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AUKUS subs deal will sink without leadership
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AUKUS subs deal will sink without leadership

On Thursday AUKUS, the technology alliance between Australia, the US and Britain, has its first anniversary. Few will have forgotten the awkward video-linked launch when Joe Biden momentarily forgot Scott Morrison’s name: “I want to thank that fellow down under. Thank you very much, pal. Appreciate it, Mr Prime Minister.”

It has been a tumultuous year for the fledgling partnership. Already, two parents, Morrison and Boris Johnson, have been ousted from the nest, although new foster parents Anthony Albanese and Liz Truss appear to remain strong supporters.

AUKUS promises to strengthen dramatically the military capabilities of the three partners by pooling defence-related science, technology and industry, and focusing on a list of high-priority areas that include “cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and additional undersea capabilities”.

The most striking initial AUKUS project is “a shared ambition to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered sub­marines” and a projected 18-month time frame “to seek an optimal pathway to deliver this capability”.

Only once before has the US given a foreign power access to technology to develop nuclear propulsion: Britain in the 1950s. AUKUS presents a significant strategic opportunity for Australia. For officials working on developing the pathway for nuclear capability, much of the past year has been used to understand what it would mean for Australia to run a nuclear-powered navy.

An Australian nuclear-powered submarine task force was established to work with Britain and the US on “submarine design, construction, safety, operation, maintenance, disposal, regulation, training, environmental protection, installations and infrastructure, industrial base capacity, workforce and force structure”.

By the standards of Defence’s usually slow processes for acquiring equipment, AUKUS planning is moving at a lightning pace. Agreements have been struck for exchanging information on the US’s highly secret nuclear-propulsion technology and on training Australian personnel.

Apart from seeing hints of official activity, though, there is little public information on which to judge if AUKUS is steering towards success.

Is Australia successfully persuading the US that it can scale up to manage building and operating nuclear submarines? Some US observers doubt Australia’s capacity to take this huge technology step.

Randy Schriver, a former ­assistant secretary of defence in the Trump administration, identified “many potential obstacles on both sides” including from the US navy. He told this newspaper last January there needed to be “sustained commitment from the senior political leaders in both capitals, otherwise the chances of Australia deploying its own nuclear submarine will drop below 50 per cent”.

Schriver’s point about political leadership highlights a potential AUKUS weakness. The agreement would never have been struck were it not for the personal initiative of Morrison and Johnson to press Biden for Australian access to nuclear technology.

Each leader had a pressing political reason to make the case: Morrison wanted to be rid of the arrangement with France to build conventional submarines. The so-called Attack-class boat had run out of friends in Morrison’s government, but killing the project required a compellingly better alternative.

Johnson’s interest was to set a post-Brexit direction for British foreign and defence policy. AUKUS is valuable to London if it makes Britain more central to US strategic thinking. The relationship with Australia would help to boost Johnson’s announced strategy for a “Global Britain’” making a “tilt to the Indo-Pacific”.

AUKUS gave Biden an opportunity to move attention away from the debacle of an ill-considered and appallingly executed withdrawal from Afghanistan in August last year. AUKUS enabled the US President to focus on the Indo-Pacific and could be presented to an American audience weary of carrying the world’s security burdens as a way to make allies do more for their own security.

While each leader had political priorities that AUKUS could assist back in September last year, it remains to be seen if the national security establishments of the three countries really can deliver on the technology.

By March next year – the end of the 18-month process – Defence Minister Richard Marles wants to deliver three outcomes: first, to identify a submarine type, in effect the US Virginia-class or British Astute-class submarine, or their design successors; second, establish a time frame for the acquisition; and third, have options for an interim conventional submarine replacement if there is a gap between the end of life of the Collins- class submarines and the arrival of the nuclear-powered boats.

The stakes could not be higher. In March the AUKUS leaders must decide if they are confident to proceed with the nuclear-propulsion pathway. Biden must be assured Australia is prepared to spend money needed and can meet the safety, security and operational standards to run nuclear-powered submarines and protect secret technology.

Notwithstanding the closeness of the alliance, the US Navy, Defence and Energy departments will be tough judges, as they must be to protect their technology.

For Australia’s part, the Prime Minister will want assurances that Defence really can deliver on an immensely complicated project. Australia’s track record on submarine design and production has been patchy at best.

Then there is the cost. The project to build French-designed conventional submarines had an “out-turned” cost, which takes account of inflation, estimated at $80bn to $90bn across the submarines’ life. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s estimate of the nuclear-powered submarine project amounts to an out-turned cost of $153bn to $171bn.

Albanese can be expected to suffer some sticker shock at these costs, a large proportion of which is not factored into current defence-spending levels.

The Prime Minister also may reflect on the reality the project will not deliver Australian-built submarines until well into the 2030s. The project does little to help the government deal with a more immediate challenge to regional security from Beijing.

In Britain, Truss will continue Johnson’s foreign and defence policy approach, but the war in Ukraine underlines the point that an emphasis on the Indo-Pacific is, in truth, a second-order priority for British security.

The worst outcome for AUKUS next March would be if the US, doubting Australia’s capacity to deliver or Australia, baulking on cost, surprise each other and decide not to proceed with the submarine project. More likely, if Canberra or Washington thought the March deadline was pointing to a “no-go”’ on submarines, it might be possible to pre-agree an outcome whereby the submarine project is put to one side so the partners can focus on other technology possibilities.

The outcome that officials are working to, of course, is to find the pathway to providing Australia with nuclear propulsion. Albanese and Marles must ensure this drive to deliver a positive outcome doesn’t create a “conspiracy of optimism” where a flawed plan is endorsed, only to produce a failed project years later.

Peter Jennings is the former executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a former deputy secretary for strategy at the Defence Department.

China MinutesKailun Sui

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