The new alliance known as AUKUS could set a new paradigm in the Pacific. China does not like it but it is seen as the future for, in particular, Australia’s Defence. Paul Kennard examines AUKUS and….

Gallic Shrug

The Defence Industry, not to mention global politics, was turned on its head by the announcement by the (then) Australian government in September 2021 that a multi-billion-dollar deal between France and Australia to deliver a new fleet of twelve conventionally powered Shortfin Barracuda class submarines was being scrapped.  There were several sound programmatic reasons why Canberra elected to terminate the project.  Firstly, the project was increasingly adrift in terms of schedule and rapidly escalating in cost.  The current Royal Australian Navy's (RAN) fleet submarines, the Collins class, are tired and increasingly outmatched by Australia's pacing potential opponent, China.  They were originally slated for replacement in the mid 2020s, but delays to the Barracudas (forecasting an early 2030s delivery against an initial plan for 2026) meant that the RAN would have to pick between three unpalatable choices; scrap the boats and accept a 'capability holiday' at a time of almost unprecedented Global tension, continue to use tired submarines with increasing operating risk and reducing military credibility or spend no small sum of money on a refit while waiting for the new submarines to arrive.  Reportedly, attempts by the RAN and Australian Government to apply pressure on France, and the manufacturer, Naval Group (formally DCNS), to accelerate design and build met with something of a diplomatic and industrial 'Gallic shrug'. 

The Barracudas were not only going to be late, but they were also going to be significantly over budget.  Some estimates put the program at running nearly double the original estimate at the time of cancellation - comfortably in 'Nunn-McCurdy Breach' territory in US terms. 

There were also concerns that a massive data leak (over 22,000 pages) on the precursor Scorpene Class after DCNS had been hacked in 2016, could compromise the boats' combat systems.  The leak, regarding submarines being licence built in India, was massively embarrassing and included data on noise levels, speeds, operating manuals, and antennae configuration. 

In sum, the Barracudas would be late, over budget and potentially compromised.  They were also (virtually...) sailing into some very choppy waters regarding the relationship between France and Australia on other major defence projects.  Both the NH-90 and Tiger helicopter programs were experiencing significant issues.  They were late, over budget and struggling to achieve the required, indeed contracted for, Operating Capability.  The Tiger's issues were so acute that despite a clear need for it to escort ADF Chinooks in Afghanistan, it was unable to deploy - leaving the crews to rely on coalition support in the 'red zones' in Theatre.  On the ground, the Thales HAWKEI vehicle was proving another political 'hot potato'; selected over the (User preferred) US produced Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV). The HAWKEI is a capable protected mobility solution; it's just a very expensive one.  Thales were able to make the political case for local assembly of the 1000+ vehicles in Australia by lobbying hard - obvious catnip for 'pollies' wishing to hold onto their seats.  However, they did pay handsomely for that privilege. In fact, they paid so much that the Auditor General commissioned an investigation into the deal.  The report revealed that the ADF were paying $1.3Bn for HAWKEI - over twice the price of the JLTV.  In an almost unprecedented move, Thales approached the (then) Attorney General seeking either the suppression of the report, or the redaction of the cost data, as is might impact the HAWKEI's future 'marketability'.  The AG's report concluded that the benefit to Australia was marginal; most of the profit would route back to France and the taxpayer would be left with very little benefit for their $450m+ 'homebuilt' premium.  It left a lot of bruises.

So, in many ways, the relationship between France and Australia in defence terms was already souring.  This sentiment was coupled with a strategic reassessment of the operational need for the RAN submarine force, which strongly suggested that nuclear powered boats would be needed in the future - and far sooner than anticipated.  Part of the thinking behind the order of Barracudas was that they were adapted from the French Navy's nuclear powered Suffren Class attack submarines (SSNs), so there was always a consideration that later boats in the 12-hull order could be delivered as SSNs if the strategic circumstances demanded it, and, of course, the budget be found. 

It was clear to many by 2020 that the RAN would both need SSNs quicker than anticipated, and that the Barracudas would continue to slip in terms of schedule and grow unpredictably regarding costs.  Unbeknown to most, secret negotiations were already underway between the Allied nations - all of whom were approaching decision thresholds for their future Attack Submarine capabilities. 

