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AUKUS Focus

UK, US, and Australia have signed a submarine deal. But what is Australia's gamble here? Is this a need or a want for the country?

Photo by Cody Fitzgerald / Unsplash

On Tuesday, US, UK, and Australia announced their deal to create a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.

The AUKUS itself was, however, formed in 2021 as an effort to tackle China. At the time of its formation, Australia was in a fix: it could have continued its defense partnership with the French Naval Group — which it had renewed only recently then — or it could join hands with the US and UK over matters of uncertainty in its neighborhood. Most opinions alerted against the Australian move toward the West. The French Foreign Minister even called Australia's AUKUS plan a backstabbing effort against France. There were no warnings given, he said.

According to the French deal, Australia was supposed to get its first submarine in 2034. The AUKUS doesn't cut it short or guarantee early delivery. But, for the nation, this is a rare entry point into America's nuclear propulsion tech.  

The AUKUS agreement is an expensive one that's stretched across the next three decades, as far as Australia's expenditure is concerned. The costs can go up to $368 bn. Why invest so much monetarily — and emblematically — in a deal that can see fruition only decades later? Global politics can be a little misleading in that sense.

The Submarines

The whole AUKUS agreement was structured on the basis of the free and open Indo-Pacific sloganeering. While the focus had been on feeding into the importance of Quad, one can only surmise that a game of replacements has taken shape. Or perhaps it's a game of keeping all options open — for the US. For other regional players in the Indo-Pacific, these deals are stages where they can perform, elicit applause, and then wait for the grand entrant's final judgment. The grand entrant is always the US.

This is what the US, UK, and Australia have planned to do.

The first set of nuclear-powered submarines will be delivered by the US to Australia in the early quarter of the 2030s. These will be used submarines and won't be specifically built for Australia. The ones to be built will take longer to come and have been christened SSN-AUKUS. The entire lot would account for 8 in number — with the possibility of 11 being promising. Meanwhile, the Australian Navy personnel will be trained in the use of these — they will also be taken to the English and American bases where training will resume.

The money that Australia has decided to spend is concerning. Geopolitical intentions can very well be justified (or can it?) but the country has a track record of blowing its Defence budgets on deals or projects that remain result-less. The Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) project is one such case. The vessel that has been readied was identified to lack the 'seaworthiness' required. Given such bad encounters, one would expect Australia to be more cautious than jumpy when it comes to defense partnerships and deals.

A Need Or A Want?

When your constraints are too many and your options too taxing, you're often driven to ask: Is this my need or my want?

At the face of it, Australia's gamble for prominence can appear to be a 'want'. However, it does find the present fleet of diesel-powered submarines insufficient. When global defense technology has been making forays into multiple adaptive methods, Australia finds itself striking against a huge gap in competition. Its submarines do not have the capacity to remain undetectable, although these are easy on maintenance costs. The need to resurface constantly makes journeys longer. Stealth is a no-no given their current capacity.

Even if this can be categorized as a want, its proximity to China — and the belief that threat is looming — makes it a conscious conversion to a need. What else could explain a nuclear-free country's embrace of proliferation risk?

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