A Deeper Dive into AUKUS: Risks and Benefits for the Asia-Pacific
Special Reports

A Deeper Dive into AUKUS: Risks and Benefits for the Asia-Pacific

This special report offers a detailed analysis on the new AUKUS agreement, specifically the proposed submarine programme – where the US has agreed to share sensitive design details of its Naval Nuclear Propulsion Programme enabling Australia to build nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) – and the provision that these SSN be armed with US Tomahawk submarine-launched land-attack cruise missiles (TLAM).

The authors – Dr. Tanya Ogilvie-White, APLN Senior Research Adviser and Rear Admiral (ret.) John Gower, former commander of two British submarines and former Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Nuclear & Chemical, Biological) in the UK Ministry of Defence – consider the proposed submarine programme and potential challenges; the national perspectives of the AUKUS partners; of China, South Korea, Russia, France, the Five Eyes and NATO; and proliferation risks including nuclear breakout and SSN technology transfer by other nuclear armed powers.

The report, entitled “A Deeper Dive into AUKUS: Risks and Benefits for the Asia-Pacific” acknowledges the potential benefits of closer trilateral defence cooperation between Australia, the US and the UK, and offers recommendations to deal with its negative aspects. Chief among the latter are the escalation risks posed by cruise missiles, and lasting damage to the nuclear non-proliferation regime caused by the transfer of nuclear-powered submarines, which could backfire on the AUKUS partners, the region and the world by unintentionally increasing nuclear proliferation pressures.

The report identifies several risks related to the AUKUS pact. These include:

  • Eroding the rules. At the top of the list of concerns is the damage AUKUS could do to the international regime that controls the spread of nuclear weapons. If US and UK assistance to Australia’s nuclear-submarine programme is seen as flouting the rules, it could exacerbate divisions among regime members and weaken commitments that have helped slow the spread of nuclear weapons technology. At worst, this could embolden the pro-nuclear weapons lobby in states that are reviewing their nuclear options, including in South Korea, where pro-nuclear voices have been getting louder.
  • Arms racing & submarine proliferation. The submarine deal could also prompt other states to rethink their submarine ambitions, potentially unleashing fresh proliferation dynamics among the world’s SSN (nuclear-powered attack submarine) aspirants. The resources and technology required to build and operate these vessels is prohibitive for most states, but the announcement that the US and UK are willing to assist Australia could encourage copycat behaviour, with potential suppliers such as China and Russia willing to assist other states.
  • Escalation dangers of cruise missiles. The transfer of Tomahawk cruise missiles to Australia highlights two issues: a potential broadening of the risks of cruise missiles and a weakening of the export control regime that deals with sensitive missile technologies (the MTCR). The missiles sold to Australia will be armed with conventional warheads, but even so, their use would increase the risk of miscalculation and escalation to nuclear war. This is because, in future, if the US deploys nuclear cruise missiles that are under development (the SLCM-N), neither China nor the DPRK could be certain whether a cruise missile launched from an American or Australian submarine was nuclear armed until it detonated, prompting a counter launch before the missile strikes.
  • Unvarnished power politics. Broader geo-strategic implications need careful consideration. One is the possibility that the AUKUS pact could accelerate the trend towards unvarnished power politics in the Asia Pacific, particularly if it drives China and Russia closer together and ASEAN members further apart.

The report proposes seven measures to help mitigate these risks:

  1. Increasing international awareness of Australia’s legislation, which prohibits the development of nuclear weapons and uranium enrichment facilities, would help reassure other countries that Australia remains serious about its nuclear non-proliferation commitments.
  2. An early decision to use lifetime reactor cores (which would be sealed into the reactor for the lifetime of the submarine and would not need refuelling), would help address concerns about the diversion of nuclear material from the naval reactors into a nuclear weapons programme.
  3. Immediate initiation of work with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to develop new monitoring arrangements would increase confidence that Australia intends to use its nuclear reactors for naval nuclear propulsion only.
  4. A US commitment to champion a voluntary moratorium on the deployment of new nuclear cruise missile capabilities and a commitment to engage in bilateral and regional dialogue on decommissioning current types in service, would address escalation risks. By initiating this, the US would help demonstrate joint AUKUS commitment to the security of all Asia-Pacific peoples – an essential step and a shared responsibility that would help dissipate some of the fear and anger generated by the abrupt and poorly-handled AUKUS announcement.
  5. Steps to repair and recommit to the MTCR (including a pledge by AUKUS partners not to further erode export controls on the most sensitive technologies that could be used to deliver nuclear weapons) would help reduce arms racing dynamics.
  6. Reinvigorating regional diplomacy would prove AUKUS partners are committed to peace and security in the Asia-Pacific. Priorities should include resuming the stalled DPRK nuclear negotiations; working inclusively with states in the region to create a Northeast Asian security architecture; reinforcing ASEAN’s security-building role in Southeast Asia and the wider region; respecting and upholding the nuclear-weapon-free zones in Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific; and reassuring states across the Asia-Pacific that their AUKUS-related safety and security concerns are being addressed, including Indonesian and Malaysian concerns over the movement of nuclear-powered vessels through territorial waters.
  7. A strong joint statement on upholding the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) ahead of the delayed 2020 Review Conference would help reduce the diplomatic fallout from AUKUS, particularly if this opportunity is used to add detail and substance to the AUKUS pledge that “Australia remains committed to fulfilling all of its obligations as a non-nuclear weapons state, including with the International Atomic Energy Agency.”


About the Authors

Australia-based Dr. Tanya Ogilvie-White is research adviser to the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network (APLN), Senior Fellow at the Strategic Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University and Adjunct Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. Previously, she was Research Director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Senior Policy Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London.

UK-based Rear Admiral John Gower, CB OBE, served, until his retirement in December 2014, as Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Nuclear & Chemical, Biological) in the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD). Previously, he had spent nearly half his 36-year military career at sea, culminating in the sequential command of two globally deployed submarines.