AUKUS security pact: Time is not on our side

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On Sept. 15, the U.S., UK, and Australia announced a trilateral security pact, termed AUKUS.  Under the agreement, Australia has cancelled its Attack-class diesel-electric submarine contract with French producer Naval Group, and instead will purchase British or American designed nuclear-powered attack submarines. More broadly, the alliance is meant to counter Chinese military expansion. 

Although no specific country was discussed, the UK and Australia increasingly have signalled their intent to deter Chinese aggression in the South and East China Seas. Most recently, the UK has deployed its only Carrier Strike Group to the Indo-Pacific as a signal of resolve, but the UK cannot maintain a constant CSG in the West Pacific. The AUKUS pact may also include an explicit basing arrangement, allowing American Virginia-class submarines to operate from an Australian naval facility. Forward deployment of U.S. combatants reduces wear and tear on vessels and most important, the lengthy time of transit between the U.S. West coast and Asia.

There are two methods of assessing international political action. One either assumes that states act rationally, calculating their interests and responding accordingly, or that they act irrationally, guided by domestic political and bureaucratic imperatives. The truth is usually somewhere in between. A conception of political interest exists, amorphous as it may be, but it is refracted through factional, institutional, and cultural lenses.

Nevertheless, it is possible to identify patterns of action that indicate a set of assumptions, typically unspoken, about the nature of political competition and the character of contemporary action. British policy before the Great War was haphazard and unfocused. Yet a general understanding existed that Imperial Germany posed a threat to British power and to an Anglo-centric international order. Difficulties arose because of an inability to connect this broad realisation to other political issues, most critically the imperative to retain global sea control. Hence the paradox of British “retrenchment” from 1895 to 1914: Britain neither deterred Germany in 1914 nor constructed a position powerful enough to shape international events in 1918.

The AUKUS pact is an indication of a similar trend, both in the United States and in the Western world. Around 2018, the American policy class did grasp the threat that China poses to contemporary international order, U.S. power, and liberal values. Non-American elites have done the same following the COVID-19 pandemic: the Chinese Communist Party was exposed as a malicious actor, willing — at a minimum — to manipulate information and pressure other powers for its own political gain. China has still not been held accountable and probably will never be.

Broad international political trends are easier to spot than the Beltway would like to admit. The difficulty lies in the specifics, in understanding Chinese objectives and crafting coherent policy responses.

In principle, the AUKUS pact rests on solid strategic principles. America, Australia, and the UK all have a vested interest in countering China’s rise. The CCP’s goal is global domination. By controlling Indo-Pacific sea lanes — and thereby between a third and half of global GDP — it hopes to coerce the rest of Eurasia, Africa, and the Americas into accepting its diktats. The CCP plans to achieve this control through military action, first by subjugating Taiwan, then by breaking America’s Indo-Pacific sea control and Eurasian alliance structures.

America, Australia, and the UK are maritime nations, the former two due to their non-Eurasian location, the latter by virtue of insular geography. China’s objectives are maritime, given the Indo-Pacific’s geography and the fixed relationship between commerce and sea transport. Expanding Australian naval capabilities, increasing American and British basing access in Asia, and bolstering military-to-military coordination are all necessary tasks to counter growing CCP aggression.

The difficulty, however, is in linking these broad strategic imperatives to the concrete policy choices that the AUKUS pact entails. From a military perspective, Australia requires modern submarines. Technical, mechanical, and manpower issues have plagued the Collins-class boats since they were deployed in 1996. Only in 2016, 20 years after they entered service, was the Royal Australian Navy able to operate all six boats.

Like the UK and most NATO members, the Australian military fields specific high-end capabilities — in Australia’s case, the Hobart-class destroyer, Special Operations Forces, and arguably the Canberra-class amphibious assault ship — that are, while effective, numerically insufficient to change the Indo-Pacific balance of forces without exceptional Australian-American and allied coordination. Hence Australia’s initial plan, announced in 2007, to purchase twelve French-designed conventionally powered attack submarines, named the Attack-class, from the partly state-owned Naval Group for deployment in the 2030s. The AUKUS pact has scrapped these plans with virtually no warning to the French government after a decade-plus of Franco-Australian preparation and planning.

