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Making the most of AUKUS

Posted By on October 27, 2022 @ 15:15

Australia is in style inside the Washington beltway. While AUKUS might not yet have a slogan like the ‘Throw another shrimp on the barbie’ that characterised earlier rounds of American Australophilia, it has captured the imagination of the DC policy elite. There’s broad goodwill for Australia’s bold ambition to acquire nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs).

One reason for the commitment is that the factors that drove the initial announcement are as pressing as ever. The growth of China’s military power continues unabated. The Chinese Communist Party’s willingness to extend its influence and exert coercive power over its neighbours continues. President Xi Jinping has reiterated his intent to unify Taiwan by whatever means necessary. Events such as the signing of a Chinese security pact with the Solomon Islands and the People’s Liberation Army’s demonstration of military power close to Taiwan in the wake of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island have only confirmed the need for AUKUS.

Since the original announcement in September last year, two of the three members’ leaders have been replaced. The UK’s political system is in turmoil and the government under new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has other things to focus on than AUKUS. But Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese remains committed to AUKUS, having stated that the nuclear submarines are non-negotiable in the defence strategic review that’s now underway. Most importantly, since ultimately the agreement will stand or fall according to the US’s commitment, US President Joe Biden remains in the job and is still firmly backing AUKUS.

Biden’s interim national security strategic guidance released in early 2021 set out the drivers that led to the formulation of the AUKUS agreement. Those drivers have now been confirmed in Biden’s recently released national security strategy. The document’s guiding theme of ‘integrated deterrence’ emphasises the need for ‘integration with allies and partners through investments in interoperability and joint capability development, cooperative posture planning, and coordinated diplomatic and economic approaches’. That’s AUKUS in a nutshell.

Washington wants to see Australia’s SSN ambitions succeed and is mobilising to help. Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead, the head of Australia’s nuclear-powered submarine taskforce, charged with developing the ‘optimal pathway’ for Australia’s nuclear submarine enterprise, has consistently reported that he is getting excellent support from his US interlocutors.

But establishing the capability will still be difficult and there is certainly no consensus yet on the way forward (at least in public). Early opinions that reduced the key decision to simply choosing the US’s Virginia-class design or the UK’s Astute class have given way to more informed understandings that appreciate the extent of the challenges.

In the US, as here, there’s growing awareness of the limitations of America’s industrial capacity. The US Navy has stood up its Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program, which is essential to its nuclear deterrence and consequently is the navy’s highest priority. But there are signs it is already cannibalising resources from the Virginia-class SSN program. The US simply can’t build boats for Australia in the near term without it affecting its own submarine programs.

Support for AUKUS in the US will evaporate quickly if it’s simply a zero-sum game in which increases to Australian capability come at a cost to the US’s.

In the US, as here, there are a range of views on whether the solution is to increase US capacity, set up a production line in Australia, or pursue some kind of hybrid build approach. Mead’s task is to determine which will be of greatest benefit to all three AUKUS partners.

Establishing industrial capability in Australia raises another widely held concern in the US: whether Naval Reactors, the Jedi-like institution that safeguards the US Navy’s nuclear-propulsion technology and enforces the most rigorous safeguards, will support the establishment of construction and overhaul facilities in Australia.

While some US observers seem sceptical that Naval Reactors will allow it, most believe it won’t block it; there is, after all, the precedent of a US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier being maintained in Japan. But it will require Australia to meet the same high standards as the US Navy and its industry partners—standards that so far have resulted in a perfect safety record in the US nuclear-propulsion program.

Australia has taken that message on board—the mantra of Mead’s organisation is nuclear stewardship. But it will take only one misstep and, again, support will evaporate.

The exact way forward may not be clear for SSNs, but at least that line of AUKUS effort is making progress. The contrast with AUKUS’s second track, namely the areas of cooperation on advanced technology, is striking.

In April, the initial four areas were doubled to eight even before any actual outcomes had been announced for the original ones—and there still haven’t been any. A year into the enterprise and industry representatives are only now being brought into the fold. The other lines of effort simply don’t have the same profile as nuclear-powered submarines.

Moreover, significant developments in fields covered by AUKUS, such as undersea warfare, were happening anyway and don’t appear to have any connection to AUKUS. This includes Australia’s US$100 million ($159 million) contract with the US technology firm Anduril to develop prototypes for an extra-large uncrewed underwater vessel.

With AUKUS SSNs potentially decades away, it’s essential that the other lines of effort deliver quickly. So far, there’s no identifiable plan to point to. As here, there appears to be growing frustration in the US with that lack of progress.

That said, there is considerable optimism in the US that one of the new areas of collaboration, information sharing, will focus on addressing the US’s strict International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which are increasingly seen as preventing the timely sharing of information and technology with allies. Doing so, however, will likely require development of some joint projects that can serve as the battering ram to break down the regulations’ most onerous barriers.

In sum, there’s strong support in Washington for Australia’s SSN enterprise, provided it doesn’t have an impact on the US’s own plans. Regarding the other lines of effort, in the US as here, we are still in a position of wait and see.

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