The San Diego Roadmap For AUKUS: Hits And Misses – Analysis
By Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)
By Abhay Kumar Singh and R. Vignesh*
In March 2023, the US President along with the Prime Ministers of the UK and Australia, unveiled the much-anticipated roadmap for AUKUS in San Diego. The joint statement envisages a multi-phased roadmap spanning more than two decades for the delivery of nuclear attack submarines (SSN) to Australia.
The roadmap has certainly laid to rest much of the speculations regarding the class of SSNs that Australia would opt for, the time-frame for the delivery and development of the industrial ecosystem for the construction of these SSNs. Despite a concrete roadmap being presented in San Diego, there are significant uncertainties that persist considering the long time-frame, the enormity of the economic investment and the transfer of sensitive technology that the project demands.
The Journey Thus Far
The spontaneous announcement of the AUKUS trilateral security pact on 15 September 2021 surprised the global strategic community. This was considering the fact the AUKUS entailed the sharing of the coveted nuclear propulsion technology by the US and the UK with Australia. The last time the sharing of such sensitive technology happened was over six decades ago as part of the US–UK Mutual Defence Agreement of 1958. The Joint Statement released on the announcement envisaged a shared ambition for supporting Australia to acquire SSNs for its Royal Australian Navy (RAN). Also, cooperation in the development of advanced technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), quantum technologies, undersea capabilities and cyber capabilities was pledged.1
The announcement of AUKUS resulted in a diplomatic spat between Australia and France as it led to the scrapping of their multi-billion dollar deal for the construction of conventional submarines (SSK). The then French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drain called the AUKUS deal a stab in the back for France.2 The announcement garnered strong reactions from China which accused AUKUS of being a textbook example of nuclear proliferation.3 Other nations, including Australia’s neighbour New Zealand, expressed strong criticism of AUKUS citing nuclear proliferation concerns in the South Pacific.
In the ensuing months after the announcement, Australia, the UK and US made swift headways in establishing a cooperative framework for achieving AUKUS objectives. On 22 November 2021, these three countries signed a legally binding agreement known as the Exchange of Naval Propulsion Information Agreement (ENNPIA). This agreement set the stage for the sharing of critical information pertaining to naval nuclear propulsion. By April 2022, a governance structure was established for AUKUS to oversee the two parallel lines of efforts, namely, SSN construction and the development of advanced technologies.4 The areas of cooperation in advanced technologies were expanded to include the development of hypersonic technology, defence innovation, information sharing and Electronic Warfare Capabilities (EWC).
In the one year since AUKUS was announced, there were a number of initiatives and high-level visits that laid the foundation for building Australia’s capacity to build and operated SSNs. For training RAN’s officers aboard American SSNs, the Australia–US Submarine Officers Pipeline Act was introduced in the US Congress on 15 June 2022. Meanwhile, the relations between France and Australia have considerably improved. In June 2022, the Albanese Government announced an AUD 585 million settlement with France’s Naval Group as compensation for scrapping the SSK contract.5 Also, New Zealand’s stance towards AUKUS has undergone rapid transformation since its announcement. On 28 March 2023, New Zealand’s Defence Minister Andrew Little expressed his government’s interest to collaborate with AUKUS in the non-nuclear domains of quantum computing and AI.6
The range of developments that took place since the announcement of AUKUS highlight that the scope of trilateral security agreement goes beyond just SSNs. Despite these developments, several commentators flagged looming challenges that lay ahead of AUKUS. Among these factors were the limited industrial base in Australia for the construction of SSNs, the inevitable capability gap in RAN that will be created with the retirement of its Collin-class SSKs in the early 2030s and the compromising of Australia’s strategic autonomy.7
The San Diego Roadmap
The San Diego roadmap assumes great significance as it lays a three-phased pathway for achieving AUKUS’s key objective of enabling the RAN to acquire and operate SSNs.8 These phases can be classified based on their objectives as follows:
