Using AUKUS to Brazen it Out
Sarosh Bana

The United States’ and the United Kingdom’s overtures to Australia to help it acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered general-purpose attack submarines (SSNs) infuse a perilous complexity into the strategic Indo-Pacific environment, rendering it more difficult to denuclearise the region.

Announcing the new trilateral security alliance for the Indo-Pacific on 15 September that they termed AUKUS (an acronym of the three partner countries), US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison jointly pledged to embark on a “next generation partnership” clearly aimed at checking China’s influence in the region. As the first initiative to be pursued over the next 18 months, the US and the UK would collaborate on enabling Australia to build at least eight SSNs for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). They will be constructed in Adelaide, with the first expected to be built by 2040.

Australia will be only the second country to be provided the naval propulsion reactor (NPR) technology by the US, which had produced the world’s first SSN, the USS Nautilus, in 1954. The UK had been the first, when the US supplied it the S5W pressurised water reactor (PWR) design, complete propulsion machinery set, auxiliary equipment, as well as fissile material for core fabrication and the offer to reprocess spent fuel in the US. S5W powered the Royal Navy’s first nuclear-submarine, HMS Dreadnought, launched in 1960. A third generation PWR, namely, PWR3, will now power the four successor Dreadnought class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) that will replace the Vanguard class submarines from 2028 onwards and will host the Royal Navy’s nuclear deterrent.

The formation of AUKUS brought the region to a boil, as it was viewed as a challenge by both China, which is intently enlarging its profile in the region, and its affiliate, North Korea, which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suspects to have revived its nuclear programme by restarting its Yongbyon nuclear reactor. The 5-megawatt reactor is widely believed to have produced plutonium for nuclear weapons and is at the heart of North Korea’s nuclear programme, says the agency.

Even as the region was shaken yet again by missile tests being conducted by both North and South Korea, the former saw the AUKUS deal starting “a chain of nuclear weapons races” in the Indo-Pacific. It warned that if it perceived “even a slight” threat to its security, it would take “equivalent counter-action”.

American nuclear submarines – and, as a corollary, also British - operate on reactors fuelled by weapons-grade highly-enriched uranium (HEU) having 93.5% of U-235, the only naturally occurring fissile isotope that makes it widely usable in nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons.

Though Australia has around a third of the world’s uranium resources, and is the world’s third ranking producer, accounting for a tenth of annual global production, it has neither a nuclear weapons’ nor civil nuclear energy programme. Even its efforts in the 70s to acquire a nuclear-submarine had been abortive. Its largest market for its uranium is the US, which accounts for over half of final demand. Canberra’s nuclear cooperation agreements mandate the use of Australian Obligated Nuclear Material (AONM) exclusively for peaceful purposes, and are tied to each country’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA.

Heeding US Congressional concerns over proliferation risks of HEU-powered submarines, the Office of Naval Reactors assessed the issue in 1995, as also in 2014, and concluded both times that while it was technically feasible to convert nuclear-powered vessels from HEU to low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel, it was “uneconomic and impractical”, and besides “offers no technical advantage to the Navy, provides no significant non-proliferation advantage, and is detrimental from environmental and cost perspectives”. LEU-power would also require more frequent refuelling and larger reactors, forcing a change in the overall submarine dimensions.

Chinese and French NPRs use LEU that contains less than 20% U-235, rendering it not weapon-useable. Russia and India use medium-enriched uranium. The US Congress was also concerned that non-weapon states, like Iran or Brazil for instance, which are interested in acquiring or developing SSNs, could well use the US example to justify producing and stockpiling weapon-usable HEU, thereby destabilising the non-proliferation regime.

Though the three AUKUS partners stressed that the submarines would be nuclear-powered and not nuclear-armed to ensure full compliance under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), China took umbrage. It termed the move “extremely irresponsible” and said it would ‘severely damage’ peace and stability, and risk triggering an arms race in the Indo-Pacific.

