Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is expected to visit Washington in the next two weeks to announce the long-awaited roadmap for the AUKUS submarine agreement alongside UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and US President Joe Biden.
So, what’s involved, what’s at stake, and what are the challenges?
Can Albanese balance the imperatives of the alliance, technological requirements, and regional concerns? And can the plan be implemented in a timely manner?
In September 2021, then Prime Minister Scott Morrison held a surprise virtual three-way meeting alongside Biden and then UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to announce a trilateral technical agreement, called AUKUS.
The deal is to enable Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, as well as deepen defence industry collaboration between the three nations.
It followed a stop-start approach to domestic submarine manufacturing. The 2009 Defence White Paper called for 12 new diesel-electric propulsion submarines. The global financial crisis saw funding cutbacks and delays.
Later, Tony Abbott hoped to buy Japanese-built submarines, but with pressure for local industry input and his grip on power weakening, he was overruled.
His successor, Malcolm Turnbull, set up a multi-billion dollar deal with France instead, with Australia saying it would buy a fleet of conventional submarines.
The French deal was then scrapped by Morrison in favour of the AUKUS plan.
Technological developments made conventional diesel-electric submarines obsolete for Australia.
Australia’s submarines face long transits between ports, let alone to potential distant hot spots. Advances in artificial intelligence and persistent surveillance make detection easier to the point where a short “snort” to recharge batteries is detectable. To lose stealth is to lose the key advantage of submarines, so something had to give.
Nuclear-powered subs can stay underwater for far longer than diesel-electric models.
Another part of the rationale is that the deal would add to deterrence of China as its influence in the Pacific grows.
The Morrison government’s clumsy handling of cancelling the French deal significantly harmed relations.
Critics see AUKUS as a retrograde step, damaging Australia’s regional standing and its nuclear non-proliferation credentials. The Albanese government has pushed back, and its imminent meeting in Washington means it will now wholly own the endeavour. The government still needs to allay regional concerns, but progress has been made.
Critics have also suggested AUKUS compromises Australian sovereignty. Albanese has rightly rejected this view, arguing deployment of military assets in the event of any conflict was
a decision for Australia as a sovereign nation, just as the United States will maintain its sovereignty and the United Kingdom will maintain its.
The irony is that for a boutique defence force like Australia’s, reliance on US technology has come to be an integral part of the plan for defending Australia’s sovereignty.
The Albanese government set about restoring relations with France, and earlier this year France’s ambassador to Australia said the two countries have repaired the relationship.
As for relations with neighbours in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Defence Minister Richard Marles have been actively seeking to allay concerns over nuclear non-proliferation, and of Australia’s commitment to remain engaged as respected partners of ASEAN and the Pacific Islands Forum.
The Albanese government has been stressing that a strengthened defence capability is a net plus for security partners in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
One of the most critical concerns remains the question of how willing the US government and bureaucracy will be to facilitate Australia’s ready access to nuclear propulsion technology beyond the current electoral cycle.
For this to happen, significant extra work is required to overcome US rules that limit the export of nuclear technologies, which are required under AUKUS. Some significant voices are advocating for this on Australia’s behalf.
Australia has become more important for enhanced US military contingency planning, meaning the US has a vested interest in making the Australia alliance work.
With so much at stake, and with evident bipartisan support for AUKUS, tripartite arrangements will likely survive the tempest of local political ebbs and flows.
The government’s plan is to manufacture nuclear-powered subs onshore, though this wouldn’t happen until well into the future. Meanwhile, Australia’s current Collins class submarines are due for a life extension refit to see them through beyond the next decade.
So there’s been intense speculation about an interim solution.
Some have suggested Australia may operate UK-built nuclear-propulsion submarines as a stop-gap until Australia’s production kicks in. The US produces larger boats but its production line is at capacity, while the British option is smaller and easier to crew.
Crew size is a critical limitation for the Australian submarine arm, which has challenges crewing even the significantly smaller Collins class submarines.
What’s more, with Britain facing significant financial pressures, a couple of submarines from the UK production line may act as a lifeline to its naval construction industry, while also providing the Albanese government with the promise of a face-saving submarine delivery before the end of the decade.
We won’t know exactly what the plan is until the official announcement, and we may not get any interim subs at all. Such an outcome would leave Australia reliant on Collins submarines well past their use by date.
Challenges aplenty remain. Australian nuclear technology know-how is limited, and its naval construction industry is experiencing considerable turbulence with long gaps between contracts. The university sector has an important role to meet the nuclear workforce requirements and several, like ANU, are making steady progress.
But the imperatives for closer collaboration are accentuated by darkening clouds in international affairs.
It’s often said that weakness invites adventurism, even aggression. The AUKUS plan is an ambitious, costly and risky one. But these are challenging times. It’s an important plank for bolstering resilience and deterrence and, in turn, reducing the likelihood of adventurism.
The forthcoming Defence Strategic Review, likely to be released in April, can be expected to build on the ties that the AUKUS plan represents.
Now comes the hard part – making the plan come to fruition.
Picture: Astute Class submarine (credit www.royalnavy.mod.uk)