Australia gets nuclear-powered subs in AUKUS deal

Briefly: On Monday the leaders of Australia, the UK, and the US revealed further details of the AUKUS deal, a 2021 trilateral tech and security pact that will enable Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. 

The deal has three stages

  1. The UK and US will send a rotational force of submarines to Australia from 2027 
  2. The US will sell Australia at least three Virginia-class submarines in the 2030s, and
  3. The partners will build and deploy the SSN Aukus in the 2040s, a new class of nuclear-powered submarine rigged out with both UK and US tech.

What’s so good about nuclear-powered subs? Mechanically, they don’t need to refuel or resurface. So hiding underwater for lengthy stretches, they can theoretically be anywhere, anytime. And this forces adversaries to think twice.

And the cons? Because we’re talking about submarines and not Subarus, the estimated price tag for Canberra is $245B (USD) over 30 years. 

The initial 2021 AUKUS announcement also irked some of Australia’s neighbours who felt ambushed and uneasy about the deal (reactions seem more muted this time around).

Meanwhile, China says AUKUS is “walking further and further down the path of error and danger”. Though Australia says it’s just responding to China’s own military build-up (including 12 new nuclear powered and armed subs in the past 15 years alone). 

Intrigue’s take: US president Joe Biden says AUKUS will “enhance the stability of the Indo-Pacific amid rapidly shifting global dynamics”. Translation: he wants to build up Western military capabilities in the region to deter Beijing. 

But history teaches us that deterrence is a high-stakes game. It can be (mis)interpreted in other capitals as a threat. They respond accordingly. Next thing you know, you’ve got an arms race. Then an incident. Then a war.  

Washington is mindful of this risk: just look at its constant references to the need for ‘guardrails’ with China. But China’s opaque system means its intentions are often less clear.

Also worth noting: 

  • Australia will become the seventh country to operate nuclear-powered subs, and the first allowed to buy a US Virginia-class sub. 
  • AUKUS will be the single biggest investment in Australia’s defence capabilities in the country’s history. 
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