The AUKUS agreement, and particularly the nuclear-submarines component, appear to be part of a broader plan to bolster US capacity in the Asia-Pacific, reassure regional allies of the US commitment to defence of the region, and perhaps above all, to counter the perception of a “rising” and more assertive China. At the same time, it will look to many like US double standards and even reflective of a neo-colonial attitude to nuclear proliferation where some countries are deemed “responsible” nuclear operators and others are not, writes Valdai Club expert Andrew Futter.
The Australia-UK-US trilateral security partnership, or AUKUS for short, has been the subject of much speculation and debate since it was announced in September 2021. While some of its provisions will take many years to reach fruition, notably building a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, the announcement has already had considerable impact and driven concerns about nuclear proliferation, double standards, and the security situation in the Asia-Pacific region. It has also caused a rift in between NATO allies, especially between the US and France, in part due to the way it has been handled, and has been strongly criticised by China. While we still actually have very few details about what the partnership will involve in the years ahead, and in particular how the commitment by the US and UK to “deliver a nuclear-powered submarine fleet for Australia” will unfold, it is useful to understand the different possible implications of this deal and how the technology, politics and security aspects will play out in the years ahead.
Despite the focus on submarines, the AUKUS partnership actually involves cooperation on a number of other areas too, ranging from quantum, cyber, AI and undersea capabilities, as well as the purchase of Tomahawk cruise missiles and joint work on future long-range precision strike weapons, including hypersonic missiles. But the main focus has been on the decision to help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines, known as SSNs, which will make it only the seventh state to deploy this military capability, and the only state that does not also possess nuclear weapons. The deal shares some similarities with the 1958 Mutual Defence Agreement signed by the United States and the United Kingdom to share — amongst other things — nuclear propulsion technology, upon which current UK SSBNs and SSNs are based.
The plan appears to be for the UK and US to provide highly sensitive information about nuclear-submarine design to Australia, and to provide the nuclear reactor and nuclear material needed to power the boat. The Australian Navy apparently plans to build at least 8 of these boats, although due to the considerable time it will take, these won’t be ready for service for at least a decade. There are a number of questions about how the submarine deal will work in practice and these are currently being hammed out by an 18-month task force. From UK government announcements about “jobs in the UK”, it seems likely that Rolls Royce will design and build the reactors and UK companies will be involved with the development of other advanced components.
The AUKUS agreement effectively replaces a previous £50 billion deal for the Australian government to purchase a fleet of conventional/diesel-electric submarines from France. Whether this deal was officially cancelled before AUKUS was announced — something strongly disputed by France — is a moot point, and needless to say the move was not well received in Paris, with the French government moving to recall its Ambassadors from Washington and Canberra in response. Either way, the handling of this shift was haphazard, not least because France could potentially have been part of a new nuclear-propulsion submarine deal given that it already operates nuclear-armed submarines too. This suggests that securing the US role in Australian security was more important than alliance politics with France.
Nuclear-powered submarines have several advantages over non-nuclear propulsion including longer endurance, speed and range, enhanced stealthiness, and the ability to carry heavier weapons payloads. However, it is important to be clear that nuclear-powered submarines are not the same as nuclear-armed submarines, although some submarines can be both nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed.
Of course, because the actual submarine capability will take many years to materialise, this announcement is primarily symbolic, and is designed to send a strong message to the region, and to China, and to complement other agreements such as the reformed Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. That said, the US could decide to lease a nuclear-powered submarine to Australia in the meantime, and an Australian SSN capability in the medium term could help plug a gap in US and allies submarine capacity in the next decade as older US SSNs are replaced. Nevertheless, the announcement could lead to a “submarine gap” for the Australian Navy in the short term.
Australia does not currently possess nuclear weapons or have the ability to enrich uranium, neither does it operate any nuclear power plants. But it does have large uranium deposits, several working uranium mines, a nuclear research reactor, and an advanced laser enrichment programme. Australia previously considered acquiring its own nuclear weapons, first through a possible deal with the UK in the 1950s and later in the 1960s indigenously, and was also host to UK atmospheric nuclear testing in the early part of the Cold War. However, Australia signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a Non-Nuclear Weapon State in 1973, and is currently a member of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, and the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ), although it is not a signatory to the recent Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (or Nuclear Ban Treaty). As with civilian power reactors, the use of nuclear material for naval propulsion does not violate the NPT or the NWFZ.
But, helping Australia with nuclear-powered submarines will involve the transfer of fissile nuclear material, in this case uranium, to use in the reactor that will power the ship. And here is one of the problems: current US and UK nuclear-armed submarines use 93% highly enriched uranium for fuel — this is essentially the same material that can be used to make a nuclear weapon. Nuclear submarines, such as those operated by France (and those planned by Brazil), can use also low enriched uranium (less than 10%) that wouldn’t be “weapons grade”, but this means the submarines need to be refuelled every 10 years. Using HEU rather than LEU means that the submarine never has to be refuelled in its lifetime, and theoretically means that Australia won’t have direct access to the fissile material.
The second problem is that this HEU will be outside of international regulation and control by authorities such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This is because of a clause in the IAEA Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement that allows nuclear material to be removed from inspection regimes if it is used in naval propulsion (partly because of the difficulties of monitoring the material when submarines are on patrol). Whether Australia will have the ability to access and service the nuclear reactor, or whether it is built and delivered “sealed” is therefore very important. The concern is not so much that Australia will use this loophole to build nuclear weapons, although this future possibility shouldn’t be ruled out entirely, or that the nuclear material will not be well protected, but rather that it sets a worrying precedent that others might follow. Top of this list will be Iran, but it could also include states such as South Korea, which recently had its interest in a similar submarine deal with the US rebuffed.
The AUKUS agreement, and particularly the nuclear-submarines component, appear to be part of a broader plan to bolster US capacity in the Asia-Pacific, reassure regional allies of the US commitment to defence of the region (a particularly pressing concern for Australia’s security policy elite), and perhaps above all, to counter the perception of a “rising” and more assertive China. Indeed, the AUKUS Agreement follows closely the revelation that China may be building a large number of new ICBM silos, and speculation that the Chinese nuclear weapons stockpile could increase rapidly in the years ahead. It also needs to be seen in the context of a decade of worsening relations and growing suspicions between the US and China, and even for some the fear of a “new Cold War”.
Bu there is a second, arguably more important set of implications from the AUKUS and submarine deals, and they are for wider global nuclear order and governance. First, it is difficult to see how this move will aid broader arms control efforts, whether between the US and Russia, or talks also involving China. Second, while the politics are significant, the AUKUS deal will look to many like US double standards and even reflective of a neo-colonial attitude to nuclear proliferation where some countries are deemed “responsible” nuclear operators and others are not. Such “conditional proliferation” will also make it much more difficult to address other states that seek to share or develop naval nuclear propulsion capabilities, but perhaps for more nefarious purposes. Finally, it seems likely to weaken the already stretched global nuclear security, verification and monitoring regime embodied by the IAEA, and making it more difficult to combat future nuclear proliferation.