The alliance between Australia, Great Britain and the United States is very ambitious

Anthony Albanese, Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak (via AP) (Stefan Rousseau /)

In 1908, the second USS Missouri, an American battleship, sailed from San Francisco to Sydney as part of the Great White Fleet’s round-the-world tour of Asia. Her successor, the third USS Missouri, welcomed Japan’s surrender in 1945. On March 13, the fourth USS Missouri, a Virginia-class attack submarine, honored this illustrious lineage by etching her own name in the history of power. US Navy in the Pacific.

On a hot afternoon in San Diego, Joe Biden, Anthony Albanese and Rishi Sunakleaders of the United States, Australia and Great Britain, met off the Missouri and revealed the next chapter of the pact aukus signed by their countries 18 months ago. The resulting agreement will intensify US and UK involvement in the Pacific and unite the three allies in an unprecedented way, into the 2040s and beyond.

This saga began in 2016, when Australia agreed a $33 billion deal to replace its aging Collins-class attack submarines with a dozen French diesel-electric boats. In 2021, increasingly aware of the threat from China, broke that agreement and signed the AUKUS to great fanfare. Under its terms, the United States and Great Britain would help Australia build a fleet of at least eight nuclear-powered submarines (although not with nuclear weapons). These have much more range, stamina, and stealth than electric ships (see map). They are also much more complex. Only six countries have them and so far the United States has only shared the technology with Great Britain.

Many expected the future Australian submarine to be modeled after the current US Virginia-class submarine or its future successor. However, Biden, Albanese and Sunak revealed that it will actually be based on the future British attack submarine, a hypothetical ship known as an ssnr (“ssns” are attack submarines, which carry conventional weapons and hunt other submarines and ships, as opposed to of the “ssbns”, which carry ballistic missiles with nuclear weapons). Britain will build the first ships in Barrow, North West England. Australia will learn from the prototypes and then build its own in Adelaide. The idea is to create an economy of scale, with Australian investment boosting British shipbuilding capacity and a larger aggregate order lowering the cost for both countries.

American technology will permeate this new “ssn-AUKUS”. The United States will contribute its vertical launch system, a set of tubes that can accommodate a greater number of missiles, and more advanced, than traditional torpedo tubes. No British attack submarine has ever had this capability. The defense industries of the three countries will be intertwined to an unprecedented degree. Subsystems such as communications equipment, sonar and fire control will need to be compatible between the Anglo-Australian ship and the upcoming American one. “We will be almost a joint force of nuclear submarines”, affirms an official involved in the pact. It will be a “beautiful and mixed submarine”, exhales another.

Virginia-class submarine (Reuters/file)
Virginia-class submarine (Reuters/file) (HANDOUT/)

But, as with whiskey, high-end sub production is measured in double-digit years. Australia’s current ships are about 30 years old and will need to be retired in the early 2030s. The first ssn-AUKUS will not be in Australian hands until the early 2040s. In the US Navy, it takes at least 15 years to train a submarine commanding officer, says Tom Shugart, who rose to the job himself, in part because of the complexity of training officers to use and maintain a submarine. nuclear propulsion systems. The Chinese navy, already the largest in the world, looks dangerous. To bridge the gap, the three leaders announced two other pioneering measures.

First, from 2027, the United States and Great Britain will deploy their own submarines in the Pacific in a plan some officials are calling a “reinforced rotating presence,” a deliberate nod to NATO’s “enhanced forward presence” of armored battle groups in eastern Europe. According to an official, The United States typically has between two and four attack submarines in Asia at any one time. With the new configuration, the United States will send up to four Virginia-class submarines to Hmas Stirling, near Perth, an important and relatively conspicuous step that will require an end to a longstanding policy of near-absolute secrecy about submarine deployments. Britain plans to move one of its Astute-class submarines, out of a planned fleet of just seven. Australian sailors have already begun to integrate into US and UK submarines.

Second, in the early 2030s, and assuming Congress approves it, Australia will buy three Virginia-class submarines from the United States at a discounted price, with an option for two more, as a provisional ship to use until the ssn-AUKUS appears. It is surprising that the United States has agreed to this. Renting a nuclear submarine is very rare: only Russia has ever done it, to India. Australia has had trouble crewing its current submarines, which carry fewer than 60 people; the Virginia class needs 140 or more. More importantly, the US Navy is still struggling to produce enough Virginia-class submarines for itself in its race to close the gap with China. To alleviate that problem, Australia is expected to invest billions of dollars in US shipyards. Still, many members of Congress may be unhappy with the helmet diversion. And US lawmakers may have to amend the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which imposes strict limits on high-tech exports even to close allies.

