It’s a year since the AUKUS military pact was announced, between Australia, the UK and the US, drawing Australia further into the US’s military and strategic framework.
The centre piece of the pact was the provision of nuclear powered subs to Australia, but what has become clear over the past year is the inability of the US and UK to provide nuclear-powered submarines for Australia, certainly in the short to medium term.
This means that other elements of the treaty are gaining more significance and other ways are being developed to use Australia’s geographical location and resources for military purposes in the US’s build up against China. The UK is playing its usual support role for the US, hoping in return to benefit from the relationship.
For example, at the time of announcing the pact, the chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee commented, “Bringing together the military-industrial complex of these three allies is a step-change in the relationship. We’ve always been interoperable, but this aims at much more. We will be able to cost save by increasing platform sharing and innovation costs. .. Particularly for the smaller two, that’s game-changing.”
When the pact was announced here in Britain, the then prime minister gave the impression that there was going to be a big industrial boost to the defence sector as a result, implying that sales of submarine propulsion nuclear reactors to Australia would come from the Rolls-Royce factory in Derby that produce reactors for UK subs. This is popular with some trade unions because of the possibility of job creation. But this is looking unlikely, and any thought that Britain could build subs for Australia is just not viable.
Britain is currently building two classes of submarine – and struggling with both.
1. the Astute class – this is the kind of submarine that Australia is supposed to want: a so-called hunter-killer, nuclear-powered with conventional weapons. There are 7 subs in this class, they’ve been building them for 20 years, with 5 completed and two to go. They’re being built by BAE systems at Barrow-in-Furness. The programme is running many years late and facing massive cost over-runs. The next programme to develop the successor to the Astute class in the 2040s has been delayed due to delays in delivering the Astute and Dreadnought class subs. The Astute class successor now likely to be delivered in 2040s to 2050s.
2. the Dreadnought class – these are nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed subs replacing the Vanguard class that carry Britain’s Trident missiles equipped with nuclear warheads. There are four planned, two currently in manufacture, in a programme that started in 2016. None are yet completed. They are running late, with first expected in the early 2030s and there are also cost over-runs. They are also being built by BAE Systems at Barrow-in-Furness, in the same Dock Hall as Astute.
3. In addition, there have been problems with the submarine reactor currently in use which have led to further delays with the new model. There is recognition of a skills shortage in the sector and a lack of capacity to take on extra work.
In April, the three countries’ leaders stated they were pleased with progress to establish the submarine capability and also announced cooperation on a large range of military developments:
“We also committed today to commence new trilateral cooperation on hypersonics and counter-hypersonics, and electronic warfare capabilities, as well as to expand information sharing and to deepen cooperation on defense innovation. These initiatives will add to our existing efforts to deepen cooperation on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities. As our work progresses on these and other critical defense and security capabilities, we will seek opportunities to engage allies and close partners.”
It’s not clear why they are so pleased with developments.
A few weeks ago, Rear Admiral Scott Pappano, in charge of the US Navy’s nuclear submarine programme, said helping Australia to acquire the nuclear-powered submarines directly from the US would be too much for the country’s overburdened shipyards. He said it would be detrimental to them. Meanwhile the US have said no to an Australian request for some existing Virginia class subs.
So no one knows where the subs will come from: a new sub from the US further down the line? US subs put together in Australia? A US, UK, Australian co-production – with bits from each? It’s even being suggested now that the French will come back in to provide submarines. The actual plans are due to be announced next March.
Meanwhile, other developments are taking place in the AUKUS context: cooperation on hypersonics, cyber, AI and much else.
In June the US Congress passed the ‘Australia-United States Submarine Officer Pipeline Act’ which will allow Australian naval officers to begin training in the United States to operate the subs.
At the end of last month, a similar announcement was made by the UK when Richard Marles, the Australian Minister for Defence, was visiting. He went with Boris Johnson to Barrow for the launch of HMS Anson, the fifth Astute class sub. Australian submariners will train on this and the other 4 astute class subs. It seems a bit like a consolation prize.
So the submarine plans are a sorry story of over-grandiose, undeliverable plans. But this cannot detract from what AUKUS means in wider terms. Not only does it exemplify the UK government’s vision of a global Britain that is big on the international military stage, that bases its economy on the arms industry. It is also a significant factor in the US’s drive to maintain global dominance and its push into the Asia-Pacific. Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last month indicates that the US is pushing hard in this direction without concern for the risks that are promoted.
The dangers of AUKUS are widely recognised by many other states in the region, and of course China recognises the specific dangers presented by AUKUS’s nuclear submarine element. It raised this at last month’s NPT Review Conference in New York, stating AUKUS would set a “dangerous precedent” and have a profound negative impact on “global strategic balance and stability”.
International cooperation is needed, not only to oppose the specifics of the AUKUS agreement, but the whole escalatory framework of US policy. CND supports the peaceful development of a multi-polar world not unipolar, global military domination.
This is the text of a speech Kate gave at a recent Australian event to mark the first anniversary of the announcement of the AUKUS pact.