Author : Girish Luthra

Expert Speak Energy News Monitor
Published on Mar 17, 2023
The US, UK, and Australia have announced a nuclear-powered submarine deal to keep the Indo-Pacific “open and free”
AUKUS: The submarine programme pathway for Australia On 13 March, AUKUS (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) revealed the pathway to support Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered, conventionally-armed submarines (SSNs)—a central objective that was outlined at the time of the formation of this informal security alliance in September 2021. The joint statement issued at the inception of AUKUS had indicated a planning phase of 18 months for the roadmap related to the submarine programme, which has been released in the last month of the targeted deadline.

The Pathway

The broad plan unveiled in the joint leaders’ statement in San Diego highlights a phased approach, which seeks to balance the requirement of the urgency of capability deployment in the Western Pacific theatre, with optimal technology induction and capacity building for Australia in the long term. It highlights the commencement of a new, next-generation trilateral submarine programme, named SSN-AUKUS, under which new SSNs will be built in the UK and Australia, and operated by both countries. The UK MoD awarded an SSN design and concept development contract in September 2021, to be completed in three years. SSN-AUKUS will be based on this design and incorporate technologies from all three partner countries. However, given the timeframes of this project, an interim solution has been dovetailed. Phase I of the roadmap will include port visits to Australia by SSNs (from 2023 by the US, and from 2026, by the UK). Under Phase II, from 2027 onwards, both the US Navy and the Royal Navy will begin to forward deploy Virginia and Astute class SSNs to Australia. As part of Phase III commencing early 2030s, the US will sell three Virginia class SSNs to Australia—with an option to sell two more—after Congressional approval. Deliveries of new, jointly designed and developed SSN-AUKUS submarines are planned from the late 2030s for the Royal Navy, and the early 2040s, for the Royal Australian Navy, under Phase IV. Notwithstanding extensive and divergent speculation in the run-up to the announcement, there are no major surprises in the plan. The main contours of the pathway, including port visits, forward basing and deployments, interim and final platform solutions, and dovetailing of industrial expertise, infrastructure, training, maintenance, safety and operations are as anticipated and highlighted in the issue brief published by ORF in May 2022. The exceptions include the long period of about four decades—up to the early 2060s—covered by the plan, near-concurrent submarine-building (AUKUS-SSN) in the UK and Australia and initial deliveries of these submarines to the Royal Navy for risk mitigation. Australia will have its own SSNs—the US Virginia class—by the early 2030s, which are likely to be used submarines with adequate balance life.


It is evident that detailed deliberations have been held among the AUKUS partners to evolve a pragmatic plan that addresses some unique challenges and increasing complexity with each phase. It is also to be expected that beyond the joint statement, a classified and more detailed overall plan is in place or is in the final stages of preparation. Phases I and II will focus on the development of the broad ecosystem for operating, maintaining and building nuclear submarines in Australia, followed by Australia-owned and operated submarines under Phases III and IV. It has been indicated that there will be no development and production of submarine nuclear reactors in Australia, which will be imported from partner countries. There will be no separate transfer of fissile material to Australia, and disposal of nuclear waste—mainly at the end of service life—will be undertaken in Australian territory. Forward rotation of nuclear weapon-capable submarines will not be permitted in Australia. The deployments of US and UK submarines (likely to begin at HMAS Sterling Western Australia), the programme for the acquisition of Virginia class submarines, the design and development of AUKUS-SSN, and the development of infrastructure at the nominated shipyard in Australia are likely to get initiated in the coming months, with separate but integrated plans.

Concerns and reactions

Within the AUKUS countries (mainly Australia), concerns by some observers relate primarily to high costs (with some preliminary estimates of overall costs of US$368 billion), long gestation periods, the challenges associated with operating two types of SSNs, and the potential impact on nuclear proliferation. The costs have however been considered justified and timeframes practical by the governments and supporters of the programme. The Australian government has indicated an initial expenditure plan of US$3.995 billion towards the development of industrial capacity in the next four years, in western and southern Australia.

Within the Indo-Pacific region, the reactions have been muted. Indonesia and Malaysia, who had indicated some apprehensions at the time of the formation of AUKUS have not been as sharp as before.

