Don’t underestimate the submarines

Why Aukus makes a whole lot of sense for America’s security and defence in the long term


September’s announcement of a new trilateral security pact (Aukus) between the US, UK and Australia came as a surprise to most observers, and most of America’s allies. That the US strategic interest continues to shift to the Indo-Pacific is no surprise. But that the US should choose this particular approach, these particular allies, and would even risk the ire of other allies to forge this pact was a shock. It signals a shift in global positioning from the US. The question is: to what end?

Since 1945, the widest pillar of America’s global security structure has been Nato. The relative importance of Nato in the global balance of power has waned in the wake of the collapse of the USSR and a new focus post 9/11. But the organisation has remained America’s foremost tool of international power projection. This announcement, more than anything that has happened in the past three decades, signals that the US is moving on from the North-Atlantic and from Europe. Europe will remain militarily dependent on the American security shield, at least for the time being, but America’s attention is now entirely focused on the rise of China as a challenge to its global hegemony. 

With this in mind, a grouping  composed of the US, Japan, India and Australia makes immediate and obvious sense. This is what the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) is. These are all regional players in the Indo-Pacific, and all are bound by the same anxiety driven from Beijing’s increasing aggression in the region. What really needs an explanation is why the UK is deemed by Washington to be a key player in the Indo-Pacific, given that it is geographically located on the exact opposite end of the globe, and why the US would risk a deep rift with France, their key Nato ally in continental Europe, in order to secure its ties to Australia. 

A new special relationship

What’s likely is that the US-UK security relationship will serve as the template for the kind of relationship that the US wants to develop with Australia. No other countries in the world have the kind of integration that the UK and US enjoy: theirs spans the military, intelligence and technology. If the UK appears to slavishly follow American geopolitical initiatives (even in the face of domestic disgust), it is because the UK sticks to its post-war decision to trust in the US absolutely. That, the thinking went, would guarantee its security – true at the time as  during the Cold War the US crucially invested in London’s defence, while also making itself operationally essential to US global deployments. 

This analysis is reinforced by Aukus’s areas of focus: artificial intelligence and cyber and quantum technologies, all three areas in which the UK and the US research ecosystems are inextricably intertwined (in both the public and private sectors). 

US military doctrine has evolved in recent years to focus on these areas. Likewise the UK’s latest Integrated Review of defence capabilities identifies these areas as the focus of the UK’s future specialisation within the framework of the American security guarantee. 

What’s the deal?

The UK provides operational and intelligence support for American overseas deployments where the UK has developed particular expertise in special operations and other niche, highly specialised capabilities. It also offers financial support through a decades-long programme of purchasing American submarines as the sole tool to deploy London’s nominally “independent” nuclear deterrent. In exchange, the US pledges to defend the UK as it would its own heartland. 

Submarine surveillance

That is why it is particularly apposite that the most advertised part of the Aukus arrangement will be that Australia will be purchasing nuclear-fuelled submarines from the US just like the UK – although Australia’s submarine fleet will not be equipped with warheads and Australia will remain a non-nuclear state. Just like the UK’s deployment of US-made and US-serviced submarines, Australia’s fleet (also nominally under the independent command of Canberra) will serve as a US military tool, enhancing Washington’s surveillance capabilities in the Indo-Pacific, while also keeping costs low, at the price of guaranteeing Australia’s security: an undertaking that Washington would have been practically bound to anyway for a number of other good reasons. 

Canberra isn’t nearly as much of an asset in the AI, cyber and quantum areas, but the US will nevertheless accrue hugely important traditional strategic benefits from this arrangement, such full operational access to the strategic geographical position that Australia occupies, the depth in defence that this geography offers, as well as the huge amounts of strategically important raw materials with which the Australian continent is richly endowed. 

(Nearly) a sound strategy

The main concerns about Aukus relate to its diplomatic fallout. It’s difficult to judge at this point how much Canberra and Washington anticipated the backlash that the announcement of Aukus would generate, not least from France. In order for the nuclear submarine deal to go ahead, Canberra will need to cancel contracts for their new submarine fleet agreed with France years ago; Paris is understandably furious about this “stab in the back”. Especially as they had only recently received the relevant ministerial level reassurances.

Neither Canberra nor Washington would have wanted to upset Paris. It’s possible that the US and Australia underestimated the fury of the French reaction. In reality, they will have been concentrated on their own gains: the strategic calculus for Washington is just that compelling. Maritime power is the single most important facet of global power projection in the world today, and submarines remain the single most powerful reconnaissance and offensive weapons in the naval theatre of war. The security tie-in between Canberra and Washington just makes too much sense for both of them to let other factors get in the way. 

Can’t argue with geography 

The reality is that if France was near the Philippines, French concerns would have had priority in both Washington and in Canberra. But as it is, Australia is an exports-driven economy. It remains economically dependent on US enforcement of the free flow of commercial maritime traffic on the open seas, especially in the wake of the recent diplomatic spats with China. The US wants to reinforce its naval position in East Asia. Australia is their most natural ally in the entire region. Their mutual co-dependence in this space means a “Special Relationship” makes the same kind of sense as with the UK. 

Bigger picture 

It is legitimate for Paris to feel betrayed, at least regarding the submarine contracts, France would never have wanted such a profound integration of military capabilities with Washington. Indeed, it is unlikely that any country would even entertain such an idea seriously. Perhaps with the exception of some Baltic states. But even then, the US would still avoid any commitment stronger than Nato in Europe, at least while China remains its main geopolitical challenger. 

Clearly, communication wasn’t on point. France should have been given better warning. And moving forwards, the US should actively work to smooth over the contract cancellation disputes between Canberra and Paris. But otherwise, Aukus represents a step in the right direction for the advancement of America’s national security and global interest.

The only real downside for Washington is the potential organisation of a competing military power centre in Europe. Europeans may, spurred on by Aukus, finally start developing their much-debated joint military structures within the EU. As it happens, France has been calling for more European military autonomy from Washington for decades; incumbent President Macron is anyway an enthusiastic proponent of the idea. However, most other Europeans (certainly in central countries) prefer to depend on the US for security rather than France or Germany. The development of even an embryonic European Army is probably much less dependent on France’s current fury over Aukus than it is on Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the outcome of France’s presidential election in April.

The US and the UK must reassure Europe that they are invested in its security. Relations cannot deteriorate any further. If fears about a Cold War with China materialise, the UK will want Europe firmly on its side, even if their integration into US military structures remains much more limited.

20th December 2021