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Monday Morning Meeting on "One Year of AUKUS: An Assessment of Progress and Challenges”

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  • October 17, 2022
    Monday Morning Meeting
    Only by Invitation
    1000 hrs

    Dr. R. Vignesh, Research Analyst, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), spoke on "One Year of AUKUS: An Assessment of Progress and Challenges” at the Monday Morning Meeting held on 17 October 2022. The session was moderated by Cmde. Abhay K. Singh (Retd.) Research Fellow, MP-IDSA. Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy, Director General, MP-IDSA, Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi (Retd.), Deputy Director General, MP-IDSA, and scholars of the Institute were in attendance and shared their valuable inputs.

    Executive Summary

    One year ago, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced the AUKUS pact. The key element of the agreement is Australia's creation of a new nuclear-powered submarine fleet. When it is completed, it will greatly enhance Australia's naval capabilities and help the country reach its objective of having a sizable maritime presence in both the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It has been stated that AUKUS will adhere to the highest non-proliferation regulations and enable Australia to acquire nuclear-powered, conventionally armed submarines at the earliest. At the same time, it has also become clear that AUKUS certainly goes beyond just SSNs and involves the development of other niche capabilities as well, in areas such as hypersonics, quantum technologies, artificial intelligence (AI), cyber, autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) and electronic warfare capabilities (EWC). Consequently, a thorough analysis of current trends and projected outcomes in the Indo-Pacific is essential to carefully examine current trends and expected outcomes in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in light of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) dilemma.

    Detailed Report

    In his opening remarks, Cmde. Abhay K. Singh briefly highlighted the various developments that have taken place since the announcement of AUKUS and underscored certain challenges it faces. He described how the US, UK, and Australia signed this agreement on 15 September 2021 along with the announcement of their strengthened trilateral security alliance. He also emphasised the partnership's potential for further technology cooperation and assistance from the US and UK to help Australia fulfil its own desire for a nuclear strike submarine. He further set the tone by asking some straightforward questions about this arrangement in order for it to become clear. What drove Australia to terminate its French programme and its pursuit for a nuclear submarine? He illustrated the Australian military's commitment to partnerships with the US as moving beyond interoperability to interchangeability. He also lay out the presentation's framework in terms of what transpired during the AUKUS grouping's interim year and the limitations of this relationship. After the brief introduction, the Chair gave the floor to Dr. R.Vignesh. The speaker began by referring to AUKUS as a historic agreement since the last time a sought and ground-breaking military technology, such as naval nuclear propulsion, was shared was in 1958 under the US-UK Mutual Defense Agreement. The speaker also emphasised the enormous strides made so far by these three nations in effectively generating a momentum by developing the necessary legal and policy framework for facilitating the production of nuclear attack submarines, and developing other cutting-edge capabilities.

    The first point made by the speaker was with reference to the Agreement on the exchange of naval nuclear propulsion information (ENNPIA). He mentioned the purpose, which is to share critical information on naval nuclear propulsion with Australia. The agreement addresses a number of issues, including how the information will be distributed and how easily it would be accessible. The agreement was signed in Canberra on 22 November 2021, and it became effective on 8 February 2022. Additionally, the speaker brought up the ENNPIA's primary objective, which was to provide the legal framework for the Nuclear Power Submarine Task Force (NPST) which is led by Vice Admiral Jonathan Dallas Mead of the Royal Australian Navy. The Australian Government formed the NPST to determine the best course of action for the Royal Australian Navy's acquisition of conventionally armed nuclear attack submarines within the next 18 months. The NPST is currently engaged in carrying out a thorough examination of the design of the hull, the safety of the nuclear reactors and the establishment of the prerequisite infrastructure.

    According to the speaker, it is widely speculated that based on the recommendation given by NPST, Australia would make the choice between two nuclear attack submarines. One, the Virginia class (U.S) and other the Astute class submarine (Royal Navy). He further mentioned the series of meetings held over the year between AUKUS members with regard to the collaboration on the development of niche technologies like hypersonic, cyber capabilities and quantum technology. He went on explain the Chinese opposition to AUKUS at the IAEA and India’s role in persuading member-states to oppose China’s anti-AUKUS resolution in the IAEA. He also discussed the governance structure of AUKUS that has been created. The AUKUS partnership has created a three tier governance framework for better coordination among different stakeholders.

