific region at a time when China’s defence capabilities are growing fast

March 19, 2023 01:03 am | Updated April 24, 2023 11:56 am IST

On March 13, Anthony Albanese, Rishi Sunak and Joe Biden, leaders of Australia, the U.K. and the U.S., appeared in front of the USS Missouri, a Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, in San Diego, California, to unveil the AUKUS agreement. The three countries had announced a security alliance in September 2021 and had since then been in talks to thrash out the details of the pact. Last week, the leaders outlined how AUKUS (acronym for Australia, the U.K, and the U.S.) is going to implement its decades-long partnership in undersea military systems and strategic technology. “We’re putting ourselves in the strongest possible position to navigate the challenges of today and tomorrow together,” Mr. Biden said during the meeting. Others readily agreed.

At its crux, the AUKUS partnership is about helping Australia, the island continent in Oceania right outside the “second island chain” in the Pacific, build a fleet of at least eight nuclear-powered submarines. The origins of the agreement go back to a visit by Andrew Shearer, the Director-General of Australia’s Office of National Intelligence, to the U.S. in April 2021, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Shearer had an extraordinary request from the then Prime Minister, Scott Morrison — Canberra was looking at acquiring nuclear submarines.

Dragon in the Pacific

Australia had six Collins-class diesel-electric boats, which were ageing and should be replaced by the early 2030s. The country had reached an agreement with France to buy diesel subs. Nuclear-powered submarines, however, can stay underwater for far longer than diesel boats and travel at greater distance. Australia will be able to operate such subs stealthily for prolonged periods, collect intelligence more robustly and deploy troops quickly. The leaders of the three countries held a top-level discussion in June that year on the sidelines of the G-7 summit in Britain.

What brought them together was the dragon in the Pacific. All three countries were facing the heat of China’s rise. The U.S. was already pivoting to Asia, seeking to reinforce its conventional might, strengthen and streamline coordination with existing allies and build new alliances. It had already identified China as a “revisionist” power and a threat to the “rules-based order”. Britain, which wanted to play a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific in line with the U.S. pivot, also saw China, as it recently described, as an “epoch-defining challenge”. For Australia, a non-nuclear power that had been dependent on its western partners for security guarantees, China’s rapidly growing military capabilities posed fresh challenges. The three of them moved fast. In September 2021, they announced the AUKUS trilateral alliance. And in 18 months, they have an agreement, probably binding all of them together in defence partnership for generations.

The plan is to make nuclear submarines based on British design and using American technology, which will be called SSN-AUKUS. The agreement will be implemented in phases. In the first phase, the U.S. will rotate up to four of its Virginia-class subs through a port in Perth from 2027. The U.S. will train both Australia’s shipyard workers and naval personnel to operate nuclear subs. Britain will rotate one of its Astute class nuclear boats through the base. In the second phase, Australia will buy three Virginia class submarines from the U.S. at a discount, with an option to purchase two more. The U.S. plans to deliver the first of these by 2032 — roughly the time Australia will have to retire its ageing diesel boats.

In the third phase, Australia will have its own nuclear subs. Britain will build the first of the SSN-AUKUS boats in England. Then Australia will build its own in Adelaide. The hulls will have the vertical launching technology of the U.S. — tubes that can carry more advanced missiles in greater numbers than the traditional launchers. It will be a unique blend of U.S. technology, British design and Australian investment. Australia will get its first SSN AUKUS sub by the early 2040s.

The phased implementation will require huge investments in all three countries. The U.S. Navy currently has a fleet of 50 nuclear powered submarines and has plans to extend the fleet to 66. It will urgently have to expand its defence industrial base if it has to both expand its submarine fleet and sell subs to Australia. At present, the U.S. takes almost a year to add one submarine to its fleet. The Pentagon has said it will invest $4.6 billion to expand the U.S.’s submarine production base, while Australia will pump over $2 billion into the industrial bases of the U.S. and U.K. in four years. In the long term, Australia will have to spend up to $245 billion in 32 years to acquire the whole fleet. This needs the commitment and resolve of successive administrations of all the three countries. That the current leaderships of the countries entered into such an agreement is a testimony to their assessment that the competition with China is a generational challenge.

Proliferation fears

While America’s allies have largely taken a favourable view of the agreement, China and Russia have responded sharply. Both have raised questions about nuclear non-proliferation as Australia, a non-nuclear power, will get advanced nuclear subs. The U.S. and Britain have maintained that the submarines will be nuclear-powered, but not nuclear armed (they will have conventional non-nuclear weapons). But critics say the subs will use highly enriched uranium, which could be diverted for weapons. U.S. and British officials counter such criticism saying the reactors at the nuclear plants on the boats are sealed shut. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, says it will hold talks with AUKUS countries to monitor nuclear risks and inspect the subs both before and after their deployment.

But beyond the discussion on technicalities, the bigger picture is the intensifying competition between the U.S. and China. Unlike the U.S., which is protected by and has seamless access to the world’s two greatest oceans, China has wrinkles in its immediate naval periphery. Japan, South Korea and the Philippines are America’s allies. Taiwan, the self-ruled island located just 160 km off Chinese shores, is dependent on the U.S. for security guarantees. Guam, an island in the Western Pacific, is an American territory. Beyond the presence of the U.S. forces and weapons across these geographies, China also faces the hurdles of the first, second and third island chains in force projection across the Pacific. To tackle its limitations, it has built the world’s largest navy and sought to establish its dominance in the South China Sea.

The U.S., which had been the unquestionable superpower in the Pacific since Japan’s surrender in 1945, wants to counter China’s influence. It is holding frequent military drills with South Korea; planning to sell hundreds of cruise missiles to Japan; upgrading a marine regiment in Okinawa; and has recently secured access to four additional military bases in the Philippines. The pivot is under way in full scale. And in AUKUS, it sees a comprehensive, multi-national and multi-phased agreement to bolster its grip on the region and counter China’s influence as the new cold war is gradually taking shape.

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