Its Foreign ministry spokesman urged Australia to reflect on whether it perceived China as a ‘partner or a threat’. Despite recent trade frictions where Beijing has disdained Canberra’s foreign policies by imposing restrictive import tariffs on Australian wine, seafood, beef and barley, China remains Australia’s biggest export market. Australian exports accounted for US$ 125 billion worth of the US$ 188 billion bilateral trade in the 12 months to July.

“We have entered, no doubt, a new era,” announced Morrison, possibly mindful that his country’s landmark foray into nuclear propulsion will reset the already charged littoral RAN’s nuclear-submarines will eventually operate in. Rather coincidentally, he added, “The relatively benign environment we have enjoyed in many decades in our region is behind us.”

Submarines are becoming a favoured option in the projection of power by the regional players, and AUKUS’s formation rubbed even the triad’s allies the wrong way, as also stirred up criticism within. With the development conclusively scuttling Canberra’s controversy-ridden US$ 65 billion deal with France’s Naval Group for design and construction, in Adelaide, of 12 Future Attack Class non-nuclear submarines. France recalled its Ambassadors to the US and Australia for consultations. Paris was moreover informed of the alliance mere hours before the public announcement was made. A subsequent phone call between Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron saw the French envoy back in Washington.

Maintaining that her country viewed foreign policy developments through the lens of what was in the best interest of the region, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, “New Zealand’s position in relation to the prohibition of nuclear-powered vessels in our waters remains unchanged.”

Australian Independent Senator Rex Patrick remarked: “If it’s a US submarine, they have highly enriched uranium in their reactors and that creates a proliferation issue in terms of Australia standing up saying, no one should have this sort of fuel available to them.”

The Biden administration’s largesse towards Australia is opportune, as it emerges from a humiliating rout in Afghanistan where its world’s “most powerful armed forces” were outwitted by rifle-waving Taliban insurgents cruising in pick-up trucks.

The US has been a Pacific power for more than two centuries, its US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPAC) deploying some 375,000 military and civilian personnel across the littoral. However, its pre-eminence in the region and beyond has been challenged by Beijing’s military posturing. China’s energy-hungry export-driven economy is heavily reliant on raw material and fuel imports. To buttress its suzerainty over the regional Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC), which are critical to the survival of the wider Indo-Pacific community, China has been extending its blue-water presence through the establishment of a major surface fleet and nuclear-submarine base on Hainan Island in the South China Sea and through deploying precision cruise and advanced ballistic missiles that can target all current US bases and naval forces in the region. In a series of combative moves, it has also been creating islands and militarising them to further its access to marine resources.

Washington acknowledges its diminishing stature, as articulated by the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China (PRC), 2020. Referring to the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) objective to become a “world-class” military by the end of 2049, a goal first announced by General Secretary Xi Jinping in 2017, the report notes: “Although the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has not defined what a “world-class” military means, within the context of the PRC’s national strategy, it is likely that Beijing will seek to develop a military by mid-century that is equal to—or in some cases superior to—the US military, or that of any other great power that the PRC views as a threat.”

The report finds China already ahead of the US in areas such as shipbuilding - where the PRC has the largest navy in the world, its overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines outnumbering the US Navy’s 293 ships, as of early 2020 – and land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, where the PRC has over 1,250 ground-launched ballistic missiles (GLBMs) and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometres, in comparison to the US’s one type of conventional GLBM with a range of 70 to 300 kilometres, and no GLCMs. China besides has one of the world’s largest forces of advanced long-range surface-to-air systems - including Russian-built S-400s, S-300s, and domestically produced systems – that constitute part of its robust and redundant integrated air defence system architecture.

Russia is the only of the six countries operating nuclear-submarines that is largely absent from the Indo-Pacific, while the flags of the US, China, the UK, France and India are seen more often in the region.

Russia is also the only country that leases out its nuclear-powered submarines, and India is the only country that leases them. In a move that had then raised concerns globally, Moscow had leased out a Soviet-built Project 670 Skat (NATO classification Charlie-I class) nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine (SSGN) to India from 1988 to 1991. It was bereft of the cruise missiles to adhere to the NPT, but gained Indian Navy the crucial capability to operate a high technology vessel.

