AUKUS is a military alliance in which sensitive technology will be transferred by the US to Australia which has the potential of tilting the strategic balance in the region
The noise amongst the strategists seems to have quietened after the conclusion of AUKUS agreement amongst Australia, United Kingdom & United States. It was not seen as coming but once it was announced, it appeared that it was inevitable and obvious. It could change the strategic picture particularly in the Indo-Pacific.
On the face of it, the agreement is about sharing information, intelligence and technology in a joint programme to build and operate nuclear powered attack submarines (not carrying nuclear missiles) by Australia. These three countries are traditional allies. What has driven the US to conclude this agreement? Essentially three important reasons could have led to this conclusion. First, Australian drive to strengthen its alliance with the US in response to the growing maritime threat from China which has also been attempting to dictate terms in Australian domestic policies by way of trade sanctions. Second, Brexit has left the UK out of EU and therefore any credible global role for itself. This agreement provides an opportunity for UK to reappear in the Indo-Pacific alongside its old allies. Since UK also has advanced nuclear technology, it could assist Australian Navy in training their crews to familiarise with the nuances of nuclear submarines and establish interoperability. Thirdly, the US was looking for ways to counter the Chinese assertive behaviour in the Indo-Pacific.
While China has been put on notice as far as its Pacific Strategy is concerned, France has suffered massive commercial losses apart from trust deficit with the US. Even the reaction of Germany in favour of France reflected the trust deficit of US with the EU. French deal of approximately $90 billion for diesel submarines has been cancelled. In fact, Australia had put off the deal in the past on the rumor of financial irregularities to secure the deal.
President Biden was probably looking for less rule bound and a more reliable construct based more or less on Anglo-Saxon civilisational sympathies. This probably is seen by the US as more effective and reliable pact to respond to China. It provides US with some firmer footing in the Indo-Pacific after having made a rather clumsy retreat from Afghanistan. Possibly the larger objective would have been to entice China into the messy Taliban Afghanistan with which Beijing isn’t very familiar. China would like to see a peaceful region for its BRI and larger desires of trade with Eurasia for its materialisation. US has demonstrated its firmer shift to Indo-Pacific as its future battle space. For that to be realised, AUKUS is important. Though the Australian nuclear submarines could be at least 10 years away, leasing of similar type of submarines by US or UK cannot be ruled out.
As far as Australian Navy is concerned, they will have to train to absorb the technology and its deployment patterns, its teaming with unmanned underwater vehicles and how will these two challenge the Chinese who have operational teaming of similar vessels.
Australia will certainly continue to operate manned submarines for quite sometime in future, the Underwater Unmanned Vessels look set to complement them in number of missions. In all probability the missions could include surveillance, reconnaissance, intelligence, anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare and electronic warfare operations. Therefore, Australian Navy will like to use these platforms in number of such operational missions. One important future for these, mix of platforms, could be in a manner where Australian manned submarine acts as mother submarine and controls number of ISR UUVs to guard access to Australian Choke points such as Sunda, Lombok Makassar Straits. Australia’s close and strategic relations with Indonesia may permit this opportunity. Two, three such deployments will free number of manned submarines for other important missions.
Then Boeing’s Orca extra large unmanned undersea vehicles (XLUUVs) are capable of venturing into shallow waters off the coast of China for ASW missions. They can also be deployed for jamming of radar systems and other EW operations against ships deployed at crucial choke points along the first island chain should there be conflict. IISS Asia Pacific Regional Security Assessment points at pre deployment of minefields using artificial intelligence and its activation using XLUUV or manned submarines. Analyst Franz-Stefan Gady has also written about this aspect in his article “Australia’s Future Submarine Fleet and Uninhibited Undersea Systems.”
How does it impact QUAD and therefore India. Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla has said that it has no impact on the QUAD since this arrangement is not a security partnership. The issues being worked are vaccine, pharma, supply chain and emerging technologies. AUKUS is a military alliance in which sensitive technology will be transferred by the US to Australia which has the potential of tilting the strategic balance in favour of Australia/US/UK. In a sense, AUKUS would complement potential QUAD-MALABAR ‘plug and play’ in case of a conflict. Number of articles have been written opining that AUKUS would marginalise the importance of QUAD.
During Cold War the heartland (as defined by Halford Mackinder a century ago) was unified under Soviet Union. Conflicts were arising from Berlin- Korea- Greece – Afghanistan and Vietnam and remained on entire rimland. However, as of now it appears that in post Cold War period, US and allies have shifted their attention to West Asia which witnessed endless wars. It was also rejection of acceptance of democracy’s Westfalen model by the Arab world. And now US has finally called of its war on terror after 20 years and shifted its focus on the Indo-Pacific as its primary battle space. AUKUS seems to be a resounding declaration of that intention in the next phase of global geostrategic competition between China and US and their allies.
To imagine that AUKUS is a hurried response to the disorganised American withdrawal from Afghanistan will be a mistake. In fact it is demonstration of capacity of the US to retain strategic surprises and possible bold moves. It has been reported that the agreement was finalised at the G7 summit in mid-June 2021 in Cornwall which President Macron of France also attended. “AUKUS seems to be product of farsighted thinking prompted by Australian realism rather than timely panic.” (John O’Sullivan & Tamar’s Orban in National Review).
The Author is former Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. A naval aviator of fighter stream, he has flown over 2700 hours and steered naval aviation acquisition as the Assistant Chief of Naval Staff. He retired in 2014 as the Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Western Naval Command.