The significance of the AUKUS announcement (centred around Pillar I of the agreement) made on 13th March is difficult to understate. Implications for Australia, the United Kingdom (UK), United States (US) and Indo-Pacific region abound. This article will focus on those for Australia, which will be most affected by the agreement.
How AUKUS benefits Australia
Starting ‘as early as 2027’, British and American nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) will be forward deployed to Fleet Base West in Perth, Western Australia. As it phases out its Collins-class submarines in the 2030s, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) will acquire between three to five Virginia-class vessels from the US – the answer to the ‘submarine gap’. A new ‘SSN AUKUS’ – based on British design, and fitted with technology from all three nations, including America’s cutting-edge weapons capabilities – will be the RAN’s SSN, with the first potentially hitting the water by early 2040s.
Acquiring this capability is Australia’s response to the worsening regional security environment. The Indo-Pacific has become a more tumultuous region, with several claims laden with historical revisionism threatening to spark a conflict. Canberra, where AUKUS receives bipartisan support, has decided that acquiring cutting-edge military capabilities is necessary for shaping an Indo-Pacific that best aligns with its interests.
SSNs will certainly improve the RAN’s ability to project power and deter potential adversaries. They are not vulnerable to unpredictable disruptions in refined petroleum supply chains, the significance of which has been highlighted by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and Covid-19. SSNs also last a lot longer in the water than diesel-electric submarines. For example, they can stay ‘on station’ in or around the South China Sea for some 77 days, compared to 11 for diesel-electric vessels. This difference is significant, particularly given that Australia is set to acquire this capability in the single digits; Australia, like the Indo-Pacific, is a big place.
A quick-win for AUKUS is the announced forward deployment of British and American SSNs to Perth, further deepening the footing of the UK and US in the Indo-Pacific. For Australia, the significance of this resides in the fact that it will work towards kitting the RAN with the knowledge and facilities it needs to operate, maintain, and house its own ‘SSN-AUKUS’ vessels.
The longer-term solution entails Australia buying into the UK’s programme in building the Royal Navy’s next generation SSNs. This will have a positive effect of enhancing economies of scale for both nations, and provide a boost to both of their defence-industrial bases. It can be expected that these vessels will be based off the currently-in-service Astute-class SSNs, which are better suited to the RAN than Virginia-class vessels due to their more compact size and required crew capacity.
It is easy to focus on the military hardware; many may have dreamt of submarines after the announcement, and not in a philosophical way. But the true significance of this announcement lies in the willingness of the three AUKUS partners to share some of the most sensitive and impactful technologies of the future and enmesh their already highly sensitive submarine programmes. This binds them together for the next half-century, at least. After some fifty years of ebbs and flows in strategic priorities, the UK and Australia have strategically (re)converged, and the Australia-US alliance has never looked more watertight. The Indo-Pacific security architecture is undergoing a significant transformation.
This pertains to one of the first outstanding issues of the agreement: that of Australian sovereignty. To be sure, the announced pathway and end result does not directly infringe on Australia’s sovereignty: Australia is a sovereign nation able to make its own decisions about issues which may have a grave impact on the Australian people. Canberra can say no. But in some cases this may now be more difficult. If the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were to invade Taiwan, or use armed forces in support of its claims over the South China Sea, particularly if the UK or US were drawn in, Australia would find it difficult to remain uninvolved. This, however, begs the question: if Australia’s regional security environment had deteriorated to such an extent, AUKUS or not, would it want to stand by? The RAN’s acquisition of SSNs should also deter potential aggressors and reduce the likelihood of war.
The main issue for Australia will be funding the entire programme (to the tune of AU$368 billion (£202 billion)) and finding relevant personnel to operate the vessels. Virginia-class SSNs require 132 crew, and RAN personnel will now have to learn how to operate three different classes of submarine over the next 20-odd year period, with two of those classes possessing a capability currently alien to Australia. An education network around operating SSNs will need to be generated; other areas of defence may need to be cut; and Australian shipyards and RAN docks will need some enhancements. A whole-of-government approach is required, and one that will last multiple administrations. This points to another concern: the long-term nature of the acquisition process assumes that London and Washington will continue to support it, something that is not a given – as nothing is in politics.
Equally, Indo-Pacific perceptions of AUKUS will continue to be an issue. The original announcement in 2021 was heavy-handed. This time round, however, the Australians shrewdly contacted close regional partners in the days leading up to the announcement, evidence of lessons learnt and the importance placed by the Albanese administration on listening to the region and responding to any sensitivities in a diplomatic manner. Reactions from Indonesia and Malaysia, whilst measured, still demonstrated concern.
AUKUS has shifted up a gear; a few gears, in fact. Australia is set dramatically to enhance its naval capabilities, but still has numerous hurdles to jump, issues to address, and questions to answer. Australia’s significance in international affairs is growing, and the capabilities it is set to acquire under AUKUS will empower free and open nations in the Indo-Pacific. But it will not be straightforward for Canberra in acquiring and operating SSNs, or cheap. And they are still a while away.
Albanese and his cabinet should keep up their dynamic regionally-focused diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific and openly communicate Australia’s intentions about AUKUS when probed and appropriate. The Chinese Communist Party’s reaction was expected to be critical, yet it is doubtful whether Canberra’s successful diplomatic efforts in smoothing over relations with the PRC will be derailed by the announcement. After all, the People’s Liberation Army Navy can hardly proclaim innocence: it has underway the largest naval build up in the world.
Patrick Triglavcanin is a Senior Research Assistant at the Council on Geostrategy. He specialises in Indo-Pacific geopolitics.
Join our mailing list!
Stay informed about the latest articles from Britain’s World