On September 15, 2021, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. announced an important new strategic alliance: AUKUS. The three nations are already a part of the important Five Eyes group that also includes Canada and New Zealand in a comprehensive alliance among each country's respective intelligence agencies. However, this AUKUS agreement expanded this important alliance to a defense ground, especially in the Indo-Pacific region, for these three nations. The cornerstone of this deal is the U.S. agreeing to, in steps, supply Australia with the capabilities to produce its own nuclear-powered submarines. Currently, just six countries in the world have this capability, and only once before—with the British in 1958—has the U.S. ever shared its nuclear-propulsion technology.
The AUKUS Plan
AUKUS surged to the front of international media once again as British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, U.S. President Joe Biden, and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese gave a joint announcement on March 13, 2023 unveiling the details of the previously announced plan. Starting this year, the U.S. and the British will increase the frequency with which their nuclear-powered submarines visit Australian ports. Additionally, members of the Australian Navy will begin heading to the U.S. and U.K. to train on nuclear-powered submarines. Then, by 2027, the U.S. and the U.K. will begin permanently stationing their own nuclear-powered submarines at Australian ports. Shortly thereafter, in the early 2030s, Australia will purchase three to five U.S. Virginia-class submarines to supplement its aging fleet.
These are all temporary steps to the long-term goal: an entirely new nuclear-powered submarine class produced for the British and Australian navies using a combination of technology from all three AUKUS nations. This model, called the SSN-AUKUS, will be rolled out in the early 2040s. As described by Prime Minister Albanese, this $300+ billion investment for Australia over 30 years will be the “biggest single investment in Australia's defense capability in all of its history.”
Reaching the end goal of AUKUS will be a long road. Despite a target and budget for launching two new nuclear submarines per year, the U.S. on average launches about 1.5 submarines annually. The process is both expensive and time-consuming, as each submarine takes about six years to complete. One of the most advanced navies in the world taking six years to complete a new submarine demonstrates how long it could take three nations to collaborate on designing and then producing an entirely new model.
Regarding military might, the implications are clear. A U.S. think tank estimated that current Australian submarines could last about 11 days on a trip to the South China Sea, whereas a new nuclear-powered submarine could conduct operations for about two months before returning to port. This allows AUKUS to project power much further north towards China and for a more sustained period of time. These nuclear-powered submarines can go further distances for long periods of time and are harder to detect.
The March 2023 announcement of the details of the AUKUS plan comes just weeks after another announcement related to strategy in the Indo-Pacific: new U.S. military bases in the Philippines. In fact, one to two of the four new bases could be near the northern tip of the Philippines, which is about the only large land mass that is as comparably close to Taiwan as China is. China’s construction of multiple artificial island bases inside of the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China Sea has pushed leaders in Manila closer to the arms of the Americans. The deal is mutually beneficial to both sides as it will allow the U.S. to better monitor Chinese activities in the South China Sea that interfere with Philippine sovereignty, while a BBC headline gives some insight into the benefit the deal brings to Americans: “US secures deal on Philippines bases to complete arc around China.” Both the AUKUS nuclear submarine agreement and the recent deal with the Philippines will allow America and its allies to better compete with China in the territorial dispute battle over the South China Sea.
This increasing strategic focus on the Pacific region has led to suggestions from the British to potentially expand AUKUS to include India and Japan, although a separate yet less intensive grouping without the British known as the Quad already exists. However, former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who helped orchestrate AUKUS, said that “AUKUS was always set up to be a trilateral agreement.” U.S. officials have yet to weigh in on a potential expansion, but have been clear that sharing nuclear-propulsion technology with Australia was a “one-off,” and they do not intend to share it with any further countries.
The Future for AUKUS
While AUKUS is about more than just submarines—with promised collaboration on areas such as hypersonic missiles and artificial intelligence—the focus has been on nuclear-propulsion technology and for good reason. However, AUKUS will not be without challenges, a large one being Australian domestic politics. For the deal to continue, it will need to survive multiple administrations who will have to defend the value in spending hundreds of billions of dollars on an upgraded submarine fleet to their constituents. Other concerns include a classic example of the security dilemma in the international relations field. As one’s adversaries increase their military capabilities, states feel the need to ramp up their own defensive capabilities. To their adversary, these may seem like offensive, aggressive moves, who will then in turn increase their own defensive capabilities which may in turn be seen as offensive, aggressive moves. This cycle that leads to an arms race all comes from problems with perception, and recent developments in the Indo-Pacific are, unfortunately, likely great examples of this security dilemma theory.
Regardless, the recently announced details shed light on the plans for this monumental agreement. Leaders in London, Canberra, and Washington all agree with the AUKUS message put forth by Biden: “we're showing again how democracies can deliver our own security and prosperity... not just for us but for the entire world.” Only time will tell if this deal will stand across multiple administrations from all three nations. In the meantime, U.S.-China competition in the Indo-Pacific will continue to play out on multiple fronts.