The United Kingdom has a new prime minister. This means that since AUKUS – a technology sharing partnership between the UK, the United States (US) and Australia – was announced in September last year, there will have been a change of leadership in both the UK and Australia.
This might invite speculation as to whether the agreement is sustainable and will survive multiple administrations.
This article was submitted by Patrick Triglavcanin, Research Assistant at the Council on Geostrategy, and is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines.
To compound potential speculation about the agreement’s validity, US Rear Admiral Scott Pappano recently emphasised the overstretched nature of American shipyards, and the doubtfulness of their current ability to aid Australia in building nuclear powered submarines (something Australia cannot do alone). Indeed, the AUKUS agreement is centred around improving Australia’s submarine capabilities but it can be assumed that the UK or US will not do this at the expense of their own fleets.
Obstacles can be overcome
These obstacles, however, are merely that, and ones that can be overcome. The meeting on 31st August between Boris Johnson, Ben Wallace and Richard Marles, the Australian defence minister and deputy prime minister, at the commissioning of HMS Anson underscores this.
First, it demonstrates the Australian Labor Party’s support for AUKUS and determination to move the agreement forward. The new government may find itself in a bind over its non-proliferation policy in the future (which is stiffer than the previous government’s), however, it seems increasing geopolitical tensions are taking precedence in this matter for the time being. The Labor Party’s support for AUKUS is further highlighted by their upholding of the previous government’s commitment to build a new submarine base on Australia’s east coast as a logistical installation for the new nuclear-powered submarines. Australia is clearly preparing for a more tumultuous future where Indo-Pacific security is under increased strain.
Secondly, it led to a concrete advancement in equipping Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. At the meeting, it was agreed that Royal Australian Navy submariners will join the British crew on HMS Anson (in all areas) to train. This is significant. Her Majesty’s Government has never allowed foreign submariners access to the nuclear technology of their submarines. As stated before, this is a capability alien to the Royal Australian Navy – there is a lot of logistical and industrial work needed before Australia can acquire and operate this much-vaunted capability, but this training provides a good starting point.
The effectiveness of British deterrence is enhanced here as a result. Having British, American and Australian submariners on one another’s vessels means that an adversary, should it attack, must prepare to go to war with not one AUKUS member but two, and possibly all three.
A submarine with the best bits from three nations
These two points lead to a further observation: the lengths the UK, US and Australia can go in actualising this partnership. AUKUS is built around trust and will rely on it if it is to be successful. When it exists, unprecedented ground can be overcome.
Lastly, it addresses some of the speculation about where Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines will come from. Wallace said that the best situation would be for the construction of a submarine that has “a bit of all three of us on it”. The nuclear-powered submarines Australia acquires through AUKUS may, in the end, be an entirely different class of their own produced and even operated collaboratively, providing ample opportunities for British manufacturing and know-how in this sector. This seems like the most reasonable option right now, albeit with all the hurdles it entails.
Addressing international criticism of the proliferation risks of the partnership will continue to be a problem for the three. As will AUKUS’ exclusive nature. The rapprochement in ties between Australia and France (which were derailed due to Australia’s cancellation of a lucrative French submarine contract in favour of the AUKUS partnership) is a positive development toward this end.
There is still a long way to go, but the wheels of the AUKUS technology-sharing partnership are turning.