US and UK promise nuclear submarines for Australia

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October 2021
By Julia Masterson

Australia could become the first non-nuclear-weapon state to deploy a nuclear-powered submarine under a new trilateral security partnership with the United States and the United Kingdom known as the AUKUS. The initiative was unveiled at a joint virtual press conference on September 15.

The three nations stressed that Australia will not acquire nuclear weapons and that they will live up to their commitment to global non-proliferation standards. Despite this, the decision by the US and UK to outfit Australia with nuclear submarines has heightened proliferation concerns, as both US and UK submarines are powered by on-board reactors fueled at highly enriched uranium (HEU).

The objective of the new trilateral alliance is to ensure “peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. [region] for the long term, ”said US President Joe Biden during the joint appearance unveiling the initiative alongside Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on video monitors.

“We must be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region and its evolution, because the future of each of our nations, and indeed of the world, depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific. , sustainable and thriving for decades to come, ”Biden added.

The United States only shared nuclear submarine propulsion technology with the United Kingdom, a product of a series of Cold War deals aimed at countering Soviet influence in Europe.

The British Royal Navy operates three nuclear-powered submarine systems: the Vanguard-class guided missile submarine and the Astute and Trafalgar-class attack submarines. Johnson said the AUKUS partnership will provide “a new opportunity to strengthen Britain’s place at the forefront of science and technology, enhancing our national expertise.”

Morrison said Australia will work with Washington and London over the next 18 months “to seek to determine the best way forward to achieve” a fleet of conventionally-armed nuclear submarines. He also said the submarines would be built “in Australia in close cooperation” with the UK and the US. The submarines are said to be completed in time to be deployed in the 2040s. Early reports suggest Australia may lease nuclear submarines from the US or the UK in the meantime, but details remain unclear.

At a press conference in Canberra on September 16, Morrison noted that “[n]ex-generation nuclear-powered submarines will use reactors that do not need to be refueled for the life of the ship. A civilian nuclear capability here in Australia is not required to continue this new capability. “

A senior official in the Biden administration appeared to confirm on September 20 that ships would be HEU fueled, as are British and US submarines, when they commented on Australia’s suitability to “l ‘stewardship of the HEU “. It is still unclear who would supply Australia with the fissile material needed to power the submarines or whether the nuclear-powered submarines could be supplied through a lease agreement.

Another unknown is whether the design of the submarine will be based on existing American or British attack submarines or an entirely new design. One of the reasons Australia might hire American or British ships on short notice is “to give us opportunities to train our sailors, [to] providing the skills and knowledge in terms of operation, ”Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton told reporters on September 19, suggesting that the new submarines could share a similar design.

The AUKUS initiative is not limited to the new submarine project. It will also facilitate information sharing in a number of technological areas, including artificial intelligence, underwater systems, and quantum, cybernetic and long-range strike capabilities. Morrison said Australia will also boost its long-range strike capabilities through the purchase of Tomahawk cruise missiles and extended-range joint air-to-surface missiles.

The three leaders were careful not to attribute the new trilateral security initiative to a response to concerns about expanding Chinese military capabilities. In February, as part of the growing U.S. focus on prioritizing competition with Beijing, Biden announced a new Department of Defense task force to assess U.S. military strategy toward the China.

Nevertheless, the Chinese authorities quickly condemned the AUKUS initiative. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on September 16 that “nuclear submarine cooperation between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia has seriously undermined regional peace and stability. , intensified the arms race and undermined international non-proliferation efforts ”.

China has also raised concerns about the proliferation risks posed by the initiative. Lijian warned that “the international community, including Australia’s neighboring countries, has good reason to question whether Australia is serious about honoring its nuclear non-proliferation commitments.”

Australian, British and American officials have sought to assure the international community that the initiative does not pose an increased risk of proliferation. A senior official in the Biden administration said on September 15 that “Australia, again, is not and will not seek nuclear weapons. These are nuclear powered submarines. But they noted the novelty of the circumstance, adding: “[T]It is frankly an exception to our policy in many ways.

Aidan Liddle, the UK’s ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, told Arms Control Today in a September 21 email that “[a]The three parties involved are absolutely committed to the [nuclear] treats of non-PROLIFERATION [NPT] and have a long history of working to maintain and strengthen the global anti-proliferation regime.

“We spoke to [International Atomic Energy Agency] Director[-]General on this, and we will remain in close contact with the IAEA as we investigate the safeguards implications of the program in the next phase of work, ”said Liddle. He added, “[W]We will ensure that we meet our international obligations and have absolute confidence that no HEU will be diverted for weapons purposes.

Most non-proliferation experts, however, say the concern is not necessarily about Australia’s intentions, but the precedent the nuclear-powered submarine-sharing program would set. Although Australia’s new submarines are conventionally armed, they would clearly be deployed for military purposes and use HEU, which can also be used for nuclear weapons.

Washington has concluded nuclear cooperation agreements for the exchange and transfer of civilian nuclear materials, equipment and technology for peaceful purposes with many non-nuclear weapon states. But transfers of military naval nuclear technology are not covered by these agreements, including the US-Australia nuclear cooperation agreement signed in 2010.

In a letter to the editor published on September 21 in the New York Times, Rose Gottemoeller, former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, criticized the proposal to share fueled submarines at HEU with Australia. The proposal, she wrote, “destroyed 60 years of US policy” designed to minimize the use of HEU. “Such uranium makes nuclear bombs, and we never wanted it to be in the hands of non-nuclear-weapon states, no matter how clean,” she said.

As late as May 2021, the UK and US said they want to ‘re-energize’ efforts to minimize HEU use, according to the official statement setting out the goals of the G7 Global Partnership. against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. (See ACT, June 2021.) The reduction in HEU production and use “enjoys broad support but requires stronger political support,” the statement said.

Senior officials in the Biden administration called the decision regarding Australia “unique,” implying similar arrangements would not be made with other allies of the United States.

Despite the support for the new initiative among the three capitals, the AUKUS partnership risks undermining the relations of the United States and the United Kingdom with their allies, in particular France. Australia signed the nuclear submarine acquisition program after abandoning a $ 66 billion deal with France to build 12 conventionally powered submarines. The negotiations to establish the AUKUS initiative took place in secret for six months, and the French were not aware of these discussions.

In his September 21 letter to the editor, Gottemoeller criticized the submarine deal’s lack of “strategic imagination” and noted that “what we needed was a three-cornered billiard shot – pivot to Asia, yes, but keep our European allies on board. “

“I suggest putting the French at the table,” concluded Gottemoeller, who also served as NATO Deputy Secretary General from 2016 to 2019, concluded. The French use low-enriched fuel for their naval propulsion, which, if shared with Australia, would pose a much lower proliferation risk than HEU, she wrote.

Following the UKUS announcement, Paris recalled its ambassadors from the United States and Australia. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drain and Defense Minister Florence Parley declared in a joint statement that “the American choice to exclude a European ally and partner like France from a structuring partnership with Australia , at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, whether in terms of our values ​​or in terms of respect for multilateralism based on the rule of law, shows a lack of consistency that France can only observe and regret.

Paris also canceled a Franco-British summit of defense ministers scheduled for the week of September 20.


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