Australia’s accession to AUKUS will not result in any net gain to the alliance’s nuclear submarine numbers for decades to come. But it will give the alliance a meaningful, capable base at the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific region, in a politically-stable country that is unlikely ever to withdraw from the partnership, writes Salvatore Babones, Associate Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. We welcome polemics and invite to discussion all those who have a different perspective of the issue covered by the author.
When Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced a new strategic partnership in September, it should have come as no surprise — and treated as no big deal. The three countries fought together in World War I, and their navies have been closely cooperating in the Western Pacific since World War II. When the Japanese bombed the northern Australia city of Darwin on February 19, 1942, the American destroyer USS Peary was there to return fire. The United States has mutual defense treaties with both the UK and Australia, and for their part the British and Australian navies are both “Royal” navies, reporting to the same queen.
So why does anyone think the new AUKUS partnership is such a big deal? Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, certainly thinks it is. He portrayed it as his country’s “single greatest [security] initiative” in seventy years. In the post-announcement press conference, he called AUKUS a “forever partnership” — thirteen times. He also said that it created a “forever relationship” that would lock Australia into a “forever responsibility... forever into the future.” While it is true that Australia’s prospective AUKUS submarines might be in service until the end of the century, forever is a very long time.
But Morrison wasn’t exaggerating. He was only signaling what he could not say. The AUKUS headlines focused on the US and UK offering to share naval nuclear propulsion technology with Australia. They didn’t mention the main reason why submarines need nuclear propulsion. There is one primary mission for nuclear-powered attack submarines, and it is a mission that cannot be performed by their diesel-electric competitors. Nuclear-powered attack submarines hunt, track, and (in extremis) kill nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines.