The United States, Britain, and Australia Announce the Path Forward for AUKUS

On March 13, 2023, U.S. president Joe Biden, Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese, and UK prime minister Rishi Sunak met in San Diego, California, to announce the path forward for AUKUS a trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States established in September 2021. This meeting comes after the conclusion of an 18-month consultation period between the three governments to identify an optimal pathway for the delivery of conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. This Critical Questions offers insight into the details of the arrangement, analyzes its significance, and lays out challenges to successfully implementing AUKUS.

Q1: What is AUKUS? 

A1: AUKUS, a defense collaboration between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, aims to boost defense capabilities, accelerate technological integration, and expand the industrial capacity of all three nations. Announced in September 2021, the AUKUS partnership is composed of two pillars: Pillar 1 is a trilateral effort to support Australia in acquiring conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs), and Pillar 2 focuses on expediting cooperation in critical technologies, including cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, additional undersea capabilities, hypersonic and counter-hypersonic, and a range of other initiatives.

AUKUS was undertaken against the backdrop of a deteriorating security environment in the Indo-Pacific region, specifically revolving around the exponential growth of China’s military power and its more assertive foreign policy over the past decade. Those two trends have heightened security concern in the region and motivated AUKUS members to align their strategies and respond to the challenges posed by China. Thus, fundamentally, AUKUS is a bet by Washington, Canberra, and London that by further integrating industrial bases and deepening their interoperability, AUKUS will enhance these countries’ capabilities, send a firm message to Beijing that it is no longer operating in a permissive security environment, and ultimately strengthen stability in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Q2: What was announced in San Diego? What is the path forward for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines?

A2: In San Diego this Monday, Biden, Albanese, and Sunak announced the optimal pathway forward for Australia’s acquisition of conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines. This announcement is the result of an intensive 18-month consultation period between senior policymakers in the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. The announcement on March 13 was almost entirely focused on Pillar 1—the initiative to help Australia acquire, build, and maintain nuclear-powered submarines. 

The announcement lays out a phased commitment-based approach to the submarines. The first stage will begin this year, with more U.S. nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) visiting port in Australia, Australian military and civilian personnel embedding with both the British and U.S. navy and shipbuilding industries, and British SSNs increasing their visits by 2026. As early as 2027, the United States and the United Kingdom will establish Submarine Rotational Force-West, a rotational deployment of one UK Astute-class submarine and up to four U.S. Virginia-class submarines at HMAS Stirling, located near Perth, Western Australia.

The second part of the plan includes the sale of three U.S. Virginia-class attack submarines to Australia in the early 2030s, with the possibility to sell two more if needed. This sale is subject to congressional approval and is intended to bridge Australia’s undersea capabilities gap with the expected decommissioning of its current fleet of conventional submarines. Moreover, Washington plans to invest $2.4 billion more over the next four years in its submarine industrial base to address its current shipbuilding backlog. Australia will also invest in U.S. shipyards to fast-track the construction of U.S. Virginia-class SSNs.

Finally, the three nations will collaborate to build a new class of nuclear-powered submarines named SSN-AUKUS. This submarine, based on the British next-generation SNN(R) submarine design that is due to replace Britain’s Astute-class SSNs, will possess U.S. technology, becoming the future attack submarine for both Australia and the United Kingdom. Britain will begin delivering these submarines to the British Navy in the late 2030s, and Australia will deliver them to the Royal Australian Navy in the early 2040s.

Q3: What is the strategic significance of AUKUS?  

A3: AUKUS is a remarkably ambitious initiative, and nuclear-powered submarines are just the beginning of an emerging mode of cooperation between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. The three nations plan to deepen their technological collaboration, grow the industrial capacity in and of all three countries, and increasingly coordinate their strategic planning. This is part of a collective effort to stabilize the Indo-Pacific region, shape its geopolitical dynamics, and convince other like-minded partners to participate in these efforts.

Zooming out, AUKUS is part of a larger strategic shift that is unfolding in the Indo-Pacific with various movements taken by U.S. allies and partners to bolster their capacity and work more closely together. These include Japan’s recent decision to significantly increase its defense spending and introduce more capabilities into its Southwest Islands, a formalized Expanded U.S.-Australia Force Posture Cooperation Initiatives announced after the Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations last December, and a plan for the United States, the Philippines, Japan, and Australia to conduct joint sea patrols in the South China Sea as the Philippines makes more bases available to host rotational deployments of U.S. forces. 

Q4: What are the regional reactions to AUKUS? 

A4: Initial reactions to AUKUS were mixed. When AUKUS was first announced, the pact was publicly welcomed by the Philippines, Japan, and Taiwan. There was significant backlash from the French, but their anger was not due to the substance of the agreement as much as the loss of such a large contract. (Prior to AUKUS, Australia had signed to make significant submarine purchases from France, a deal which was canceled when Australia signed on to AUKUS.) That rift has mostly been mended with the new Labor government in Canberra, and Australia and France have agreed to reset their relationship. Reactions from Southeast Asian countries were more varied, with some countries actively expressing anxieties about “arms races” and nuclear proliferation and others maintaining a neutral public stance on the arrangement. Unsurprisingly, China has continuously voiced its firm opposition against AUKUS and continued to spread its characterization of AUKUS as a product of an “obsolete Cold War . . . mentality.”

Reactions to AUKUS have also evolved over the past 18 months. Some countries have expressed an interest in joining AUKUS, including Japan and New Zealand. Some of the countries who expressed concerns about nuclear nonproliferation have subsequently commended AUKUS countries' efforts to comply with nuclear nonproliferation safeguards under the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty. Moreover, in the weeks leading up to and after the AUKUS announcement in San Diego, the Australian government conducted an extensive diplomatic outreach campaign to explain what AUKUS is to countries in the region. The outcomes of such an effort have seen a measured Indonesian response and a Fijian endorsement of AUKUS.

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) director-general has also expressed his satisfaction with the transparency with which AUKUS members are engaging with the IAEA and referred to London, Canberra, and Washington’s consultations on AUKUS as “a model of transparency.”

Q5: What are the challenges to AUKUS’s success?  

A5: The biggest challenge ahead for AUKUS relates to questions about the timeline and the pace of how quickly these capabilities can be brought online and meaningfully bolster deterrence efforts. In this multi-decade endeavor, given the complexities of building and maintaining SSNs, all three countries need to rapidly scale up their shipbuilding industries. If achieved, the goals for AUKUS would result in a significant capability boost for Australian defense efforts, and relatedly, allied defense efforts in the Pacific. 

Related to the first challenge is the challenge of meeting the workforce demands required to build these submarines. For Australia alone, it has been estimated that the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) will need about 20,000 more workers to build and operate a new submarine fleet. In the past year and a half, several steps have been taken to address this personnel gap, including establishing a program to send Australian engineers and technicians to nuclear submarine shipyards in the United States and the United Kingdom, launching Australia’s submarine training course, and introducing legislation in the U.S. Congress to authorize Australian submarine officers to train with the U.S. Navy.

An additional hurdle for AUKUS is the stringent export controls regime in the United States. The United States rightly guards its sensitive technology and U.S. companies’ intellectual property. However, without changes to the current rules governing export controls, the United States will not be able to move forward with the true technological integration required in order to make AUKUS a success. Whether there will be sufficient movement in Congress to change the U.S. export control system, or if this can be accomplished through regulatory reform, remains to be seen.

Charles Edel is the Australia Chair and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.