Horseshoes, Hand Grenades & Submarines: The AUKUS Security Partnership

Summary: the US, UK and Australia have entered a trilateral global security partnership to allow Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines (not to be confused with nuclear-armed submarines). A few takeaways:

  • Announced 15 September 2021
  • Nuclear submarines can remain submerged, running at full speed, theoretically indefinitely, the only restriction being on consumables that need to be restocked, such as food, soap, and the ever-required antiperspirant.

It was obvious once you saw it. Most things are. But I didn’t see it at first, and instead I focused on the export control regulations. Both the Export Administration Regulations and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, at a minimum, are impacted. I then focused on the structure of the trilateral partnership and its implications, at no time asking myself, “But, why?”

And then I saw it. 

In the world of export controls, especially for defense items and technical data/technology, there are a few carve-outs: Canada, NATO countries, the Five Eyes, etc. Welcome to the newest carve-out: Australia.

I began by looking at the What: a security partnership between the US, UK and Australia that was…to paint a picture…an isosceles triangle. You know: a triangle with two sides of equal length. In this metaphor, the two sides of equal length will be longer than the third side. Think of the corner with the two long sides as Australia, and the other two corners the US and the UK, themselves joined by the shorter side. See below:

This metaphor is meant to illustrate that the US and UK will be helping Australia to acquire, operate, maintain, and keep nuclear-powered submarines (Pillar I of the agreement). 

Pillar II of the agreement relates to the three-way sharing of technology. Specifically, AI, quantum technologies (remember quantum computers?), and “additional undersea technologies” (subsurface drones/UUVs?). Then there is the How: the EAR’s export controls for the UK and Australia will be liberalized so that Australia and the UK will have nearly the same licensing treatment under the EAR as Canada.

To build upon the How: in the ITAR: simply replace “Canada” with “Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada”. 

Finally, I addressed the Why. We have been told that Australia was to originally get these submarines from France, and that Australia abruptly cancelled the contract (sorry: “partnership”) with France and had to pay France for its trouble.  

The public Why is that US and UK subs due to their more highly enriched uranium technology can go without refueling for the life of the vessel, whereas the French submarines will need to be refueled every ten years. I wish I could refuel my car every ten years.

I think there’s another reason.

Australia has dozens of naval bases around its coast; the US and the UK have naval bases all over the world. Many of these US and UK bases are in the Indo-Pacific.  

So, what’s in it for the UK and the US?  

One word: efficiency. 

The US and the UK can increase their nuclear-submarine footprint in the Indo-Pacific by up to eight (some sources say up to 12) submarines without adding to their existing fleets. This is how. The AUKUS begins with Australia being supplied with nuclear submarines from the US and UK from vessels already in production until a new AUKUS-class submarine can be built in Australia using US and UK-based technology, components, engines, etc. And during all this, Australian, UK and US submariners will share time on each other’s submarines to develop operational ability within the Australian Navy.

So, while China’s increasing its presence in the Indo-Pacific by building an island/naval base, the US and the UK are effectively increasing their presence in the Indo-Pacific via Australia’s existing naval network. Smart.

The Bureau of Industry and Security under the Department of Commerce has issued an interim final rule effective April 19, 2024

The State Department issued a proposed rule on May 1, 2024, to amend the International Traffic in Arms Regulations

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