A world made less safe: Creating AUKUS

Binoy Kampmark looks behind the stramash over selling nuclear subs to see a new cold war developing

The formation on 15 September 2021 of a new security relationship, AUKUS, by Australia, UK and US sent ripples of shock through the Indo-Pacific. It ruffled the feathers of the French security establishment, who felt it appropriate to recall their ambassadors to Australia and the US. It perplexed various figures in the EU, eager to develop their own Indo-Pacific policy. And it concerned countries in the region, notably those in Southeast Asia, who warned that the agreement risked inciting an arms race.

The creation of the AUKUS compact, as President Biden and PMs Johnson and Morrison stated, was intended as a new ‘enhanced trilateral security partnership’. There was something that stood out as particularly unusual: the trio had committed ‘to a shared ambition to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy’. It was this feature that was particularly important in enraging France, since it ensured the scuppering of an AU$90bn contract with France’s Naval Group (formerly DCNS) for the construction of diesel-powered submarines based, perversely enough, on a French nuclear design.

That deal had been celebrated by the French defence establishment as the contract of the century. But its original commissioning was problematic. Australia’s Future Submarine Program (FSP), known as Project SEA 1000, had its gestation in the 2009 Defence White Paper and the Defence Capability Plan 2009. The FSP was intended to provide a submarine capability that would eventually replace the Royal Australian Navy’s six ageing and historically problematic Collins Class Submarines. As the 2016 Defence White Paper explained, their eventual replacement with 12 future attack class submarines was necessary given that half of the world’s submarines would ‘be operating in the Indo-Pacific region by 2035’.

Three contenders duly emerged: France, Germany and Japan. In 2014, it seemed the Japanese naval industry had what the Abbott government wanted. The Royal Australian Navy (RAN), however, disliked what was offered. The Japanese group failed to confirm that it would boost local skilled jobs in Australia, even as it was being outmanoeuvred by German and French contenders. The French contenders began to take the lead. In 2016, a $50bn contract followed, promising 12 French-designed submarines from the originally named DCNS (with 62% French government ownership) supplied to the RAN. Pundits and security astrologers suggested 4,000 jobs would be created in France alone while French Defence Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, proclaimed the solemnisation of a ‘50-year marriage’.

The problems were not long in coming. Disputes emerged on the issue of actual costings, distribution of labour and the number of jobs to be created in Australia. The commitment of the Naval Group to develop Australian industry came to be doubted. But the most troubling issue was that of premature obsolescence. By the time the first attack class submarines would find themselves in water in the 2030s, they would be ineffectual. Within the Australian Defence Department, there were suggestions that a rival submarine design should be encouraged, developed upon a repurposed version of the Collins Class. Some Australian parliamentarians were also concerned that the contract was unsustainable. ‘In the middle of this pandemic we cannot afford to proceed with this contract’ warned One Nation Senator, Malcolm Roberts, in May 2020, proffering ‘This money will be far better spent to support the Australian recovery from the economic pit that is caused by this pandemic’.

Which brings us to the self-evident point, one much neglected in considerable commentary on the submarines. The promised nuclear-powered vessels are irrelevant, at least in the context of Australian industry. Two decades in defence planning is not just a distant country but another, barely visible galaxy. The US and the UK have them, which is all that matters. They have the staff, training and expertise. And submarines are, as Guy Rundle points out in Crikey (21 September 2021), only useful as an ‘auxiliary force to protect a navy proper and civilian shipping’. Australia, strictly speaking, lacks a proper navy.

No contracts have been drawn out between Australia, the UK and the US, merely revocable undertakings. The Morrison government intends commissioning an 18-month ‘intense examination of what we need to do to exercise our nuclear stewardship responsibilities here in Australia’. Costs, always a huge problem in the field of submarine technology, promise to remain open-ended and unaccountable. In terms of infrastructure, Australia lacks a shipyard capable of building or maintaining a nuclear submarine force. This does not trouble Australia’s PM Morrison, who has praised South Australia, the state intended as the base for these phantom vessels, as ‘home to some of the most skilled shipbuilding workers in the world’ replete with ‘know-how, ingenuity, industrial knowledge and determination’.

The nature of AUKUS, then, is to further entrap Australia within security arrangements, utilising its resources and bases for a broader projection of US power in the Indo-Pacific. This point was made by a retired US submarine admiral to USNI News (15 September 2021): ‘Maintenance was a big factor in limiting [our deployments]’. The agreement, former US National Security Council member, Barry Pavel, similarly confirmed, would also enable ‘US submarine access to Australian support infrastructure’ as part of Washington’s ‘increasingly ‘latticed’ defence posture’ (New Atlanticist 15 September 2021).

With such prospective arrangements, Canberra has become complicit in an act of geo-political encirclement, ostensibly for peacekeeping reasons. ‘The US is using the same approach employed to contain Russia in Europe after the Cold War to contain China in the Asia-Pacific region’ is the assessment offered by Professor Li Haidong of the Institute of International Relations of China Foreign Affairs University. Thus, ‘Washington is building a NATO-like alliance in the region, with AUKUS at its core, and the US-Japan and US-South Korea alliances surrounding it’ (Global Times 16 September 2021).