The risks are multiple. The project will have to endure at least three US presidential terms beyond Mr Biden’s current one and more than three British elections, a severe test, even if it currently has bipartisan support in all three countries. The cost to Australia could be $180-245 billion over the next 32 years, including $6 billion over the next two years., according to the first estimates. It will be formidable for Australia to produce the necessary skilled labor and nuclear knowledge. “This is a potential 100-year effort,” Peter Malinauskas, Prime Minister of South Australia, whose capital is Adelaide, observed on March 10.

But the reward will be great. For Britain, it’s not just a boost to morale for a submarine industry that has been grappling with stalled construction. It also gives real content to the government’s desired “tilt” toward the Indo-Pacific. Critics had questioned the wisdom of emphasizing naval power in Asia while a land war was being waged in Europe. On March 10, he agreed with Emmanuel Macron, President of France, that the two countries would establish “the backbone of a permanent European maritime presence in the Indo-Pacific” by coordinating the deployment of their aircraft carriers. On March 13, the Sunak government released a mini-review of its foreign policy, emphasizing the “epoch-making” challenge from China. The decision to rotate the subs around Asia and co-build new ones with an Asian ally gives the tilt an additional long-term anchor.

The Virginia-class USS North Dakota (Reuters/US Navy)
The Virginia-class USS North Dakota (Reuters/US Navy) (US NAVY/)

For the United States, the AUKUS and related agreements are the latest and most spectacular step in its continued consolidation of Asian alliances. It is likely to sell hundreds of cruise missiles to Japan and in January agreed to station a Marine regiment on Okinawa. Access to four additional military bases in the Philippines was secured in February. AUKUS also includes a second “pillar” of collaboration on advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence, quantum systems, and hypersonic missiles. And it’s part of a broader boom in US-Australian defense ties.

The United States has invested huge sums in Australia: building fuel and ammunition reserves, and expanding airfields so long-range bombers can operate from the north of the country, out of range of most Chinese missiles. . Australian investment in naval bases around Perth to support rotating US and UK submarine deployments will make it easier for ships to maintain, repair and resupply without having to travel to Guam or Hawaii, allowing for a faster pace of operations in times of peace and war.

The fact that the AUKUS survived last year’s transition from Australia’s centre-right Liberal Party to Mr Albanese’s centre-left Labor Party reflects the consensus that there is currently in Australian politics about the threat from China and the need to take drastic measures to deal with it. A 2020 defense review concluded that the prospect of a major war was “less remote than in the past” and that the government could no longer be assured of a ten-year warning of its imminent outbreak. (A new defense review written by a former defense minister and military chief was submitted to the government in February, but has not yet been published.)

Australia currently cannot attack a target or protect an expeditionary force more than 150 km from its landmass, says Ashley Townshend, an Australian scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, a Washington think-tank. His new submarines, he says, will give him “escalation options” in regional crises where Australian leaders might want to “deter or defeat” a Chinese military presence – say, in Southeast Asia or the South Pacific – but lack confidence to do so without the cover of a mobile strike force. “It will be an Australian sovereign capability,” Albanese stressed, “Built by Australians, commanded by the Royal Australian Navy and sustained by Australian workers in Australian shipyards.”

But the scenario weighing the most on US planners is a major war over Taiwan. “AUKUS has a primary objective,” Biden declared before the Missouri: “increase stability in the Indo-Pacific amid rapidly changing global dynamics”. A US-Australia pact in 2021 spelled out the purpose of all that investment in Australian facilities: “to support high-level warfare and combined military operations in the region.” Eight additional missile submarines prowling the South and East China seas would make it much more difficult for China to push an invasion force across the Taiwan Strait.

That will contribute to deterrence. Equally significant is that he has developed the Anglophone military alliance in Asia to the point of no return. Australia’s ports, bases and potentially submarines will increasingly feature in US war plans. According to Mr Townshend, this gives Australia leverage over those plans. It also limits your options. “This is an extremely costly sign of our willingness to contribute to China’s collective deterrence. Backing down would cause an unimaginable fracture in the alliance, and that is precisely why Beijing will take it seriously.

© The Economist