- Building an Ecosystem for SSNs: Ever since the announcement of AUKUS 18 months back, several critics had raised questions on the viability of Australia being able to construct and operate SSNs. This was on account of Australia’s lack of manpower resources, limited manufacturing capacity and virtually no nuclear industry. The first phase of the San Diego roadmap ostensibly addresses this issue. Aimed to help Australia establish a comprehensive ecosystem for developing and operating the SSNs, the first phase has been divided into two distinct stages. In the first stage commencing 2023 onwards up until 2027, the Australian military and civilian personnel are to be integrated within the submarine industrial bases of the US and UK. Through this measure, the three nations seek to accelerate the necessary training of Australian military and civilian manpower for building and operationalising the SSNs. In order to facilitate this, the US Navy (USN) plans to increase the port visits of its SSNs and aims to train RAN’s submarine personnel onboard during these visits.9 In the second stage beginning in early 2027, the navies of the US and UK are to establish Submarine Rotational Force-West (SRF-West). Up to four Virginia-Class SSNs of the US Navy (USN) and one Astute-Class SSN of the Royal Navy (RN) are to be part of SRF-West that would be based in RAN’s naval base HMAS Stirling located near Perth.10 The RAN’s officers and sailors are to gain operational training and experience by working alongside the crew of these SSNs. The SRF-West also aims to bolster deterrence in the Indo-Pacific through the forward presence of its SSNs.11
- Bridging the Submarine Gap: The second phase of the roadmap envisages the sale of three to five Virginia Class SSNs to Australia pending approval of the US Congress in the early 2030s. One of the consistent criticisms of AUKUS since its announcement in 2021 was that the RAN would be left with no submarine capability in the interregnum between the decommissioning of the Collin-Class SSKs by the early 2030s and the induction of the first AUKUS SSNs by late 2030s. The second phase of the roadmap has therefore been clearly envisaged to serve as a stop-gap measure to support the RAN through the 2030s.12
- Developing Next-Gen SSNs: The final phase of the roadmap envisages the development and delivery of an entirely new class of submarines that has been dubbed as SSN-AUKUS. This new class of SSNs will officially replace the UK’s SSNR programme for designing the successor to the Astute class. SSN-AUKUS is slated to incorporate both the technologies of the UK’s SSNR design and the US’s Virginia Class technology to develop an entirely new generation of SSNs.13 The first SSN under this class is slated to be built at the British shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness and will be delivered to Australia in the late 2030s. The subsequent submarines would be built domestically in Australia in the Adelaide shipyard.14
Hits and Misses
Our assessment that Australia was bound to receive the proactive support of the US Navy throughout the interregnum period till delivery of the first SSNs of AUKUS has been confirmed.15 The third phase of the San Diego roadmap envisages the construction and delivery first SSN AUKUS by the UK in the late 2030s. The UK has become a lynchpin in the AUKUS, with its critical role in designing and developing the new class of SSN-AUKUS. Hence AUKUS is reflective of London’s renewed attempts for a long-term role in the Indo-Pacific.16 We had assessed that through AUKUS, the UK seeks to re-establish its strategic footprint in the east of Suez. 17
However, what has come as a surprise with the San Diego announcement is the decision to opt for an entirely new class of SSN instead of existing classes in the navies of the US and UK. Although this possibility was brought forth by some observers during the 18-month scoping period, it was considered highly unlikely. It was largely anticipated that Australia would be choosing between the Virginia and Astute class SSNs as both are currently in production in the US and UK respectively.
Although the San Diego roadmap lays down a well-defined pathway for delivering SSN capability to Australia, it would not be prudent to assume that it will ensure smooth sailing for AUKUS. The most significant challenge for the trilateral grouping in the near future may arise from the US’s Cold War-era export control regimes for the transfer of critical technologies. The most notable among these regimes is the International Trade and Arms Regulations (ITAR) enacted in 1976. The key objective of ITAR is to ensure the non-proliferation of advanced US military technology to actors who are hostile to the US.18
Many prominent US scholars have opined that without revising the outdated ITAR, AUKUS cannot achieve its ambitious goals of co-developing critical technologies like SSNs and hypersonic missiles. This is due to the fact that the ITAR creates bureaucratic bottlenecks that cause months of delay even for the services of US-manufactured fixed and rotary-wing aircraft operated by the Australian military.19 Hence, it is necessary that this outdated regime undergoes rapid reforms to enable the transfer of sensitive technologies as envisaged by the AUKUS.
