As new details emerge about the AUKUS technology-sharing agreement between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, a regional expert says the deal’s success requires both flexibility and sustained political support in all three countries.
The long-term nature of the AUKUS agreement that would pursue a nuclear-powered submarine capability for the Royal Australian Navy would require consistent support from successive governments across all three partner nations through the 2060s.
For AUKUS to result in a nuclear submarine fleet for Australia, the effort will require political support for the next three to four decades, regardless of the parties elected in Canberra, London or Washington, D.C.
There is opposition from the left and right of the political spectrum in Australia, according to Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst in defense strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). There is “an awful lot of criticism” of the AUKUS project in Australia with a “big effort being coordinated to try and attack or undermine it, people saying that [Australia] is tied into U.S. war plans,” he told USNI News.
He explained that the government “can’t afford” to allow that sort of effort to succeed if its committed to nuclear attack boats for the Royal Australian Navy
“Because if it did then what you could see is after a future election with later governments, or in a situation where the minor parties have the balance of power, we suddenly find AUKUS being imperiled,” Davis explained.
But he said he’s less concerned about the commitment from the left wing in Australia than with the political situation in the United States. His main concern is that a future U.S. administration could be less interested in international cooperation.
“Hopefully that will ensure that the U.S. continues to feel willing to support Australia in terms of providing the Virginia-class SSNs,” Davis said.
For Australia, the decision to opt for up to five Virginia-class submarines makes it entirely dependent on the U.S. The follow-on SSN-AUKUS submarine production plan also makes Australia’s future submarine capability and in-country manufacturing plans dependent on the United Kingdom. For a military capability, this is a level of dependency that Australia has not experienced before and may take some time to get used to, he said.
However, Davis believes this is a good thing.
“It is an opportunity for us to develop our skills and work with these countries and contribute to their own needs in terms of burden sharing. It strengthens the alliance between Australia, the U.S. and U.K.,” he said. “And whilst it is undeniable that Australia is going to have to depend on the U.S. and U.K. to help us get the experience and expertise and establish facilities, ultimately the Virginia-class and SSN-AUKUS submarines will be under sovereign Australian control. This is crucial, these will be Australian submarines, not American or British ones.”
Although the U.K. will initiate the SSN-AUKUS construction program at its own facilities in Scotland to build SSNs for the U.K. Royal Navy, this work will eventually transition to Australia at the ASC Shipyard in Osborne, South Australia to provide SSNs for the RAN.
However, history suggests that timelines for newly-built submarines could get delayed, so Davis said that the RAN “should be open to the possibility of extending the Virginia buy if there is a significant delay in SSN-AUKUS, which I am sure there is going to be. We are talking about three to five now. But as we get into the program, might that be six or seven. If there is a delay to SSN-AUKUS, Australia can’t be left short, so we should have that flexibility built into the deal.”
The AUKUS project will invest up to $5.32 billion to upgrade the facilities at RAN Fleet Base West at HMAS Stirling so that it can host Royal Navy and U.S. Navy attack boats for when the Submarine Rotational Forces West (SRF-West) begins in 2027. This will be one of two major ports in Australia that will operate SSNs. The other will be located on Australia’s East Coast, likely south of the city of Wollongong in New South Wales.
Allowing the Australians to operate Virginia-class boats ahead of their own domestic attack boats does allay the RAN’s concerns about the need to operate its existing fleet of six Collins-class submarines well into the 2040s. The Collins-class boats are undergoing a Life Of Type Extension (LOTE) program to ensure there is no submarine capability gap until the new SSNs enter service.
“We are no longer having to keep the Collins in for as long. They may be retired earlier,” Davis said. “The pressure will be on the Virginias and getting those into service. There’s really no way that we can accelerate this timetable, unfortunately, and we are getting the SSNs about as fast as we can,” David said.
“This is a lot better than where Australia started out from with estimates of the late-2030s until we saw the first SSN.”
The SSN acquisition effort is pillar one of the AUKUS arrangement. Davis argues that the second pillar of AUKUS, relating to cooperation to develop advanced technology, is “as important, if not more important than pillar one” because it can deliver capabilities “much sooner”. He expects more information about pillar two to emerge in Australia’s new Defense Strategic Review, which is expected to get published in the coming months.