A moment of reckoning for AUKUS and Australia

Source– The post is based on the article “A moment of reckoning for AUKUS and Australia” published in The Hindu on 10th March 2023.

Syllabus: GS3- International relations

Relevance– Important development impacting the geopolitics around world

News– An announcement about an “optimal pathway” for AUKUS is on the horizon. It has implications for Australia’s plans to operate a fleet of nuclear powered submarines within the next decade.

What are options before the UK?

The first is for the U.S. to build nuclear powered attack submarines for Australia. But many U.S. policymakers seem sceptical about this option.

The US is also facing problems with nuclear submarine construction. So, the possibility of the U.S. building SSNs for Australia appears rather remote.

The second option is for the U.K. to expand its Astute­ class programme to Australia. But it is not without challenges.

The U.K. is constructing its Dreadnought Class ballistic missile submarine programme while designing the Astute­class replacement in a sequential build process.

Even if Australia acquired an Astute­class submarine, integrating the onboard combat system would be difficult due to differences between the current Australian and American fleets.

The third and perhaps most likely option is a trilateral effort to develop a new nuclear submarine design.

Canberra could announce a modified version of the yet to be launched U.S. Next ­Generation Attack Submarine or U.K. Submersible Ship Nuclear Replacement programmes, or even a completely new AUKUS­ class design to be acquired by all three Countries.

What are the challenges before Australia in getting SSBNs from the UK and US?

Australia must find ways to get around U.S. export controls. U.S.’s stringent export control and protocol regime could jeopardise the technology transfer agreement.

To operationalise the pact, the only way forward is to reform the U.S. export control regime by creating a “carve­out” of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). This is not easy.

Many of its regional partners oppose the Royal Australian Navy operating nuclear attack submarines. Some, such as Indonesia, have been open about their reservations.

Others, such as India, despite being politically supportive of AUKUS, appear conflicted about the prospect of these submarines operating in the regional littorals.

How developments related to AUKUS have implications for?

Even with its closest allies, the U.S. is facing difficulties in transferring technology. It is not that Washington does not want to help a partner. But the U.S. export control system is so rigid. Acquiring critical technology from the U.S. remains a daunting task.

The other lesson is that nuclear technology is difficult under the international system. For Australia to operate nuclear powered submarines, it will have to exploit a loophole.

The loophole allows non­nuclear weapon countries to withdraw the fissile material required for submarine reactors from the IAEA Monitored stockpile.

The removal could set a dangerous precedent by allowing potential proliferators to use naval reactors as a cover for future nuclear weapons development.

Acquiring nuclear propulsion technology is likely to be also complicated for India. It is not a party to the Non­ Proliferation Treaty.

The complexities involved in the transfer of technology for HEU fueled reactors in nuclear attack submarines from the U.S. and U.K. leave India with only one practical option. It is buying a high-power reactor from France.

The miniaturised low enriched uranium (LEU) reactor core for SSNs is a workable alternative. But, it has its own limitations in terms of Indian dependence on France for reactor fuel and the need for periodic refuelling.

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