The plan to provide Australia with nuclear attack submarines signals a sharpening of great power rivalry in the Indo-Pacific
Notably, reactions to the plan have been mixed. Australian experts are largely enthused, seeing the programme as a necessary step to deter China. Many say a trilateral design and a joint UK-Australian effort to build the new submarine is a smart move as it helps “de-risk the Australian build.” For a country with no experience in building a first-of-its-kind nuclear vessel, the challenges for Australia indeed appear significant. The AUKUS roadmap, proponents point out, is intended to reduce the pain for Canberra as it expands its manufacturing facilities, ensuring that the larger share of production in the early years lies with the UK. Even so, the majority of Australian boats will still be manufactured in Australia, benefiting the country’s shipbuilding industry. But critics claim that the strategy is both costly and potentially escalatory. Australia's total cost over the next three decades could exceed US$368 billion, an exorbitant figure; the same effects could have been achieved in far more cost-effective ways. Sceptics argue that the risks to the United States and the United Kingdom should not be overlooked. The United Kingdom's "Indo-Pacific tilt" may overstretch the country's military and divert resources away from the Russian threat. Washington may end up sharing some of the country's most closely guarded technological secrets without much to show since Australia neither has the capacity nor the fiscal bandwidth to achieve the economies of scale needed to produce nuclear submarines. Some say that the confrontational nature of AUKUS is more concerning. The pact, they posit, recklessly throws Australia onto the frontlines of the US-China rivalry, with ominous implications for Canberra. In their telling, AUKUS partners disregard the balance of inclusivity that has so painstakingly been achieved in the Indo-Pacific.
The fact that US policymakers are willing to invest in a partner’s capabilities despite the obvious costs for US force readiness, says something about Washington’s commitment to integrated deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region.
From an Indian perspective, two facts stand out. First, Australia could receive its first four US Virginia-class submarines as early as 2027, implying that China's deterrence in the Indo-Pacific will likely increase in the coming years; it also implies that the regional littorals may become more crowded and contested than ever before. More noteworthy for New Delhi is Washington's willingness to share its “crown jewel” nuclear propulsion technology with a strategic partner at a seeming cost to US plans for force modernisation. America’s offer of SSNs to Australia is a leap of faith, as the US Navy is struggling to make up for a shortage of nuclear attack submarines. The fact that US policymakers are willing to invest in a partner’s capabilities despite the obvious costs for US force readiness, says something about Washington’s commitment to integrated deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region. If the new US approach of assisting partners at a considerable cost to itself is intended to extend beyond the Anglophone alliance, there is hope that India could receive the assistance that it has always desired but never received. The plan to give Australia nuclear submarines also signals a clear intent on the part of AUKUS to balance China. Australia, like India, faces an adverse strategic environment in its near region. Canberra faces the threat of an assertive and aggressive China determined to establish regional hegemony. Australian policymakers are rightly wary of a future in which China is the dominant actor in the Indo-Pacific, with the US retrenching from the region. As they see it, nuclear submarines could make their country capable of defending Australian interests. Australian attack submarines could in the future even patrol and secure key chokepoints in the Western Pacific and the eastern Indian Ocean, which, for Indian observers, is the key upshot. Whatever their apprehensions about allied navies superseding India’s principal security role in its maritime backyard, the risks for Australia and AUKUS seem well-worth taking.
The plan to give Australia nuclear submarines also signals a clear intent on the part of AUKUS to balance China.
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A former naval officer Abhijit Singh Senior Fellow heads the Maritime Policy Initiative at ORF. A maritime professional with specialist and command experience in front-line ...Read More +