Though the NPT bans outright the sale of nuclear-submarines, it has no specific guidance on leasing or on trade in NPRs. In 2012, the Indian Navy took another SSN, of the Akula class, on a 10-year lease at a cost of $2 billion. The double-hulled submarine was returned in June, a year earlier, owing to an explosion on board that damaged both its hulls. Russia is reportedly modernising another Akula class attack submarine that will be delivered to the Indian Navy by 2025 under a $3 billion 10-year lease.

India has simultaneously pursued a classified programme to indigenously design and build three 6,000-tonne SSBNs, conceived way back in 1998. The first of the series, INS Arihant, however, joined service only in 2016, with its successor, Arighat, due to join next year.

India, however, has high stakes in the matter of submarine power-play, being a lessee as well a lessor, apart from being a builder of its own submarines as also those under technology transfer.

In December 2019, it helped the Myanmar Navy acquire its third dimension by transferring a 3,000-tonne 1988-commissioned Russian-built Kilo class Type 877EKM SSN, INS Sindhuvir, from its own fleet. The five-year lease was undertaken through a Line of Credit (LOC), and followed a two-year refit at an Indian defence shipyard.

This move was intended to checkmate China’s strategic inroads into the Indian neighbourhood, and provide the Myanmar Navy an interim capability to train crews and prepare to expand its undersea fleet through a likely follow-up acquisition of two additional Kilo class submarines from Russia. INS Sindhuvir can be armed with a wide range of weapons, such as the 220 km-range 3M-54 Kalibr cruise missiles, torpedoes and DM-1 mines. India and China, alongside Russia, Israel, and Ukraine, are reportedly among the five top arms exporters to Myanmar.

This 676,575 km² country of 55 million people finds itself in a geopolitical quagmire, sharing a tripoint border that measures 2,129 km with China and 1,643 km with India. Myanmar also shares a 725 km maritime border with India. Myanmar is besides the only ASEAN country that adjoins India and provides it a gateway to Southeast Asia.

Beijing’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy designed to encircle India has led it to sell Bangladesh two refurbished Type 035G Ming class submarines for $204 million in 2017, and eight S20 submarines to Pakistan for about $5 billion that will join the Pakistan Navy by 2028.

India also believes that the Maldivian island of Feydhoo Finolhu, which a Chinese company acquired in 2016 on a 50-year lease for $4 million, may be used as a listening post to track Indian naval movements in this strategic part of the Indian Ocean and to berth nuclear submarines.

It is in this overwrought environment that Washington is vying for resurgence. To a network of Indo-Pacific partnerships, it has added AUKUS by co-opting the UK to refurbish London’s standing in the region. Britain has announced its post-Brexit “Asia Tilt” that reckons on finalising trade deals in the Indo-Pacific to replace those lost from the European Union. To signal its outreach into the region, the Boris Johnson government recently dispatched a carrier strike group led by its new £3-billion aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth into the contested South China Sea, while flanked by a US destroyer and a Dutch frigate and equipped with American F-35 air fighters. Britain’s Defence Secretary Ben Wallace announced that following on from the strike group’s inaugural deployment, the UK would permanently assign two ships in the region from later this year.

Australia, in turn, has “Pacific Step-up” as its high foreign policy priority for the region. First announced in 2016 as a ‘step-change’ in the way it would engage the region, the step-up has since been highlighted as of fundamental importance to Australia. In 2018, Morrison had foreseen the engagement being taken to a new level, launching a “new chapter in relations with our Pacific family”. Apart from the AUKUS submarines, Canberra has unveiled a $90 billion plan for building new naval ships and submarines, more than $1 billion in modern shipyard infrastructure, and up to $62 million in workforce growth and skilling initiatives to enable the delivery of these platforms.

Washington, of course, has its policy of ‘pivot’, or ‘rebalance’, envisaged by the Obama administration to rekindle the US’s influence in the region. The succeeding Trump administration instead unveiled its Indo-Pacific Strategy under which was enacted the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) that authorised US$1.5 billion of funding for various US programmes in East and Southeast Asia.

Biden appears intent on taking the ‘pivot’ to the next level. He may be looking to AUKUS to impart him the vital means of getting there.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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