Potential Lineage

In the UK, the 'SSN-R' project was starting to coalesce to replace the Astute class.  The UK's submarine construction program is broadly bipolar; at any given time one class of ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) is either in build or design, with the SSN on the opposite side of the coin.  At the time of writing, the last Astute hull, given the circumstances of the fractious relationship with France over submarines rather aptly named HMS Agincourt, is nearing completion, while the first of the Dreadnought class of SSBNs has just begun assembly.  Therefore, the engineering design team that has spent much of the past decade on SSBN design was now available for SSN-R work.  For a small nation like the UK, maintaining a nuclear submarine build capability relies on this 'flip flop' between SSBN and SSN classes to retain qualified and experienced personnel throughout the design/build process.

At the time the AUKUS agreement was being discussed, the requirements and assumptions for SSN-R were still somewhat vague.  The only 'locked in' design feature was that it would use the Rolls Royce PWR-3 reactor - the same fitted to the Dreadnoughts.  Given the close co-operation between the USN and RN on nuclear submarine matters (dating back to the Mutual Defence Agreement of 1958, which agreed to share US propulsion technology) it must be considered that the PWR-3 shares significant commonality with the S9G reactor fitted to the Virginias and likely to be fitted to the next generation of USN SSBNs, the Columbias.  Unlike previous reactors, the PWR-3 / S9G are 'sealed for life' - estimated at 30 years.  Therefore, there is no requirement for complex and expensive refuelling infrastructure (a big bonus for the RAN) - the boats will run till the fuel is spent and then allowed to 'cool' (thermally and radiologically) before dismantling.  One clear advantage that Australia has over the UK is an awful lot of empty space to dispose of spent reactor cores....

The US too are starting to scope the replacement to the Virginias, titled SSN-X.  Although the Virginias are still being built at a healthy rate, and will be into the next decade in the 'Block V' version, a longer-term replacement will be required - and it could take several design cues and subsystems from the SSN-R/AUKUS program.  Therefore, all three navies had much to gain from the AUKUS project.

The subterfuge was finally revealed in September 2021 when the wraps were taken off the AUKUS deal in a joint statement by the leaders of the US, UK, and Australia.  Trading on decades of close co-operation in naval matters, and on the strength of the well established '5-EYES' intelligence sharing community, the project promised to rapidly re-equip the RAN with SSNs - initially via the lease of USN 'Virginia' class attack submarines and, later, by the construction of a new class of SSN designed and built in partnership with the UK.  Both the UK and US have also offered to start acclimatising Australian submariners to 'nukes' through crew exchange opportunities in their current fleets.  The almost inevitable French wails of a 'stab in the back' spoke perhaps more of their perpetual frustration and national jealousy of the '5-EYES' arrangement than any meaningful regret at being so publicly called out for their, often insouciant, approach to delivering arms and weapons to time, budget and specification once the contract has been signed.

But has AUKUS opened the floodgates?

Since the AUKUS announcement, the ADF have announced plans to retire their European supplied helicopter fleet, of which France is a major stakeholder.  The Tiger will be replaced by the AH-64E Apache as part of a rolling program, while the MRH-90 Taipan (ADF NH-90) has been grounded after a recent accident and retired in toto. The US have been happy to supply FMS sourced UH-60 Black Hawks to the ADF, in the minds of many righting a politically inspired wrong in selecting the Taipan in the first place and are doing so at a rapid rate thanks to the US Army agreeing to divert machines off the front of its latest multi-year acquisition contract for the aircraft.  Add in the RAAF's re-equipment with F-35A to go alongside their F/A-18E/F, EA-18G, E-7A, C-17 and C130 fleets, and the selection of the UK's Type 26 Global Combat Ship as the new 'Hunter Class' ASW frigate, it does leave a distinct impression that the 'Big 3' in AUKUS are forging ever closer ties in equipment as well as intelligence terms.


