President Joe Biden announces that the United States will share nuclear submarine technology with Australia, as he is joined virtually by Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom, on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021.

President Joe Biden announces that the United States will share nuclear submarine technology with Australia, as he is joined virtually by Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom, on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. Los Angeles Times via Getty Images / Kent Nishimura

AUKUS: Good Goals, Bad Implementation

Now begins the real work for the United States and its democratic allies: cooperating to strengthen their eroding deterrence in the Indo-Pacific.

Eyeing an increasingly formidable Chinese military, the United States needs all the help it can get in the Indo-Pacific. That was Washington’s primary motivation for a trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, or AUKUS, announced earlier this month.

Unfortunately, the Biden administration’s formulation of the partnership and implementation of the announcement undercut one of the primary goals AUKUS is designed to achieve: an increasingly unified and capable coalition of democracies to oppose regional aggression and bullying from Beijing.

Good Goals

In light of the intensifying military-technology race with Beijing and the eroding military balance of power in the region, AUKUS will look to identify and jump-start trilateral efforts focused on quickly fielding cutting-edge military capabilities. The partnership will “bring together our sailors, our scientists, and our industries to maintain and expand our edge in military capabilities and critical technologies, such as cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and undersea domains,” President Joe Biden said on Sept. 15.

As a first priority, the three countries will focus on providing the Royal Australian Navy with nuclear-powered attack submarines, or SSNs. The announcement launches an “18-month consultation period” to determine the best and most expeditious path to helping Australia field SSNs. Biden says that consultation period will be used to answer questions related to workforce, training requirements, production timelines, and nuclear safeguards.

In effect, this component of the AUKUS agreement ends an existing Australia-France deal to build new diesel submarines for the Australian Navy and replaces it with an Australia-U.S.-UK agreement to build nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian Navy.

Doing so requires adding Australia to the existing U.S.-UK nuclear propulsion technology exchange agreement first reached in 1958. This pact was the most consequential element in the UK’s development of nuclear-powered attack and ballistic missile submarines in the 1960s and 1970s and has enabled a highly beneficial undersea warfare relationship between the two navies. Australia and the United States already have a comprehensive submarine technology exchange agreement related to combat systems, known as “front-end” equipment. Australia’s current Collins-class submarines include many of these capabilities.

The AUKUS technology exchange agreement is a unique opportunity for Australia to rapidly join an extremely elite group of navies that operate long-range, high-endurance, quiet, lethal submarines—a group that currently includes the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and France. (Beijing is working to produce quieter SSNs.) The technology will provide Australia with the optimal submarine to address the most likely naval threat to their interests: China. That submarine will constitute a significant upgrade from whatever diesel submarine Australia would have eventually received under its deal with France.

In response to the announcement, the Global Times—a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece—cited an unnamed military expert as suggesting Australia’s acquisition of the submarines could make it a target of a nuclear strike from China. That response is particularly ridiculous; China has nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarines and Australia has made it explicitly clear that its new submarines will be nuclear-powered but not armed with nuclear weapons. Indeed, Australia has no nuclear weapons and is one of the world’s most conscientious states when it comes to nuclear nonproliferation. If Beijing is genuinely concerned that Australia will acquire nuclear weapons, the CCP might consider refraining from threatening to strike Australia with such weapons.

In reality, the vitriol of the CCP response is explained by the value of American and allied SSNs in the region. They are the maritime system that poses the greatest challenges to Chinese planning. The United States has invested in and maintained a significant advantage over the Chinese navy in the undersea warfare mission.

The growing challenge for the United States, however, has been capacity. The U.S. Defense Department publicly states it needs at least 66 attack submarines to meet its operational requirements. Due to decisions made over the past 20 years (not producing Virginia-class submarines as fast as other submarines are being retired), the U.S. Navy’s SSN fleet is well below that requirement and expected to dip to 50 submarines by 2026. Because of the limitation in SSN production at U.S. shipyards (especially as they build desperately needed Columbia-class SSBNs over the next 15 years), the Navy cannot seriously alter this “bottoming out” with domestic production.

