Does the AUKUS submarine deal compromise Australia’s sovereignty?

Australia’s decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines—and the decisions by the UK and US to support that endeavour—is momentous. If we’re looking for reliable and considered judgements about why and how it came about, we need to await the work of future historians.

Looking just a few years into the past can help us understand some of the equally momentous changes that likely played a role, some more obvious than others. When I last examined the acquisition of nuclear submarines on this forum in 2016, I thought that a marked deterioration of the strategic environment and a marked improvement in allied confidence in Australia’s technical and organisational competence as an operator of submarines would be necessary conditions. Public commentary on the AUKUS deal has focused on the former. No doubt, however, the low-key but real personnel links that have been built between Australia’s submarine (and wider shipbuilding) enterprise and the US Navy since the 2012 Coles review played a significant role in the latter.

In the long term, what the decision means for the role of our alliance with the US and the way we approach developing and sustaining the Australian Defence Force will be as crucial as the political symbolism. What, then, are the implications for Australia’s long-term policies on self-reliance and the ANZUS alliance?

‘Self-reliance’ remains a key Australian policy dating back to the Fraser government’s 1976 defence white paper, if not the 1959 strategic basis paper. Laden with political significance as Australia’s emancipation from its ‘great and powerful friends’ under Labor governments in the 1980s and 1990s, it made a return to Australian strategic policy in the current government’s 2020 defence strategic update.

Prominent criticism of the nuclear submarine decision, notably by former prime minister Paul Keating, focuses on perceived costs in terms of ‘sovereignty’, ‘material dependency on the US’ and loss of ‘freedom of choice’. And, indeed, whether it represents continuity or a departure from the policies that Keating himself espoused in government is a legitimate question.

The focus on self-reliance arose from the realisation, born from experience in repeated crises between Australia and Indonesia over West Papua, Confrontation and East Timor, that a priority interest for Australia is not necessarily one for the US, and that Australia wouldn’t want to have to ask for (politically) costly US military support for a conflict that mattered little to Washington.

At its core, then, self-reliance was about Australia’s desire not to rely on US combat forces in regional crises. However, our ability to do so was in fact enabled by our reliance on US support in almost every other respect, including intelligence, technology and resupply. Self-reliance was never self-sufficiency; it was ‘self-reliance in alliance’.

The decision to acquire nuclear submarines, which will no doubt require far greater reliance on ongoing US (and UK) assistance in the maintenance of Australia’s submarine fleet, is therefore consistent with self-reliance—and the fact that many of our military aircraft are also directly supported from US stores.

In some areas, we had to develop our own technology because we couldn’t obtain it from allies. But naval reactors, while no doubt sensitive technology, are less directly crucial for operational advantage than, for example, certain stealth or electronic warfare technologies that are locked within the impenetrable inner sanctums of US technology secrets. While the 18-month trilateral study period that has now commenced will no doubt give all three governments, if not necessarily their publics, a much greater understanding of the technological dependencies that will result, there’s little reason to suppose that Washington and London didn’t do their own due diligence about complete show stoppers before the very public and prominent announcement of the AUKUS arrangement.

Often mingled in discussions of self-reliance, but quite separate, is the question of freedom of action in cases where Australia might not want to support the US in a conflict. Keating and others are no doubt correct that the decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines is a sign of a much greater confidence in Canberra that US and Australian interests in the competition with China closely coincide.

However, the argument here must be with this underlying judgement, rather than with the decision itself—for history shows how difficult Washington has found it to cajole allies into joint action if they didn’t see it as in their own interest, regardless of how closely they were integrated with, and depended on, the US. Washington’s exasperation about the European abstinence from the war in Vietnam, NATO allies’ refusal to open their airspace for US strikes on Libya in 1986, German and French active opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and indeed Australia’s refusal to participate in the Libya intervention in 2011 are prominent examples.

True, none of these events touched on the strategic essence of the respective alliances in the way that a conflict with Beijing would do for the US–Australia alliance—but ultimately that’s an argument for the soundness of current policy rather than against further integration. And should a future US administration be determined to reduce the burden of its alliance commitments, Australia’s acquisition of nuclear submarines with US assistance would likely stand out as a far more congenial  arrangement than those of allies whose policies remain based on integrating US forces into their own defence.

A second, separate issue arises insofar as references to ‘sovereignty’, ‘freedom of action’ and ‘self-reliance’ imply being able to use military force against Washington’s wishes. Throwing the UK and France under the proverbial bus at Suez in 1956 was just one example of US ruthlessness in this regard. In fact, no country has experienced US power plays more than its close friend Israel, which Washington imposed arms embargoes on in 1967 and withheld crucial supplies from in wars in 1973 and 1982.

But a dose of realism about (industrial) ‘sovereignty’ is in order. Britain couldn’t maintain its nuclear weapons without the US for more than a few months. While France has a genuinely sovereign nuclear arsenal, it never strove for a self-sufficient conventional defence even during the Cold War and remains highly dependent on direct US logistics and intelligence support for its operations in the Sahel. And despite Israel’s development of a sophisticated arms industry, its dependence on the US remains real, and one that Jerusalem realises must ultimately be managed politically, not technologically.

‘Material dependence’ on the US is thus a fact of life for countries that have much greater resources than Australia, and it’s entirely consistent with ‘self-reliance’—as long as that support is something we think the US will be willing and able to provide in relevant circumstances. What the practical implications of this principle are need reinterpretation as strategic circumstances change.

In the 1970s and 1980s, we could assume that the US could comfortably meet our limited demands on advanced munitions and other consumables from its vast Cold War stockpiles. But now, as the 2020 defence strategic update rightly recognised, our needs would compete with—and thus likely miss out to—those of the US itself. In wartime, it would probably be harder for us to get access to US missiles and torpedoes to shoot from our submarines than to find US reactor technicians to service them.

In that sense, as much as the momentous decision to acquire nuclear submarines is a sign of confidence in the alliance, increases the potency of our submarine fleet and remains consistent with self-reliance, by itself it does little to make the alliance and our defence cooperation as such fit for the practical demands of great-power competition and war in the Indo-Pacific. How the decision itself has highlighted some of the shortcomings in the alliance, and how it might help address them, will be the subject of my next post.