Home / Opinion / Views /  Mint Explainer: Why the Australia-UK-US military partnership could lose its way

US President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British PM Rishi Sunak recently unveiled an ambitious, multi-decade plan to implement the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) military partnership, which aims to give Australia nuclear-powered submarines. The three-nation grouping’s focus has clearly been on building a credible deterrent to China in the region.

  • In September 2021, the leaders of the US, Britain and Australia announced the establishment of the AUKUS military partnership. It has two major focus areas: transferring nuclear-powered submarine technology to Australia, and developing advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing for defence purposes.
  • Their co-operation on nuclear-powered submarines grabbed global attention. While the US and the UK have developed this highly prized technology, Australia operates diesel-powered submarines. Nuclear-powered submarines are quieter than their diesel fuelled counterparts and hence cannot be detected easily underwater. They are also able to travel faster and farther, and stay underwater for longer than diesel-powered subs.
  • The AUKUS partnership proposed a transfer of nuclear submarine technology from the US and the UK to Australia. The proposed sharing of this highly sensitive military technology, which forms the core of America’s military advantage over its adversaries at sea, was a major development.
  • The target of this move was seen to be China. Given that Australia is located in the Indo-Pacific, handing Canberra advanced, nuclear-powered submarines would help the US-led military architecture in the region to more effectively deter China’s growing power on the seas.
  • This week the leaders of the three nations announced a comprehensive, multi-decade plan to transfer this technology to Australia. Over the next few years, Australian defence personnel will be embedded in the America and British security establishments and learn how to operate these advanced submarines. Washington and London will also send their nuclear-powered submarines more frequently to Australian waters.
  • Around 2027, American and British submarines will form a rotational force that will boost their military footprint in the region. In the early 2030s, Washington will sell Canberra some of its Virginia-class nuclear submarines. Following this, the UK and Australia will also work on designing a new AUKUS-class submarine, which will be built in Australia and deployed in the early 2040s.
  • While many have hailed this new programme for balancing the interests of all three AUKUS nations and also deterring China, there are important concerns. The programme is expected to cost the Australian taxpayer an eye-watering $368 billion over the next few decades by some estimates. The sheer size of the defence outlays and the two-decade timeline raise the possibility that the programme may lose its way.
  • The AUKUS partnership also involves cooperation on advanced technologies such as cyber, artificial intelligence and quantum capabilities. However, US export controls on certain technologies may slow down this vital pillar of cooperation. Without it, the main purpose of AUKUS, which is to bring the defence and security establishments of all three countries closer together, may be lost.

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