The declining size of America’s attack submarine fleet is particularly problematic given that the People’s Liberation Army Navy fields more than 60 attack submarines. Admittedly, most of those submarines are diesel submarines. But China has at least seven SSNs and is working hard to increase both quality and quantity. To make matters worse, the United States must deploy its SSNs around the world, whereas Beijing focuses almost all of its attack submarine deployments in the Indo-Pacific. That provides Beijing a numeric advantage in attack submarines in locations where U.S.-China conflict is most likely to occur.

Therein lies the benefit for the United States in the SSN component of AUKUS. These additional, highly capable submarines will help mitigate the eroding maritime balance of power between Beijing and countries that support a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific. Once fielded, Australian SSNs will add valuable undersea warfare capacity. That will lighten the burden on American SSNs and help deter Chinese aggression in the region. 

However, it will take many years—perhaps “decades,” the U.S. chief of naval operations told Defense One on Thursday—before these submarines are actually in the water. The key to making this agreement relevant anytime in the next 15 years is to identify the proper procurement strategy. While the Virginia class is an excellent SSN, the United States is in no position to shift production efforts to help the Australians get started anytime soon. If the United States could increase SSN production at U.S. shipyards, Washington would likely serve America first.

The United Kingdom, on the other hand, is almost done building its Astute-class SSNs. That UK shipbuilding capacity could serve as a great starting point for Australia on the hull. The specifics of the nuclear reactor and the “front-end” combat systems suite (where Australia may want to maintain a U.S. technology preference to ease the transition for Australian submariners) can be worked out. In any case, the 18-month study will sort this out—hopefully in less than 18 months.

The Aussies will also have to recommit to the service-life extension and modernization of their six Collins-class diesel subs in order to maintain their submarine proficiency as they await the SSNs. As the French diesel sub program had experienced delays, that extension and modernization would have been equally necessary for that plan as well.

Bad Implementation

Speaking of the French, Paris was understandably unhappy with the news that it had lost its multibillion-dollar submarine contract with Australia. The French Foreign Minister called it a “stab in the back.” In an unprecedented step, Paris recalled its ambassador to the United States.

While some may be tempted to roll their eyes at this French reaction, it is clear that the Biden administration botched the formulation and implementation of AUKUS. If the goal was to build an increasingly unified and capable coalition of countries to deter aggression from Beijing and defend a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific, alienating and excluding the French was incredibly short-sighted.

France brings both the desire and ability to help defend these common interests with Washington. From a military perspective, the French are more present and active in the Indo-Pacific than any other European power. There are good reasons for that. France has numerous territories in the region, such as French Polynesia, La Réunion, Mayotte, and New Caledonia. According to an April 1 report by Pierre Marcos for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, these territories in the Indo-Pacific are home to 1.6 million French citizens.

To defend these territories and interests, France maintains a robust defense posture in the region. Paris retains about “8,000 soldiers and dozens of ships are pre-positioned in several bases” in the region, according to Marcos. This year, a French Amphibious Reading Group sailed to the Indo-Pacific, and a French submarine patrolled the South China Sea. Indeed, Paris even sent its aircraft carrier strike group to the region in 2019. That’s exactly the kind of allied capability in the Indo-Pacific that AUKUS is supposed to encourage and facilitate.

In formulating AUKUS, the Biden administration should have taken these realities into account and found a way to include France in the agreement. To be sure, there was no easy way to break the submarine news to Paris, but a variety of measures could have been taken to soften the blow and integrate France into the broader defense agreement. That would have been respectful of the centuries-long U.S.-France alliance and would have advanced shared interests in the Indo-Pacific.

At a minimum, Paris should not have been surprised by the announcement. And this blame cannot be put on Australian procrastination; the United States is France’s treaty ally, and Washington should have ensured Paris was appropriately integrated or at least informed.  Paris was not altogether unfair in suggesting that such shoddy diplomacy smacked more of the Trump administration than the kind of diplomacy Biden claims to conduct.

Last week, Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke in an effort to heal the diplomatic riff. In response, Paris is sending its ambassador back to Washington. That’s good news. Now begins the real work for the United States and its democratic allies: partnering to strengthen deterrence in the Indo-Pacific, which continues to erode.