By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, 22 March 2023 (IDN) —The tripartite deal between the UK and the US to provide nuclear submarines (SSNs) to Australia—announced March 13—is threatening to have repercussions worldwide
A joint statement by the three countries (AUKUS) described it as a trilaterally-developed submarine based on the UK’s next-generation design that incorporates technology from all three nations, including cutting-edge U.S. submarine technologies. [P 33] JAPANESE | KOREAN | THAI
Australia and the UK will operate SSN-AUKUS as their submarine of the future, and both countries will begin work to build SSN-AUKUS in their domestic shipyards within this decade.
Tariq Rauf, former Head of Verification and Security Policy at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told IDN the confirmation of the supply of SSNs by the UK and US to Australia, a non-nuclear-weapon State, without specification of robust non-proliferation and verification provisions, will open up a Pandora’s Box of nuclear submarine proliferation that can encourage others to follow suit—such as Canada, Iran, Japan, and South Korea?
“It is surprising that the IAEA seems to have been discouraged from developing safeguards approaches and technical objectives for naval nuclear propulsion in non-nuclear-weapon States such as Australia and Brazil, during the past 18 months after the AUKUS announcement in September 2021,” he added.
Also concerning, Rauf said, is that the IAEA Board of Governors seems intimidated to not call on the IAEA secretariat to work on developing the required safeguards approaches and technical objectives noted above or to have a serious examination of the safeguard issues.
“Furthermore, it seems that representatives of some States are more interested in cheap criticisms of independent commentators rather than promoting an honest technical discussion.”
“Not surprising in current times, (and) not to mention that we are on the cusp of the 20th anniversary of misleading information put out by some leaders to justify the illegal invasion of Iraq (in March 2003).”
Exempting naval nuclear propulsion from IAEA verification and monitoring may well lead to a future situation as in 1991, following the first Gulf War, when the world was surprised to discover an undetected nuclear-weapon development programme and undeclared nuclear activities, Rauf declared.
Beginning in 2023, the Australian military and civilian personnel will embed with the U.S. Navy, the Royal Navy, and in the United States and United Kingdom submarine industrial bases to accelerate the training of Australian personnel, according to AUKUS.
The United States plans to increase SSN port visits to Australia beginning in 2023, with Australian sailors joining U.S. crews for training and development; the United Kingdom will increase visits to Australia beginning in 2026.
As early as 2027, the United States and the United Kingdom plan to begin forward rotations of SSNs to Australia to accelerate the development of the Australian naval personnel, workforce, infrastructure and regulatory system necessary to establish a sovereign SSN capability.
Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on March 18, Professor Clinton Fernandes, a former intelligence officer in the Australian army, warned that the AUKUS $368 billion submarine deal sets Australia on a trajectory from which it will be very difficult to depart.
The deal, in which Australia purchases submarines from the US and UK, “means the future of those countries is now intertwined with ours for decades”.
“The danger is that our defence force winds up as a component of the US armed forces rather than a sovereign force,” he noted.
The key word here is interoperability: to operate inside the strategy of a superpower by contributing a well-chosen, niche capability to augment the larger force. AUKUS means that the Australian Defence Force will be interoperable, even interchangeable, with US and British forces, declared Fernandes.
“Interoperability is central to the Australian way of war, and its overriding importance has deep historical roots. Even before World War I, Australia rejected the Canadian Ross rifle in favour of the British Lee–Enfield as the standard weapon because of interoperability”.
The defence minister in 1909, George Pearce, was an unashamed advocate for Australian independence, but he recognised the need for interoperability. It made good sense then; Britain was the leading imperial power, and Australia was a self-governing dominion in that empire, noted Fernandes.
A sub-imperial consciousness is intrinsic to Australian conceptions of security and identity, and remains at the heart of AUKUS, taking precedence over other goals such as defence self-reliance and cost, said Fernandes, who is part of the University of NSW's Future Operations Research Group, which the threats, risks and opportunities that military forces will face in the future.
In a joint statement issued on March 13, justifying the decision, the three countries said the benefits of the AUKUS partnership will also extend across the Indo-Pacific region, which is home to more than half of the world’s people and nearly two-thirds of the world’s economy.
“It reinforces our collective strength by weaving our transatlantic and Indo-Pacific allies and partners closer together in support of the international system that underpins these objectives.”
“Australia’s modernization of its submarine fleet will be a multi-decade undertaking binding our countries closer together as we actualize this opportunity side-by-side.”
The statement also said Australia’s acquisition of conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines will be done in a manner that sets the highest nonproliferation standard and strengthens the nuclear nonproliferation regime.
“This partnership is possible because of Australia’s longstanding and demonstrated commitment to nuclear nonproliferation.”
“Much of the history of the 21st century will be written in the Indo-Pacific, and we are proud to stand with our partners across the region to enhance economic prosperity, freedom, and the rule of law and to preserve the rights of each country to make sovereign decisions free from coercion.”
“AUKUS will help advance our shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region for generations to come,” the statement added.
Addressing a press conference at the State Department, Anthony Wier, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nonproliferation Policy, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, told reporters on March 15: “I think it’s important at the outset to note that naval nuclear propulsion does not mean nuclear weapons. Naval nuclear propulsion means that the submarines are powered by nuclear reactors. That’s it. This technology is safe.”
For over 60 years, he said, the United States and the United Kingdom have travelled over 240 million kilometres. That’s the equivalent of over 300 trips to the Moon and back without adverse effect on human health or the quality of the environment.
“AUKUS is a defense partnership, but it’s about more than that. It is a concrete commitment of the United States and our partners and our allies to a peaceful and stable Indo-Pacific by bringing together our sailors, our scientists, and our industries to maintain and expand our collective capacity to maintain peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.”
Wier said: “We support Australia’s decision to modernize its submarine fleet, obviously, but moreover, through AUKUS, the United States, Australia, and the UK intend to significantly deepen our longstanding cooperation on a range of security and defense capabilities. And in doing so, we are actively working to re-examine and streamline our processes for optimizing defense trade through any AUKUS context.”
“I think it’s important to make clear: Australia is a non-nuclear-weapon state under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and has made clear it does not and will not seek nuclear weapons. The longstanding and demonstrated commitment to nuclear nonproliferation by Australia has been essential to making this partnership possible. And all three partners remain compliant with and committed to maintaining their respective legal obligations and to nonproliferation,” he declared.
Meanwhile, the London Guardian quoted Rafael Mariano Grossi, the IAEA director general as saying the agency and the partners in the Aukus nuclear sharing agreement will hold further negotiations on how to make sure it does not conflict with their non-proliferation obligations.
The AUKUs deal exploits a loophole in the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty that allows nuclear fuel used for non-explosive military uses like naval propulsion to be exempted from IAEA inspections, the Guardian said.
“We have to check before it goes in the water and when it comes back,” Grossi told reporters in Washington on March 14.
“This requires highly sophisticated technical methods because there will be welded units, [but] our inspectors will want to know what is inside and whether, when the boat comes back to port, everything is there and there has not been any loss. It’s the first time something like this will be done,” according to the Guardian report.
“We are going to be very demanding on what they are planning to do. So, the process starts now. And the proof of the pudding is in the tasting,” Grossi said.
Grossi is due to report on progress on the non-proliferation agreements related to the AUKUS deal to the member states on the IAEA’s board in June.
“We are going to put together a solid, watertight system to try to have all the guarantees. If we cannot do that, we would never agree,” Grossi said. [IDN-InDepthNews]
Photo (left to right): Anthony Albanese, Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak during the AUKUS announcement at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego on March 18. Credit: Alex Ellinghausen