AUKUS appeases Australians but riles the French

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Balaji Chandramohan

Balaji Chandramohan

New Delhi, November 18, 2021

                                                                                                                      Image from the Australian Defence News

Australia’s effort to get nuclear submarines from the United States as a part of the newly formed ‘AUKUS,’ a trilateral security alliance involving the United States, United Kingdom and Australia will have wide ranging strategic implications in the South Pacific.

The pact will be the cornerstone of strategic alignment supplanting Quad – the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the United States, India, Japan and Australia.

Surprising decision

Australia’s decision to acquire nuclear submarines is surprising as it is not a nuclear power and it has strong credential as a country promoting Nuclear Non-Proliferation.

The country had earlier announced its intention to align with France to get 12 conventional submarines, replacing the existing six Collins Class Submarines to boost its force structure in the Indo-Pacific. However, with the rising Chinese maritime expansion in the Indo-Pacific, Australia had to get nuclear submarines to boost its deterrence. From that viewpoint, it is understandable that Australia attempts to become a nuclear nation with the support of the United States.

Australia’s quest for nuclear submarines and the decision involved has been briefed to Wellington as a matter of courtesy for the strategic partner.

Canberra’s path to build submarines is not a new development, since it has been expressed for more than a decade despite successive governments displaying strategic continuity. 

The Defence White Paper

The Defence White Paper 2016 envisaged an ambitious project to construct 12 new submarines which will change Canberra’s operational and strategic reach in the Indo-Pacific.

Further, Australia’s strategic re-orientation requires upgrading and expanding of its Navy. The country’s Defence White Paper 2009 had called for a major expansion of the submarine fleet from six to twelve boats by 2030.

In 2016, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had announced the formation of the Naval Group, then known as DCNS to build 12 new submarines for the Royal Australian Navy.

Apart from submarines, the Defence White Paper also included three air warfare destroyers and nine future frigates, as well as replenishment vessels.

Australia’s quest for submarine force structure is understandable. As a maritime country, it prefers the concept of sea control as a part of its maritime operational power-projection. Its quest is to have a blue-water presence in the Indo-Pacific.

Increasing Chinese presence

This operational statement is a marked departure from the earlier Defence White Papers (2009, 2012 and 2013) which were predominately conservative on issues related to procurements, which led to questions on strategic orientation active posturing.

Though the submarine programme is predominately aimed at an operational level, it has strategic connotations with the submarines which are expected to be stationed in Perth. This is an orientation towards the Indian Ocean, not the Eastern Fleet in Sydney.

Australia has taken the decision of acquiring the submarines, keeping in view China’s future submarine force.

China currently possesses 53 diesel attack submarines, five nuclear attack submarines, and four nuclear ballistic missile submarines. It is expected to grow the number of its submarines and capability of its nuclear attack submarines, introduce a new class of guided-missile attack submarines and commission up to 20 Yuan-class air-independent propulsion subs. All up, these represent a formidable mix of conventional and nuclear capability, one that will continue to be the largest submarine force in Asia, and a force that will increasingly become more capable of long-range operations, in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific.

However, these defensive posturing questions were raised as to how far Canberra can skip having nuclear submarines. This issue was raised by the assessment of the November 2013 study of Australia New Zealand United States Treaty (ANZUS) by the US Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

The case for submarines

The report concluded that there is a stronger case for nuclear submarines than a conventional replacement for the Collins. The crux of the report has seen light with Canberra’s intention to get nuclear submarine despite not being a nuclear power and being a strong adherent to the principle of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Australia has operated a fleet of six submarines for much of the past 35 years, with six British-designed and built Oberon class boats replaced over the period 1996–2003 by six Collins class.

The Oberons proved their value on war-fighting and intelligence-gathering platforms.

They are now known to have operated at great distances from Australia, including intelligence collection tasks in Soviet waters during the Cold War years.

The decision to make nuclear submarines available to the Royal Australian Navy was based  on a strategy to operate with US submarines from HMAS Stirling, where they would be beyond the range of China’s anti-access capabilities.

HMAS Stirling, also known as Fleet Base West, is the largest base in the Royal Australian Navy.  Providing Australia’s Indian Ocean presence, the base is located on Garden Island, south of Perth, Western Australia. 

Eleven fleet units are based at HMAS Stirling including the headquarters of the Australian Submarine Squadron. It is expected that the United States Navy will have on-going access to HMAS Stirling in the future (US carriers currently make regular port calls at Garden Island).

Australia will also upgrade its Anti-access and Anti-denial capabilities to hedge the Russian Pacific Fleet which has resumed long-range patrols including in the Pacific Islands.

Apart from developing the submarines, it is expected that Australia will develop its own anti-submarine warfare capabilities aimed both at the Indian Ocean and South Pacific.

Further, in its effort to boost combat capabilities and power-projection, Canberra will be purchasing P-8 long-range surveillance aircraft, three air warfare destroyers, and plans for several future frigates with significant anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities to replace the Anzac-class vessels.

The US powered nuclear submarines will be a game-changer in the strategic equation of the Indo-Pacific with Australia acquiring maritime capabilities for both defensive and offensive power-projection capabilities in the Indo Pacific.

Balaji Chandramohan is Indian Newslink Correspondent based in New Delhi.

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