The issue is not the switch from conventional to nuclear-powered submarines (SSN), despite handwringing from the non-proliferation community. Both capabilities have a place in a modern fleet, a fact that major navies sometimes overlook. Smaller diesel-electric submarines (SSK) equipped with Air Independent Propulsion make advanced SSKs quieter than SSNs, but the SSN’s reactor extends range, and in modern boats enables a larger hull, increasing operational flexibility.  Australia and the US and UK for that matter would have benefited from fielding a mixed nuclear-conventional fleet akin to the Soviet Navy’s concurrent use of nuclear-powered Alfa and Sierra-class boats alongside the conventionally powered Kilo-class.

Rather, the issue is time. The Attack-class submarines were meant to reach the fleet in the early-2030s in batches of three to four boats, allowing the RAN to phase out Collins boats quickly, scale up its fleet within a decade, yet still maintain its six-boat Collins fleet throughout the 2020s. It seems likely that the new Collins replacement will be a variant of the American Virginia or British Astute-class — fleet size will be determined after 12-18 months of analysis, but Australia appears ready to buy around eight nuclear boats, given budgetary restraints and capability objectives.

Lead ships of any class take additional time to construct. Only by the third Virginia-class boat were U.S. yards able to produce submarines in two to three years. And contract negotiations, design questions, and certain bureaucratic meddling will delay construction and procurement. This is particularly salient given Australia’s lack of experience with nuclear propulsion, and the additional work this will create for American and British contractors. Thus, we may expect the first Collins-class replacement to reach the fleet by the early-2030s under the most favorable circumstances, more likely by the mid to late 2030s. For now, Australia may lease American Los Angeles-class submarines as they reach the end of their service lives, but it will be forced to rely upon its Collins-class boats for the next two decades.

Therein lies the gap between a broad recognition of political trends and a specific understanding of strategic and military realities.

The U.S. and its allies do not have 20 years to prepare for an Indo-Pacific conflict. They likely do not have ten. China’s military expansion, increased assertiveness, and identifiable military pressure against Taiwan indicate that a war may come in the next five years — a proposition advanced publicly by Admiral John Aquilino, commander of US Indo-Pacific Command at a Congressional hearing this past March. A nuclear-powered Collins replacement fielded in significant numbers only in the 2040s is unlikely to have a discernible impact on the military balance. But American, Australian, and British planners seem to assume that a war will come only on their terms, in a manner of their choosing.

The U.S. Navy’s “divest to invest” scheme follows parallel logic. The service will shed many of its large surface combatants — its guided-missile destroyers and cruisers — replacing them with small surface combatants and unmanned systems that are more diverse and survivable. Yet despite the Navy’s assurances, none of these new small surface combatants, specifically the Constellation-class frigates, will reach the fleet in numbers by 2026. Nor are the unmanned surface vehicles it touts likely to transform its lethality soon. The unspoken assumption is that the Navy, and military more broadly, have time — approximately ten to 20 years — to prepare for a Sino-American confrontation.

By 1999, the outlines of the China threat as it exists today had begun to emerge. The CCP had cracked down on pro-democracy protestors at Tiananmen, demonstrating the hollowness of its promises to liberalise. It had become North Korea’s primary benefactor. It had forged links with Iran, Iraq, and Libya, and had been implicated, in part, in A.Q. Khan’s nuclear proliferation network. It had threatened Taiwan with invasion in 1995, and supported Slobodan Milosevic against NATO in the Balkans. Politics is the domain of contingency, yet China’s long-term intentions are clear.

A 1999 defense agreement that provided Australia with nuclear submarines two decades later would have been prudent. Australia would have received its 12 boats by 2020, at which point China would have completed its transformation into a hostile actor. It is now, however, 2021 — not 1999.

While the broader logic behind AUKUS is reasonable, its policy components demonstrate a lack of American strategic rationality. We do not have 20 years to prepare for a great-power challenge. That challenge arrived years ago.

Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower. He served as a U.S. naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy.

Harry Halem, a research associate at Hudson and graduate student at the London School of Economics, contributed to this op-ed.

Tags Attack-class submarine AUKUS Australia China Chinese aggression France Great power competition Indo-Pacific Military strategy National security Nuclear submarine Royal Australian Navy security pact Submarine submarines United Kingdom Virginia-class submarine

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