Australia is headed towards nuclear powered submarines for the first time, under a new agreement with the US and UK. (Graphic by Breaking Defense; original illustration by US Navy, via DVIDS)

Hello China. A US official called the move the “biggest strategic step Australia has taken in generations.”

15 September 2021 |  AARON MEHTA and COLIN CLARK | Breaking Defense

WASHINGTON: In a major expansion and deepening of the ties between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, the three nations have formed a new joint-security agreement, one that includes giving, for the first time, nuclear-powered submarine technology to Australia.

The agreement, which could potentially alter the future strategic balance in the Pacific, is expected to scrap a current high-dollar Australian submarine purchase from France. Known now as “AUKUS” — for Australia, UK, US — the arrangement was formally announced via a Wednesday evening virtual meeting with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and American President Joe Biden.

“The future of each of our nations, and indeed the world, depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Biden said. “This is about investing in our greatest source of strength, our alliances, and updating them to better meet the threats of today and tomorrow.”

The agreement will “bring together our sailors, our scientists and our industry, to maintain and expand our edge and military capabilities” over key technologies, Biden added.

In a background call with reporters, a pair of senior Biden administration officials said the agreement will cover a range of security technologies and policies, including what one official called a “new architecture” of meetings and engagements among senior defense and foreign policy officials, one that represents the “biggest strategic step that Australia’s taken in generations.”

Technologically, the agreement will also include efforts to “spur cooperation across many new and emerging arenas: cyber AI, particularly applied AI, quantum technologies, and some undersea capabilities as well,” the official said. “We’ll also work to sustain and deepen Information and technology sharing, and I think you’re gonna see a much more dedicated effort to pursue the integration of security and defense-related science technology and industrial bases and supply chains.”

The official added that it “will be a sustained effort over many years to see how we can marry and merge some of our independent and individual capabilities into greater trilateral engagement as we go forward.”

The US officials stressed the trilateral nature of the agreement, saying the historic ties between all three countries is key, especially as the UK has been vocal about its desire to focus more on the Pacific in a post-Brexit world.

“This is designed not only to strengthen our capabilities in the Indo-Pacific, but to link Europe and particularly Great Britain more closely with our strategic pursuits in the region as a whole,” the first official said. “Great Britain is very focused on the concept of ‘global Britain,’ [which] is about engaging much more deeply with the Indo-Pacific, and this is a down-payment on that effort.”

The obvious reason for greater engagement in the Pacific, of course, is countering China, which officials in the US talk openly about as the greatest strategic threat for the future. However, the officials, who were speaking on background to reporters ahead of the announcement, constantly dodged attempts to get them to acknowledge this new agreement is about Beijing.

“I do want to just underscore very clearly this partnership is not aimed or about any one country,” the official claimed. “It’s about advancing our strategic interests, upholding the international rules based order and promoting peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.”

Notably, not one of the three world leaders speaking during the evening mentioned China in their remarks.

Sharing technical information, executing policy and legal reviews, and doing the basic budgetary and training planning might have involved several hundred people across the three nations — plus potentially interested partners and allies. Keeping it quiet until now is quite the accomplishment, said the Heritage Foundation’s Brett Sadler.

“I guess the first thing is congratulations — Bravo Zulu — to all the folks involved in this who were able to keep it secret,” said Sadler, a former submariner who served in the Pacific.

We All Live In New Nuclear Submarines

The biggest eyebrow raiser in the announcement is the decision that the US and UK will share nuclear propulsion capabilities for Australian submarines. The official called it a “unique” set of circumstances that will see Australia become the only other country besides the UK with which America shares that technology.

“We will launch a trilateral effort of 18 months, which will involve teams — technical and strategic and navy teams from all three countries — to identify the optimal pathway, a delivery of this capability,” the official said.

The official stressed that this is a “one-off” situation and an “exception” to US policy, and that there is no plan currently to share the nuclear capability with other nations.

All three leaders stressed that the submarines in question will be conventionally armed, with Morrison flatly stating that Australia is “not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability,” and that it remains committed to its longstanding nuclear nonproliferation goals.

The addition of nuclear subs for Australia could be a geopolitical game changer in the region, something indicated by the senior administration official, who said “I do want to underscore that this will give Australia the capability for their submarines to basically to deploy for longer periods. They’re quieter. They’re much more capable. They will allow us to sustain and to improve deterrence across the Indo-Pacific.”

“This allows Australia to play at a much higher level, and to augment American capabilities that will be similar,” the official said later.

Sadler appeared to agree, saying the “biggest impact on US and allied military operations in the Pacific is likely to be the addition of relatively stealthy Australian nuclear submarines for intelligence purposes. As Cold War aficionados known, nuclear submarines are excellent for intelligence operations and collection, able to do things diesel subs cannot because they must surface occasionally.”

This could free US subs for offensive operations in the event of war or at least provide the allies with more flexibility in day to day operations, Sadler noted.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday, speaking to reporters Wednesday from the International Seapower Symposium in Rhode Island, declined to comment beyond referring questions about the submarine deal to the National Security Council.

A Snub to Paris?

Australia is currently under contract with French firm Naval Group to produce 12 next-generation submarines, but according to a report in the Financial Review, the Morrison government plans to rip up that 2016 agreement — which has become a headache over spiraling costs and local industrial concerns — and focus on the American nuclear offering.

Euan Graham, the Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security, noted that there will be financial repercussions, likely “several hundred million dollars,” for Australia’s cancellation of the French deal. And, he notes, “Franco-Australian relations will take a knock,” with Paris likely to be especially displeased to see London take its place as an industrial partner.

But ultimately, Graham said, “the big implication from this debacle is not triumph of Anglo over Franco relations. It is rather the triumph of strategic imperatives over economic ones in Australia’s defense procurement.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, Biden used part of his short remarks to praise France’s efforts in the region, saying Paris “in particular, already has substantial Indo-Pacific presence as a key partner and ally in strengthening the security and prosperity of the region. The United States looks forward to working closely with France and other key countries as we go forward.”

The question now is timing. Sadler believes it could take a decade or more before the system is available. And the US official signaled nothing could move that quickly, noting that Australia “does not have a nuclear domestic infrastructure, they have made a major commitment to go in this direction. This will be a sustained effort over the years.”

Morrison in his comments pledged that the submarines would be “built” in Adelaide, while Johnson claimed the work would result in “hundreds” of highly skilled jobs in the United Kingdom. The UK Pm also stated the work on the program will last “decades.”

According to Graham, a service life extension of the Royal Navy’s existing Collins-class submarines will likely be required.

“The question remains whether the [Australian Navy] can get the new nuclear boats online later this decade. Otherwise, there’s a risk that this apparently radical solution will only repeat the same mistakes of the previous program. Sometimes, Australia is its own worst enemy in its relentless pursuit of the perfect (‘regionally superior’) over the good.”

Justin Katz contributed to this report.

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