US, Australia pact, France
US-Australia pact, known as Aukus, will see Australia being given the technology to build nuclear-powered submarines Image Credit: Gulf News

The United States Department of Defence recently announced that the department will order only one Virginia class nuclear powered attack submarine for the US Navy in the fiscal year 2025. This is a drop from the two per year order Pentagon has placed during the recent years.

Media reports indicate that the decrease reflects shipbuilding bottlenecks in the US. There are only two private shipyard that produce this high value Virginia class nuclear powered submarines — General Dynamics and Huntington Ingalls Industries. Both face mounting backlogs due to capacity constraints and personnel shortages.

The delay in construction of Virginia class submarines exposes strains on the AUKUS pact, which involves, in addition to the US, Australia and the UK. Under the pact the US has promised to sell three Virginia class submarines to Australia, one each in 2032, 2035 and 2038, with the option of providing two more. The idea, AUKUS partners professes, is to strengthen ‘deterrence’ in the Asia — Pacific region.

AUKUS has been mired in controversy from its inception in 2021. Negotiated in complete secrecy, it stymied the Australia — France deal for the attack class conventional powered submarines. France was angry and felt cheated by the Anglosphere group.

France recalled its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington — the first time it had ever done. The French foreign minister described it as “a stab in the back.” Australia agreed to pay $583 million penalty to France for jettisoning the deal.

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Huge military burden

Though not much is released officially, controlled leaks indicate that the American and British submarines could start showing up in Australian waters later this year. This is the first time the US will transfer these vessels to a foreign nation. The agreement stipulates that the three countries will invest in their own and in each other’s submarine industrial capacities. Such has approach has never been taken before.

The three partners may each have their own specific reasons for signing on to this major military deal but there are two commonly accepted theories, depending upon which side you are on — concerns over China’s military rise and the American hegemonic tendencies.

Each of three though, bring in a different strategic calculation. For the UK, it is the desire to again play a security role east of Suez; for Australia it is need to demonstrate a more effective role in shaping security in the region and for the US it is policy of maintaining its primacy in association of its partners in the face of, what they perceive as, China’s assertive policy in the region.

AUKUS also demonstrates the consequences of erosion of the American capacity to bear the huge cost of military burden by itself.

At its core, AUKUS represents that fundamental decision to empower America’s key allies and, in doing so, give them increased capacity to play a larger role of their own in Indo-Pacific security.

AUKUS faces several challenges in the three signatory countries. Of these the most significant is whether the project can retain the bipartisan political support and institutional enthusiasm over the next few decades. The project is dead if it falters in retaining this support. The level of opposition continues to rise is Australia.

Former prime minister Paul Keating labelling the AUKUS deal ‘worst international decision’ went on blame Canberra for “buying US hegemony” in the region. Even the foreign minister, Penny Wong, speaking at the ASEAN — Australia summit quoted Keating recently — “Australia must find its security in Asia, not from Asia.”

The enormous cost makes support retention doubtful. The Australian government has pegged it between $178 billion to $244 billion. The analysts have estimated $30 billion annual cost for the US for the next 30 years. It will be hard for the countries to bear such a heavy liability for this relatively long period. To jump start the project Australia has now agreed to provide $3 billion to Britain that will support submarines construction.

These funds, under a ten-year plan, will boost capacity at Rolls-Royce factory in UK where the nuclear reactors for the vessels will be built. The submarines themselves will be constructed by BAE Systems in Adelaide, Australia.

Hugh White, one of Australia’s most respected geopolitical thinkers believes that issues like whether Australia needs nuclear powered submarines, the astonishing costs and whether the geostrategic costs will make Australia less rather than more secure, “will overwhelm AUKUS and sink it.” Ordering manufacture of only one submarine by the US during fiscal year 2025 raises doubts on delivery schedule for AUKUS.

Questions remain in the US of whether Australia and the UK can handle the sophisticated technology. Whether the deal is IAEA safeguards compliant is yet to be determined. The regional states, barring a couple of muted exceptions are uncomfortable at the thought of introduction of nuclear-powered submarines and the consequent great power competition in their neighbourhood.

Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and served as an ambassador to several countries