For Australia, the consequences promise to be dire. The country will be further militarised and garrisoned, with US military personnel and assets offering false insurance against attack. Read another way, such personnel can also be seen as an invitation to future belligerents, their facilities and their presence confronting and provocative in regional power struggles. The fact that nuclear powered submarines might be involved adds a further incentive. As the official Chinese state publication, Global Times (16 September 2021) suggested, the idea of ‘an innocent non-nuclear power’ was a nonsense in this context. Such an ally would be able to be armed with nuclear weapons at any moment.

In addition to pre-existing alliance arrangements, AUKUS is also likely to oblige Canberra to commit forces should the US find itself in conflict in the Indo-Pacific. The claim by hawkish policy wonks in the US-funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute that this is simply another arms deal with no such obligations is disingenuous. The Australian military has been moving towards ‘interoperability’ with US forces for years. ‘The extraordinary level [of cooperation and interoperability] attained reflects our compatible national attitudes and common traits of confidence, ingenuity, optimism,’ wrote Gary Roughead (The Strategist 22 March 2013). But more, he argued, could be done to ‘embed military personnel into each other’s forces’.

Any sceptic about such eventualities need only consult the various statements and comments from the AUKUS parties. According to US Secretary of Defence, Lloyd Austin, on 16 September, the trilateral security pact ‘will help contribute to what I call integrated defence in the region, the ability for the United States militarily to work more effectively with our allies and partners in defence of our shared security interests’. Despite assurances from Austin and US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, that this did not entail ‘follow-on reciprocal requirements of any kind’ as part of ‘a quid pro quo mindset’, Australian Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, was obliging in clarifying matters. Fleshing out what such integrated deterrence might look like, Dutton, at the same press conference as Austin and Blinken, envisaged Australia becoming the base for ‘rotational deployments of all types of US military aircraft’. This would be accompanied by the establishment of ‘combined logistics, sustainment, and capability for maintenance to support our enhanced activities’.

The already existing complement of 5,000 US Marines on rotation in the Northern Territory would be increased, an idea Dutton was already considering in June, along with a potential joint US Marines-Australian Defence Force (ADF) training brigade. Australia would also offer ‘storage of different ordnances’ (ABC News 10 June 2021). Much of this beefing up of US forces is already in train, with the unveiling in July of plans to build four new military sites at Robertson Barracks, Kangaroo Flats, Mount Bundsey and Bradshaw Field for the princely sum of AU$747m.

It is worth noting Australia’s own Defence Department has always been at pains to use the language of mobility and action when describing the presence of the Marines, which has increased since the initial deployment of 200 in 2012. Semantics plays an important part here in order to reassure Northern Territory residents that they are not living under occupation. The name Marine Rotational Force-Darwin (MRF-D) suggests something more benign. At least Defence is not coy in admitting that this ‘highly capable force … provides significant opportunities to enhance interoperability with the ADF’.

AUKUS is also a clamouring message to powers in the region that the Anglophone bloc, with its vast historical baggage, intends to police the region against a country never mentioned in the original joint statement but crystal clear to all present. ‘It is impossible to read this’ wrote Sam Roggeveen of the Lowy Institute ‘as anything other than a response to China’s rise, and a significant escalation of American commitment to that challenge’ (The Interpreter 16 September 2021). Such a development is no cause for celebration for those in the EU who have preferred a different approach to the challenges posed in the Indo-Pacific. The AUKUS announcement was a brusque statement to others who also intend to play some regional role, not least Paris and the EU in general. Benjamin Haddad, director of the Atlantic Council’s Europe Centre, called this ‘a blow to transatlantic strategy in the region’ that risked placing a ‘lasting hurdle in US-France relations’ (New Atlanticist 15 September 2021). EU foreign policy chief, Joseph Borrell, in expressing regret with the lack of consultation regarding these new arrangements asserted: ‘We must survive on our own, as others do.’ Currently, the grouping is, according to an EU statement, ‘exploring ways to ensure enhanced naval deployments by EU Member States to help protect the sea lines of communication and freedom of navigation’.

Indo-Pacific powers such as Malaysia and Indonesia are particularly concerned by the nuclear component of AUKUS. ‘We agree on the latest issue in the region regarding a country near our territory that is purchasing new nuclear-powered submarines,’ stated Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah at a news conference following a meeting with his Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi. Despite Australia not having ‘the capacity for nuclear weapons, we are worried and concerned’ (ABC News 18 October 2021). They have every reason to be, not least because of voices in Australia’s strategic community, Hugh White being foremost among them, calling for the eventual acquisition of Canberra’s own nuclear deterrent ‘to counter China’s nuclear threats’.

Britain, given its essentially symbolic role in the new security alliance, has been allotted the conciliatory role to convince other powers that this is entirely peaceful, a sort of gentleman’s club of afternoon pink gins and gentle nods at the sanctity of the rules-based-order. The UK’s departing Chief of the Defence Staff General, Sir Nicholas Carter, stated: ‘AUKUS is not designed to be in any way what exclusive’. Other states could well be admitted. That is not likely to include France. President Macron told Morrison the trust between the two countries is broken. The relationship between Australia and Europe’s most prominent Indo-Pacific power has been severed. More importantly, the creation of AUKUS means the world is now a less safe place.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.