The next AUKUS vertical lift initiative could well be the V-280 Valor.  Winner of the US Army's Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) competition, and designed to, at least in part, replace the UH-60 Black Hawk, the Valor has clearly been selected by the US with one eye on the 'tyranny of range' that afflicts the Pacific Theatre of Operations (PTO).  By selecting a tiltrotor over the more 'helicopter-like' thrust compounded Sikorsky Boeing SB>1 Defiant, it indicates that range and speed were considered more important than hover performance and ease of conversion for current crews and maintainers.  Australia is almost unique in having both an internal and external range problem.  The vast majority of the Australian population live on or near the coasts.  The huge interior is sparsely populated and, unlike the US, not well served by cities or transport infrastructure.  A fast and long ranged vertical lift platform could be a genuine game-changer for a country with such internal challenges - enabling the ADF to move men and material to places inaccessible by C17/C130 and, perhaps, too long to reach by CH-47, perhaps in response to natural disaster or terrorist attack.  Given that Australia's sphere of interest, both politically and economically, extends deep into the Pacific (hence the push to acquire nuclear powered submarine) it naturally follows that the ability to respond to events 'up threat' and to provide stability and security to Australian interests is of significant importance to the Australian Government.  Like the US, Australia's military calculus has to assume that in the event of a conflict with China, most fixed military facilities, especially airfields, will be heavily attacked by ballistic missiles, and in quantities likely to overwhelm any missile defence systems in place.  Therefore, the ADF cannot rely upon their well-founded and fixed facilities, and will be required to operate, at range, from austere locations.  Platforms like the V-280 will offer the ability to do that far better than a legacy UH-60 Black Hawk or MRH-90 Taipan.

Citizenship Not Needed

The latest twist in the tail are reports circulating that the ADF is considering permitting foreign nationals to directly enlist in the Australian military - bypassing previous regulations over citizenship.  Hitherto it has been possible for a Commonwealth citizen with desirable prior military experience to transfer to the ADF - indeed, several of the Chinook pilots I served with in the RAF are now plying their trade in Australia (and, in some cases, Canada). What appears to be proposed now is, almost like the recently disbanded French Foreign Legion, an opportunity for those without prior military experience to join the ADF and, perhaps tellingly, not just from Commonwealth countries.  If realised, the new policy will permit direct entrants from countries such as the US and the Pacific Islands.

The concept of recruiting from abroad, from the US and the UK in particular, may be a broader manifestation of the aims of AUKUS, or, more pragmatically, an acknowledgement that domestic military recruitment is getting ever harder, and the offer of a 'Starship Troopers' type arrangement that 'Service Guarantees Citizenship' may prove highly attractive to certain demographics and ethnic groups who feel disadvantaged by EDI-positive recruitment polices in their native lands, or have always had an ambition to emigrate to Australia.

Other AUKUS members?

Perhaps the next challenge for AUKUS is that of potential expansion.  The natural next members of 'the club' would New Zealand and Canada.  They are, after all, the other '5-EYES' partners, but they don't bring the military and industrial heft that the current members do.

New Zealand has sensibly descoped its military capabilities in a realistic, if bruising, appraisal of its global role and national needs - ensuring it maximised every dollar committed to defence.  As a result it stepped away from the operation of Fast Jet aircraft by retiring its comprehensively upgraded, but still ageing, A4 Skyhawks without a replacement, correctly, in my view, understanding that a small fleet of replacement aircraft (a lease of up to 28 embargoed Pakistani F-16s was in the process of being finalised) would have limited utility, and act as a destabilising effect on the rest of NZ defence policy.  Instead, NZ elected to invest in helicopters to support their army (and highly regarded Special Forces units) and on a recapitalisation of their Maritime Patrol Fleet by purchasing the increasingly ubiquitous P-8A Poseidon.  The NZ navy remains small, with no submarines and a pair of ANZAC class frigates as their only surface combatants of note, although there has been some discussion about replacing the Frigates with T26/Hunter class vessels at the end of their life.  There is another factor why NZ is, perhaps, not a natural fit for AUKUS; it has a long-standing opposition to nuclear power - both weapons and propulsion - and declared itself a 'nuclear free zone' as long ago as 1984.  Nuclear carrying or powered vessels are therefore banned from New Zealand's ports and territorial waters.  It would be somewhat against the grain, therefore, if they were to join an arrangement that has nuclear propelled submarines at its very heart.

