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Murthy Karanam asked: Since it takes years to build nuclear-powered submarines, what are the short & long-term strategic advantages of the AUKUS deal for Australia? Any chance that the US will extend such deals to other QUAD members?

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  • Abhay Kumar Singh replies: AUKUS commitment to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy has unarguably been the most eye-catching provision in the announcement of an enhanced trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US). Notwithstanding significant international attention, this announcement about the nuclear submarine deal remains devoid of key details. It is not clear whether American or British submarines will serve as the basis for the Australian construction, and the announcement included an 18-month period for the three states to determine the way forward. Even in the best-case scenario, it will take a couple of decades for this collaborative project to operationalise.

    In essence, AUKUS is much more than equipping the Australian Navy with nuclear-powered submarines. It is a fundamental commitment by Australia to work more closely with the US and the UK to develop technologically advanced military capabilities through greater cooperation and integration of their defence industry. Given the rapidly changing strategic environment facing Australia due to growing Chinese military power and strategic assertiveness, Australia felt compelled to review its strategic alignment. AUKUS represents something of a logical endpoint for Australia’s recent experience at the pointy end of Chinese coercion.  It has removed ambiguity about Canberra’s stand in the evolving contest with China.

    The partnership is expected to see a series of further measures tightening the AUKUS embrace—more US marines rotating through northern Australia, the pre-positioning of US military equipment in Australia, and cooperation on missile technology. It may even involve operational rotation of nuclear submarines of the US and the UK. Whether AUKUS would further evolve into a NATO-style collective security endeavour remains uncertain at this stage.

    Thus far, the US has shared nuclear submarine propulsion technology only with UK under the provisions of the 1958 US–UK Mutual Defence Agreement. The AUKUS submarine deal appears to set a new precedent in nuclear propulsion technology cooperation which may necessitate a review of the domestic export control regulations and norms in the US and the UK. The evolution of these regulatory frameworks will be a key determinant in shaping the willingness of the US towards considering such cooperation with other QUAD partners.

    Posted on 22 October 2021

    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.