Within the Indo-Pacific region, the reactions have been muted. Indonesia and Malaysia, who had indicated some apprehensions at the time of the formation of AUKUS have not been as sharp as before. This is in part due to the efforts undertaken by Australia to explain the rationale and shape the environment prior to the announcement. The AUKUS countries also recognise that while India and Japan may not openly support the programme, they are likely to show an understanding of its drivers. The strongest criticism of the plan came from China, stating that the AUKUS was going down a “wrong and dangerous path”. At the time of the formation of the AUKUS, China’s opposition highlighted three effects of the deal: It will exacerbate the arms race, undermine the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, and hurt international peace and stability. It demanded that in view of the planned transfer of weapons-grade uranium to Australia, the safeguards issue should be discussed by all IAEA member states in a transparent, open and inclusive process, and not merely between the AUKUS members and the IAEA secretariat. Given the unprecedented growth of the PLA Navy over the last two decades, in parallel with China’s aggressive and coercive behaviour, its position on a potential arms race spurred by the AUKUS deal is hardly convincing. Its own approach and actions have shown adverse impacts on regional and international peace and stability. The only Chinese observation that may merit some attention relates to the potential impact on the nuclear non-proliferation regime. The global nuclear arms control and arms limitation architecture is currently in a state of disarray, with all important treaties and agreements either abrogated or suspended. From the nuclear non-proliferation perspective, the AUKUS has used the exemptions under the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty 1968 for the transfer of nuclear material and technologies from nuclear weapon states to non-nuclear weapon states. Australia has clarified that there will be no uranium processing or enrichment in Australia and that Australia has no intention to develop and deploy nuclear weapons. However, it would be prudent for AUKUS countries to indicate details of safeguard mechanisms, to allay apprehensions this deal could set a precedent for the transfer of nuclear materials and technologies, and evade safeguards and monitoring mechanisms.

Key implications

The AUKUS roadmap for Australia’s new submarines, with the integration of submarine deployment plans of partner countries for the region, is a key step by the alliance to enhance China-facing capabilities, maintain an effective balance of power, and strengthen deterrence. It cements a long-term defence and security partnership between the three countries of the alliance. It commits the UK to allocate more resources for operational tasking to the Western Pacific, something it has not been able to do in the last few years. Other major announcements in defence cooperation under the AUKUS umbrella can be expected in the coming months, particularly in areas like cyber, artificial intelligence (AI), quantum technologies, and the broader underwater domain. The AUKUS countries are likely to get increasingly integrated into the US conflict and contingency planning for the western and southern Pacific region. It is also likely that the AUKUS will seek to enhance security cooperation and coordination with the revitalised US alliance structures with Japan, the Philippines, and the Republic of Korea, and promote a network of alliances and partnerships. It will also endeavour to portray alignment with the broader objectives of the Quad.

The AUKUS announcement dispels the notion that the Russia-Ukraine war has affected the US attention and focus on the Indo-Pacific region.

The PLA Navy is likely to have at least four aircraft carriers by 2030, and the AUKUS submarine plan would impact their deployment plans in an operational setting. Though the design and weapon package details of SSN-AUKUS are not yet known, it is likely to have next-generation, vertical launch, land attack cruise missiles, to strengthen conventional deterrence. The US submarine patrols will be augmented by the UK and Australian submarines, with high levels of interoperability factored in from the design stage itself. Notwithstanding, China’s modernisation plans (including in the underwater domain), footprint-to-foothold strategy, and broader influence operations in the Indo-Pacific region are likely to be sustained in the near to medium term. China is likely to deepen its strategic partnership with Russia, though it recognizes the limits of projecting a China-Russia naval partnership in the Pacific. It may also display increased flexibility in some other partnerships, including with ASEAN. It is likely to stress similarities in the approach between NATO and the AUKUS, and highlight the dangers involved. The announcement dispels the notion that the Russia-Ukraine war has affected the US attention and focus on the Indo-Pacific region. The ongoing strategic competition in the region is likely to get intensified, which in turn will implicate areas beyond defence and security, including trade, investments, technology, and public goods. The debates related to a new and stable world and regional order, navigating uncertainty, reformed multilateralism, and a return to peaceful economic globalisation will be even more challenging.
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Girish Luthra

Girish Luthra

Vice Admiral Girish Luthra is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He is Former Commander-in-Chief of Western Naval Command, and Southern Naval Command, Indian ...

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