Canada, conversely, has a military more in line with UK and Australian capabilities.  She has, somewhat belatedly, and after agonising procrastination, finally ordered the F-35A as a replacement for their distinctly long in the tooth CF188/CF-18 'classic' Hornets.  They have global reach through a capable AT fleet, including C-17s, operate the CH-47 Chinook as a heavy transport helicopter and have also selected the P-8 as their replacement MPA.  Canada has a credible navy, including a small fleet of conventional submarines and a flotilla of frigates. 

Like the RAN, the Royal Canadian Navy is buying a variant of the UK designed T26 GCS as its next generation surface combatant, while the four Victoria class conventional submarines were purchased, when nearly new from the UK, where they had been built and operated as the Upholder class.  When the UK elected to go 'nuclear only' in the 1990s, the submarines became available, and Canada eventually secured them.  The Victorias have been much modified with both US and Canadian sourced weapons and equipment since their acquisition, and the boats are assumed, under current plans, to be modestly refitted to extend their service until the mid-2030s.  This date sits between the RAN lease of Virginias and the likely delivery of the first AUKUS Class to Australia or the UK. Theoretically, Canada could be in the market for AUKUS submarine capability if they can clear the budget headroom.  Like Australia, they could 'prime the pump' via a short-term lease of a pair of Virginias while awaiting build slots in either the UK or Australia for AUKUS hulls.

Unlike New Zealand, Canada has no issue with nuclear power, or indeed, weapons.  Some 15% of the Canadian power grid is nuclear powered, perhaps not surprising for a country which is the world's largest exporter of Uranium and who's first nuclear test reactor went 'critical' as early as 1945 (making it the first self-sustained nuclear reaction outside the USA).  Canada, in many ways, is actually better placed than Australia to deal with a nuclear submarine fleet with a solid full-cycle industry, including disposal.  Canadian crews have also been tasked with carrying nuclear weapons- both in the Strike role in Cold War Germany (flying CF-104 Starfighters) and as part of NORAD, using nuclear tipped BOMARC SAMs and Genie AAMs carried by F101 Voodoo fighters.  Additionally, Canadian MPAs have been capable of delivering nuclear depth bombs in the ASW role.

With F-35, P-8, T26 inter alia, Canada could see AUKUS as an opportunity not just to build SSNs to patrol the huge expanse of Arctic waters to her north, but also to help share data, TTPs and upgrades across her broader defence needs.


The intriguing option is Japan.

Already partnered with the UK on the Global Combat Air Program (GCAP), which is developing a 6th Generation fighter aircraft, Japan ticks an awful lot of the AUKUS boxes.  A significant technological base, powerful economy, and in the throes of a significant equipment upgrade - ever more wary of the growing influence, and potential expansionism, of China; just like the AUKUS partners.  Japan is also a F-35 user (both A and B variants) and is finally coming clean over its 25,000-ton Izumo class 'multi-purpose destroyers' in effect being light aircraft carriers - both of which have been updated to support F-35B and V-22 Osprey operations. 

Apart from the aberration of the Second World War, Japan has in naval terms, historically, been very close to both the RN and USN.  Like Australia and Canada, the Japanese Navy have a conventional submarine (SSK) fleet - except theirs’ is much larger at some 23 hulls.  The latest submarines, the Taigei class, are powered by Lithium-Ion batteries (developed for the last pair of hulls in the previous Soryu class) which enable greater submerged range and speed - perhaps somewhat bridging the gap between a standard SSK and the potential of a SSN.  Despite the class leader, Taigei, only being commissioned in 2022, the Japanese navy have already contracted Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI) to start the design work for a follow on SSK class.  There is no reason why that work could not be diverted into AUKUS and Japan acquire a SSN capability if she deemed it necessary.

One of the key geo-political underpinnings of AUKUS is to send a clear message to China that its expansionist desires in the Pacific are not a 'given' and that limits will be imposed.  Japan is fully engaged with such a policy and is already in dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands and is wary of the militarisation of the Spratly Islands.

Having Japan join AUKUS would be send shockwaves through the non-aligned world, bringing together huge amounts of industrial, mineral, military, and economic power.  AUKUS has already ruffled international feathers, with France embarrassed and China clearly concerned by the rapid build-up of ADF capability.  Growing the 'family' to include the likes of Canada and in particular, Japan, especially if both invested in SSNs, could dramatically alter the strategic calculus in key areas of global tension, and provide welcome cost sharing opportunities for the partner nations.