March 14, 2023
CNAS Responds: AUKUS Optimal Pathway Announcement
Yesterday, March 13, 2023, President Biden, British Prime Minister Sunak, and Australian Prime Minister Albanese announced a pathway for Australia to acquire conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) under the Australia, United Kingdom, and United States (AUKUS) partnership. Following this announcement, CNAS experts analyze the potential impact of this decision and the strength of the AUKUS partnership generally.
All quotes may be used with attribution. To arrange an interview, email Cameron Edinburgh at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lisa Curtis, Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program:
Yesterday’s announcement of the long-term plan to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines through the AUKUS initiative marks a pathbreaking milestone in the U.S. strategy to create a networked system of deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. By transferring this sensitive technology for the first time in 65 years, the Biden administration is acknowledging the critical role of Australia in helping to establish deterrence at a time of rising tensions between Washington and Beijing and when another authoritarian power (Russia) is acting recklessly by trying to change borders through sheer force in Europe. The AUKUS announcement follows on the heels of Japan’s pledges to enhance its own defense capabilities, including for counterstrike purposes, as well as an agreement for the United States to gain access to four additional military bases in the Philippines for logistics support and prepositioning of military stocks. All these moves combine to send an unmistakable message that the United States and its allies are prepared to stand up to military aggression in the Indo-Pacific.
Andrew Metrick, Fellow, Defense Program:
Yesterday’s AUKUS announcement signaled a major shift in U.S. thoughts and actions. Nuclear powered submarine technology has long been one of the holy grails of U.S. technology. The decision by the United States to collaborate with two of its closest allies ranks with the 1958 U.S.-U.K. Mutual Defense Agreement, setting the framework for U.S-U.K. nuclear weapons cooperation, and the 1946 UKUSA Agreement, commonly known as Five Eyes, in importance.
While positive and exciting, there is a major pitfall looming on the horizon. The industrial base supporting submarine production and maintenance is at, or very close to, its limit. It will be vital to expand these capacities over the coming years to meet Australian demand. Mitigating this problem will require two steps from the U.S. government. The first, the expansion of the submarine industrial base, is already underway.
The second is sustaining the submarine industrial base following the sale of the Australian Virginia-class SSNs in the early 2030s. It would be wasteful to ramp up the industrial base and then immediately lose this hard built capacity. If the United States cannot sustain this scale, it should explore rapidly transitioning personnel between private yards responsible for production and public yards responsible for maintenance. AUKUS is ultimately an incredible net positive from an alliance and partnership perspective, but the United States must ensure a solid and sustainable industrial foundation.
Joshua Fitt, Associate Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program:
Yesterday’s landmark AUKUS announcement spelled out the partnership’s immense benefits to Indo-Pacific security in concrete terms for the first time. The timeline—which runs into the 2040s—may be long, but the initial phases will act as a stopgap until Australia is able to produce SSNs domestically.
Additionally, AUKUS isn’t happening in a vacuum. The convening in San Diego comes on the heels of several other “minilateral” tidings that bode well for the development of a U.S. Indo-Pacific security architecture which leverages a network of security ties, rather than relying on siloed bilateral relationships. While the Quad is not a security partnership, its activities that bolster maritime domain awareness and regional prosperity also support a free and open regional order. Furthermore, progress within the U.S.-Japan-ROK and U.S.-Japan-Philippines trilateral relationships show that allies and partners are committed to making strides toward strong implementation of integrated deterrence.
All CNAS experts are available for interviews. To arrange one, contact Cameron Edinburgh at email@example.com.