AUKUS: Reading The Tea Leaves – Analysis
By Observer Research Foundation
By Abhijit Singh
Next week is likely to be crucial for Australia. An announcement about an “optimal pathway” for AUKUS, the enhanced trilateral security partnership between the United States (US), Australia, and the United Kingdom (UK), is looming with implications for Australian plans to operate a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines within the next decade. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has called it “the single biggest leap in defence capability in Australia’s history.”
In Canberra, however, there is still some trepidation. Australia requires a favourable path to develop deterrence capabilities against potential adversaries, but even the most positive outcome of the AUKUS consultations is not without drawbacks. The main issue is that many of Canberra’s regional partners oppose the pact which could potentially spark an arms race. Some, like Indonesia, have been open about their reservations. Others, such as India (Australia’s Quad partner), despite being politically supportive of AUKUS, appear conflicted about the prospect of Australian nuclear submarines operating in the regional littorals.
Australia, for its part, has attempted to assuage concerns. Australian policymakers and officials have attempted to explain to their counterparts in regional capitals that AUKUS does not provide Australia with nuclear weapons capability, but rather a means of acquiring only nuclear maritime propulsion. Canberra has even attempted to distinguish AUKUS from other groups such as the Quad. Officials describe the latter as a normative grouping that lays out a vision for the region, whereas AUKUS is a more technical arrangement.
This does not change the fact that AUKUS is a military pact with the potential to shape the strategic contours of maritime Asia. Canberra, Washington, and London have explored a variety of options to achieve their stated goal during the 14-month consultation period between the signing of the agreement and now. They have identified three possible paths, each with implications for the Indo-Pacific power balance.
The first option, which Australian officials hope will be chosen, is for the US to build a nuclear-powered submarine for Australia. As much as Canberra would like it, many US policymakers seem sceptical about this option. Two top US senators wrote to President Joe Biden in January this year, urging him not to sell nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, warning that doing so would jeopardise US national security given the vessels’ scarcity. When the letter was leaked to the media, a bipartisan group of US congressmen issued a statement reiterating their support for AUKUS, calling it a “rising tide that would lift all boats.” Nonetheless, the US is having its own problems with nuclear submarine construction needed to achieve its own force-level goal of 60 to 69 SSNs by 2052. With four submarine dry docks in the country in need of repair, the possibility of the US building a nuclear submarine for Australia appears remote.
The second option is for the UK to expand its Astute-class programme to Australia. There appears to be an issue here as well. The UK is constructing its Dreadnought-class ballistic-missile submarine (SSBN) programme while designing the Astute-class replacement in a sequential build process. Even if Australia acquired an Astute-class submarine, integrating the onboard combat system would be difficult due to differences between the current Australian and American fleets.
The third, and perhaps most likely option, is a trilateral effort to develop a new nuclear submarine design. Canberra could announce a modified version of the yet-to-be-launched US Next-Generation Attack Submarine or UK Submersible Ship Nuclear Replacement (SSNR) programmes, or even a completely new AUKUS-class design to be acquired by all three countries.
This path, too, is not without challenges, the most significant of which is Australia’s need to navigate US export controls. The US has a stringent export control and protocol regime that could jeopardise the technology transfer agreement, particularly in areas related to undersea capabilities and electronic warfare. The International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and a classification known as “NoForn” that prohibits information sharing with non-US entities are the main barriers here. To operationalise the pact, the only way forward is to reform the US export control regime by creating a “carve-out” of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). However, experts say that this is easier said than done.
The developments surrounding AUKUS are instructive for Indian observers. Even with its closest allies, the United States is having difficulty transferring technology. It’s not that Washington doesn’t want to help a partner; it’s just that the US export control system is so rigid and archaic that it can’t make room for the priority transfer of know-how to an ally. India, which has never been in the same league as Australia in terms of US partners, should be aware that acquiring critical technology from the US remains a daunting prospect. Although New has signed the foundational treaties with the US and launched an initiative to develop critical and emerging technologies, the bureaucratic protocols surrounding technology are still hard to navigate.
The other lesson is that nuclear technology is difficult to operate under the international system. For Australia to operate nuclear-powered submarines with high-enriched uranium (HEU) fueled reactors, it will have to exploit a loophole that allows non-nuclear weapon countries to withdraw the fissile material required for submarine reactors from the IAEA-monitored stockpile. The removal, experts say, could set a dangerous precedent, allowing potential proliferators to use naval reactor programmes as a cover for the development of nuclear weapons in the future. If Australia’s HEU-fueled submarine reactors are supplied with a lifetime core, as some suggest, the country would not refuel the reactors but would have to return the submarines to the supplier at the end of the reactor’s operating life (around 30 years). It is unclear whether such an arrangement is favourable for Australia.
Acquiring nuclear propulsion technology is likely also to be complicated for India, which is not a party to the nonproliferation treaty. The complexities involved in the transfer of technology for HEU-fueled reactors from suppliers such as the US and the UK, leave India, whose indigenous nuclear ballistic missile submarine reactor uses 40 percent enriched uranium, with only one practical option: To buy a high-power reactor from France for the IN’s nuclear attack submarine programme. Paris has a declared policy of using low-enriched, non-weapons-grade uranium in its nuclear submarine reactors; the technology could be transferred without raising red flags.
The problem for New Delhi, however, is that it would be dependent on Paris for reactor fuel—a specific mix suitable for use in a miniaturised LEU reactor core (that France has successfully achieved) but which also limits the life of the reactor core to about 10 years before requiring to be refuelled. That is in itself a complicated undertaking. When it comes to the transfer of critical technologies, especially in the area of naval nuclear tech, evidently, there are limits to what can be reasonably achieved.