When the Aukus deal was announced a year ago, the planning had been so stealthy that no one knew how to pronounce it.
What it pronoucned ow-kus or or-cas? Eventually everyone settled on aw-kus (although the Global Times said that in Chinese it’s pronounced “Australia cries to death”).
That awkwardness was compounded by US president Joe Biden memorably referring to the Australian prime minister as “that fella down under” during the press conference to announce the deal.
Australia, the US and the UK were entering a new trilateral partnership on defence technology – with nuclear-powered submarines as the centrepiece.
The then prime minister, Scott Morrison, joined Biden and the then UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, via a teleconference to declare the deal.
France, which already had an agreement to sell its stealthy, conventional submarines to Australia, was furious. President Emmanuel Macron was later asked if Morrison lied to him during the secret switch to Aukus. Macron uttered the immortal words: “I don’t think, I know”. China later accused Australia of sabre rattling.
A year later, the geostrategic environment is even more dire. China has been making military threats towards Taiwan and incursions into the Pacific. It recently joined Russia for large-scale war games.
And it will be another six months before the defence minister, Richard Marles, announces which submarine Australia has chosen – a US or UK version. Before that, he’ll hear from the nuclear-powered submarine taskforce, and he’ll have the results of the defence strategic review, which will be used to review and reshape the defence force and its capabilities.
Two of the biggest moving cogs in this machine are Australia’s planned frigate fleet (nine warships, due to be delivered in 2031) and its need for those new submarines (at least eight of which are due in the early 2040s).
These multi-billion dollar projects are far off in the future, while our existing naval fleets (particularly the Collins class submarines) are ageing. That brings us to the oft-discussed capability gap, where the old submarines become obsolete before the new ones are wet behind their escape hatches.
The growing threat from China and that capability gap are the driving forces behind Albanese’s desire to strike the Aukus deal. But doubts about Aukus and the submarine program are growing, though, even as the bureaucracy driving it churns away behind the scenes. Will they be ready in time? Will other technology supersede them? Can Australia, without a nuclear industry, even build them?
“I do think we have to take seriously the possibility that we will never get the Aukus submarines,” Sam Roggeveen says.
Roggeveen, the director of the Lowy Institute’s international security program, points out that two of Aukus’s three “champions” have already left the political scene.
The political consensus remains strong, he says, but they’ll “need to maintain a pretty high momentum” to keep the project moving.
“We shouldn’t dismiss the possibility we’ll never get these submarines,” he says. “I know that sounds left field right now, but 12 months ago it seemed left field that we’d ditch the French. What we need to think about is how you can have an elegant dismount from Aukus.”
There is movement. Conversations are happening between the Aukus countries. Australian submariners are training on US and UK boats. The defence department is developing a pipeline of resources and expertise. The taskforce and various other sub-groups are meeting.
Marcus Hellyer, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says about 250 people have been absorbed into the nuclear-powered submarine taskforce, which is stretching the Navy’s workforce.
“[But] there’s not really a lot to point to in terms of outcomes,” he says. “What’s going on behind closed doors?”
Hellyer points to the non-submarine side of Aukus. The agreement includes coordination on autonomous underwater vehicles, quantum technologies, artificial intelligence, advanced cyber capabilities, hypersonic and counter-hypersonic capabilities, electronic warfare, and (generically) innovation.
“A lot of this stuff was happening anyway,” Hellyer says. “So what’s the newness that Aukus brings to it?”
With that looming capability gap, there’s a storm of suggestions for filling it. From drone submarines to warships to bombers, when there’s a need (and billions of defence dollars on offer), there are those willing to propose a way.
Bridging the gap
The most common suggestion is that Australia acquires an “interim” submarine.
Former defence minister Peter Dutton’s suggestion that the US might just throw a couple of their existing nuclear-powered submarines our way elicited mirth. Both the US and the UK have overstretched production lines. But there are myriad other options.
A “son of Collins”, an evolved version of Australia’s existing boat, is one. Submarines from Spain, Germany, Singapore, Sweden and Israel have all been suggested as gap-filling options. An evolved Collins or a version of an existing submarine were all considered in 2015 before the Abbott government announced a competitive evaluation process – the process that eventually led to France being picked as Australia’s partner.
Back then, Australia’s shipbuilding industry shifted into gear to help build Australia’s version of the Barracuda class submarine, the deal offered by the French and accepted by Australia. Now it’s trying to reorient itself, without even knowing what will come.
Australian Industry and Defence Network chief executive, Brent Clark, says AIDN’s members are worried about how, and how much they will be included in the supply chain.
One issue is that Australian companies could be shut out, not just from the submarines but other projects as well, because of the US’s involvement.
“We could see the writing on the wall,” Clark says. “Once everything becomes Aukus, there’s the US state department, there’s International Traffic in Arms regulations, an Australian company could be excluded because a US company could say ‘that’s classified, we can’t pass it on’.”
Companies are also worried that there’s no detail about what they need to do to be involved.
“If you’re not planning for the supply chain to be included today, then it’s going to be too late,” Clark says.
Roggeveen says an “interim submarine” could provide that “elegant dismount” from Aukus.
“If you can get those in time, and in sufficient quality,” he says.
“Then the interim becomes the submarine, the pressure comes off Aukus, which then becomes more of a technology sharing and development project.”
Other experts have warned there’s “no chance” of the US or the UK finding room in their production capacity to churn out extras for Australia.
The other hurdles include the Australia-wide skills shortage, and the shipbuilding-specific shortages of engineers, welders, and submariners, as well as serious global concerns about whether Australia’s move might pose a threat to nuclear non-proliferation.
A question of commitment
Other doubts hover around the politics of Aukus. Roggeveen says Australia should worry about the submarines becoming an “orphan capability” if America’s dedication to fighting China back from the region evaporates.
The capability ties us into the American strategy to hem the Chinese in, he argues, which is dangerously provocative in itself. But if the American resolve to exert force in the region falters, Australia could be abandoned.
“What if the Americans aren’t that serious? We end up doing it all by ourselves,” he says.
Hellyer worries that, despite the fact Australia is in “crisis mode” with China leaping ahead in terms of its capabilities, the urgency won’t permeate through the defence department.
“The world has fundamentally changed. China is developing new technology and new capability and it’s not shy about using it coercively,” he says.
“Aukus was signalling that we need to accelerate all our processes, to do things faster. Defence leaders may get it, but is hasn’t changed the way the defence machine does its everyday business.”
On his recent trip to Germany, the UK and France, Marles visited the UK’s warship and submarine programs and met with outgoing prime minister Boris Johnson.
Aukus was breathing new life into “our oldest relationship”, Marles said, and while the US v UK decision is yet to be made, submariners are already being trained in both places.
“In thinking through the decision that we need to make about which submarine we run with, how we can get that hardware in place as soon as possible, we also need to be working through how we can get the human equation right as well,” he said.
Cost and capability are obviously important factors, Marles said, but he also emphasised the need for speed.
“We need to be thinking through the solution of how we can get this capability as soon as possible, given the lost decade that we have had,” he said, in September 2022.
It was the 2009 defence white paper that declared Australia needed a new fleet of submarines. Ten years passed before France was picked to design them in 2019. By the time the next design is chosen, that decade will have stretched to 14 years.
“We need to be doing this as soon as we can,” Marles said.