It is ostensibly for this purpose that US Congress on 22 March 2022 passed a bill for ensuring swift and seamless technology transfers under the AUKUS partnership. The key objective of this bill is to take action and address the bureaucratic hurdles that may undermine US’s commitments to share sensitive technology with the UK and Australia.20 The bill has been described as the first step in what is expected to be a lengthy effort for overhauling US’s outdated export control laws.21 Also, the soon-to-be-released Defence Strategic Review (DSR) of the Australian government would provide crucial insights into how AUKUS fits into its broader security outlook for the Indo-Pacific.
The San Diego roadmap heralds a major step forward for the AUKUS in achieving its key strategic objective of delivering SSN capability to Australia. Although this roadmap envisages a clear and definite pathway, it does not necessarily insulate AUKUS from the looming geopolitical and economic uncertainties in the Indo-Pacific region. Hence for AUKUS to succeed in the currently existing bipartition support, economic commitments and assurances for technical collaborations across the three countries must endure and prevail over the uncertainties that this long roadmap entails.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.
*About the authors:
- Cmde Abhay Kumar Singh (Retd) is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
- Dr R. Vignesh is Research Analyst at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi.
Source: This article was published by Manohar Parrikar IDSA
- 1.“Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS”, The White House, 15 September 2021.
- 2.“France Deplores ‘stab in the back’ by US, Australia over Subs Contract”, France 24, 16 September 2021.
- 3.“Statement by H.E.Amb.Li Song on Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Tenth NPT Review Conference”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 10 August 2022.
- 4.“Fact Sheet: Implementation of the Australia-United Kingdom-United States Partnership (AUKUS)”, The White House, 5 April 2022.
- 5.“Australia Agrees 555 Million Euro Settlement with France’s Naval Group:PM”, Hindustan Times, 11 June 2022.
- 6.“New Zealand May Join AUKUS Pact’s Non-nuclear Component”, The Guardian, 28 March 2023.
- 7.R. Vignesh and Abhay Kumar Singh, “One Year of AUKUS: An Assessment of Progress and Challenges”, Issue Brief, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), 2 November 2022.
- 8.“Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS”, The White House, 13 March 2023.
- 9.“Fact Sheet: Trilateral Australia-UK-US Partnership on Nuclear-Powered Submarines”, The White House, 13 March 2023.
- 10.“The Alliance between Australia, Britain and America is Seriously Ambitious”, The Economist, 13 March 2023.
- 11.“Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on the AUKUS Announcement”, The White House, 13 March 2023.
- 12.Clive Williams, “Expensive Stop-gap Measure Could Be Averted by AUKUS Arms Control Agreement”, The New Daily, 15 March 2023.
- 13.“Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on the AUKUS Announcement”, The White House, 13 March 2023.
- 14.“The Alliance between Australia, Britain and America is Serious Ambitious”, The Economist, 13 March 2023.
- 15.See R. Vignesh and Abhay Kumar Singh, “One Year of AUKUS: An Assessment of Progress and Challenges”, no. 7, p. 5.
- 16.C. Raja Mohan, “India and the Anglosphere”, The Indian Express, 16 March 2023.
- 17.See R. Vignesh and Abhay Kumar Singh, “One Year of AUKUS: An Assessment of Progress and Challenges”, no. 7, p. 7.
- 18.John Schaus and Elizabeth Hoffman, “Is ITAR Working in an Era of Great Power Competition?”, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, 24 February 2023.
- 19.James Carouso, Thomas Schieffer, Jeffrey Bleich, John Berry and Arthur Culvahouse, “ITAR Should End for Australia”, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, 7 December 2022.
- 20.“Implementation of the Advanced Capabilities Pillar of the Trilateral Security Partnership Between Australia, the United Kingfom and the United States”, Congressional Record, Vol. 169, No. 52, 22 March 2023.
- 21.Bryant Harris, “Congress Lays Groundwork for AUKUS Export Control Reforms”, Defense News, 23 March 2023