Understanding the ‘Forever’ Alliance: What AUKUS Means for Australia and the World
© 2022 US Navy via AP
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.
The “forever” in AUKUS isn’t the long wait for delivery of the subs. It’s the forever of nuclear Armageddon.
When a country with a Westminster parliamentary system makes a major strategic decision, it’s not taken on the sole responsibility of the government of the day. The opposition is brought in for consultation, since it would be embarrassing for the country were its strategic priorities to change with every change of government. Accordingly, Australia’s opposition Labor Party would have been consulted when Scott Morrison’s Liberals opted for AUKUS. The Labor leader Anthony Albanese quietly endorsed the deal, affirming that it would “certainly continue” under a future Labor government. Other senior Labor Party figures were not so supportive.
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 prominent Labor senator Kim Carr said the agreement raised “questions about preserving Australian sovereignty itself, because for many decades ahead AUKUS will lock Australia rigidly into the global strategic priorities of the US … regardless of who occupies the White House.” That cautionary criticism shows that Carr understands the real meaning of the deal, even though he has presumably sworn not to divulge any details as the price of being informed about it. If AUKUS were no more than a submarine procurement plan, why would it threaten Australia’s very sovereignty? After all, Australia already operates a range of high-technology American defense equipment, including the nuclear-capable F-35 stealth fighter jet. As Carr is well-aware, the real importance of AUKUS isn’t the submarines; it’s the mission for which they are designed.
In 1958, one year after the first British hydrogen bomb test, the US and UK signed a mutual defense agreement for cooperation in nuclear weapons and naval propulsion technologies. For a decade following the Second World War, the UK had attempted to maintain an independent capability as an autonomous great power alongside the US and USSR, but the 1956 Suez Crisis put paid to British ambitions for strategic parity. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 demonstrated that the USSR had leapfrogged not only the UK in military technology, but in some ways even the US itself. Britain wanted a role, and in 1958 it accepted that its future role in the world was to play loyal lancer to the American superpower.
Ever since then, the US and UK have cooperated to monitor every potentially hostile nuclear weapon in the world — and to keep their own nuclear forces secret and safe. And while the public tends to think of nuclear missiles as huge rockets buried in hardened silos, professionals understand that the real nuclear threat comes from nuclear-armed submarines.
Land-based and air-launched nuclear missiles must be launched from far away, and are potentially vulnerable to enemy first strikes. Submarine-launched nuclear missiles, by contrast, can be launched from just off an enemy coastline, and are safe from nuclear first strikes.
The only way to take out a nuclear-armed submarine is the old-fashioned way: to sink it.
And that is the job of the nuclear-powered attack sub.
From the time the USSR launched its first nuclear ballistic missile submarines, the US and UK have teamed up in a global game of cat-and-mouse, working together to keep tabs on every Soviet submarine. Their goal was, in case of war, to be able to sink these subs before they could launch their missiles. That meant having an attack submarine on the tail of every missile sub, all the time. To what extent the Western allies succeeded in this mission, no one will ever know. But now the mission has expanded. China launched its first nuclear ballistic missile submarine in 1983, but it was only a test platform. In 2007, it began launching a new generation of ballistic missile submarines, and a third generation is reportedly under development.
New threats call for new responses, but the US-UK naval alliance lacks a major submarine base in the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans. American nuclear-powered attack submarines make port visits to Japan, but they are based far away, at Pearl Harbor and in San Diego. British attack submarines are based in Scotland, and presumably focus on the Arctic and North Atlantic. The Western alliance lacks a heavy logistics and maintenance base for submarines in the Indo-Pacific region where Chinese ballistic missile submarines are most likely to operate, and Australia is the ideal place to host one. Long before Australia gets its own nuclear-powered attack submarines, it is likely to develop the infrastructure for hosting its AUKUS allies’ subs.
And that is the point of AUKUS. Australia doesn’t have the engineering capacity to build nuclear-powered submarines, and any US or UK subs built for Australia will simply reduce deliveries to the Western powers’ own submarine fleets. 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. Thus the “forever” of Morrison’s AUKUS announcement. Australia has gone all-in on the Anglo-American alliance.
This is bad news for China, but good news for the rest of the world. Of course, non-aligned states cannot be expected to publicly endorse the strengthening of Western naval cooperation. Neither Russia nor even France will welcome the AUKUS partnership. But citizens of every country can sleep a little easier knowing that someone — anyone — is monitoring China’s nuclear weapons. Today’s China is a free radical, erratically challenging the limits of nearly all established conventions of international behavior. It is, frankly dangerous: not just to its enemies, but to its friends, and even to itself. Australia-based nuclear-powered submarines will never attack a French, Indian, or even a Russian submarine, because none of their owners would ever attack Australia, the United Kingdom, or the United States. With China, we can’t be so sure.
No one wants a war with China, but if anything ever were to go horribly wrong, the whole world would benefit from coordinated action to prevent a nuclear catastrophe.