    The speaker emphasised that AUKUS goes beyond just the development of nuclear submarines and also involves collaboration in development of certain niche defence technologies. This covers emerging quantum communications technology as well as autonomous underwater vehicles. The speaker mentioned Australia's US$6.8 billion investment in a new initiative called REDSPICE. Australia wants to quadruple its present offensive cyber capabilities through this project. As well as increasing the use of cutting-edge artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cloud technologies, Australia is able to engage in cyber hunt operations and expand the reach of its cyber capabilities globally. He also emphasised the Australian Labour Party's commitment to establishing an Advanced Strategic Research Agency (ASRA) under the Department of Defense that will be modelled after the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In spite of the numerous changes that have occurred in the year following the announcement, enabling Australia to acquire eight nuclear submarines remains the core objective of AUKUS. He stated that this objective has a long time frame spanning nearly three decades.

    The speaker continued by listing the different challenges that AUKUS might face. He cited the 2009 Australian Defence White Paper, which identified the absence of submarine capabilities in the Royal Australian Navy as a serious problem that needed to be addressed right away. Many commentators have since noted that this specific task has only been made more difficult by the termination of the submarine agreement with France and the signing of the AUKUS. The speaker noted that there is currently no nuclear industry in Australia. As a result, he brought out Australia’s attempts to manufacture advanced nuclear submarines under the AUKUS programme. However, it is to be assumed that the US Navy will help Australia during the time when it will essentially have no submarine capabilities before the first nuclear attack submarine is deployed, as Australia has traditionally been under the US's security umbrella. The speaker raised the question about continuing domestic support for AUKUS in Australia. He said that AUKUS has so far had significant political backing from both parties. The Green Party's opposition to AUKUS is merely a small portion of Australians' overall views. Finally, after analysing the developments till date pertaining to AUKUS, the speaker made three points.  

    He brought out that there is an argument in the strategic community that by joining the AUKUS, Australia has surrendered its strategic autonomy. He cited Professor Hugh White of the Australian National University who brought forward this notion in his recent article where he stated that by joining AUKUS, Australia has compromised on its independent stance to deal with China’s rise. But the speaker noted that the US and Australian strategic conformity has been a common feature across all Indo-Pacific geostrategic architectures like the QUAD, Five Eyes and ANZUS. Taking this into context he described AUKUS as an indicator of Australia’s conformity with the US strategic perspective on the Indo-Pacific.

    The speaker stated that AUKUS is an indicator of the United Kingdom's (UK) return to the Suez region. He quoted Boris Johnson’s speech in 2016 where he described the UK’s decision to withdraw from east of Suez in 1968 as a historic error. He also asserted that the UK is committed to changing its policy, despite not possessing the strongest military, and that it will make use of any opportunities that have arisen as a result of the UK’s exit from the European Union. After more than fifty years, we can see that AUKUS is yet another sign that the UK is making a serious effort to establish its strategic presence in the Indo-Pacific region. The speaker also pointed out the fact that despite Australia being a continent-sized country, its population has long hindered its ability to develop an ideal defence industrial base. The speaker stated that AUKUS illustrates Australia’s attempt to revolutionise its military-industrial base.

    The speaker concluded by saying that, despite the numerous announcements and developments that have taken place since the AUKUS’s inception a year ago, it is unlikely that any of these developments will have a significant impact on the larger Indo-Pacific geopolitical discourse or provide strategic stability any time soon.

    During the panel discussion Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy, mentioned that the AUKUS arrangement is a direct response to China's militarisation and its growing naval power in the oceanic spaces. The transformation of a brown water navy into a blue water navy is forcing the PLA navy to move beyond the first island chain and poses a threat to the existing security situation in the Pacific. He noted that nations like Australia and Japan seeking strategic autonomy with their existing military capability is equivalent to wishing for one's demise. Ambassador Chinoy cited the series of incidents wherein Chinese spy ships have been regularly tracking Australian Navy ships during the Talisman Sabre exercises with the US Navy.  According to him Australia must provide protection to its naval assets, whether it does so independently with its limited capability or by collaboration with the US naval forces. Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi, brought out China’s recent attempts to sign a security agreement with the ten Pacific Island nations to counter the US influence in the region. He described this as an emerging power struggle between the West and China in the Pacific and also brought out that this is bound to increase the significance of AUKUS in the Pacific. .

    The session concluded after an insightful exchange of views between scholars during the Q&A session.

    Report was prepared by Mr. Om Ranjan, Intern, Military Affairs Centre, MP-IDSA