The Aukus pact announced last week by the US, UK and Australian governments is an extremely important and necessary event. As an agreement designed to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region and particularly within the South China Sea, Aukus will not only play an important role politically and within the overall defence of the region but also assisting Australia to modernise and expand its defence capabilities. Few would disagree that geo-political risks are increasing and at the very least Aukus will allow the three signatory nations to work more closely together, sharing intelligence and over time, standing up to increased global threats.
One intended result of Aukus is that Australia will, in due course, become the seventh nation to operate a nuclear-powered submarine fleet and in order to achieve this, Australia will benefit from the knowledge and experience of what the US and UK have achieved over many years of nuclear-powered submarine design, production and navy operation. In the process of achieving this, Australia will establish a submarine building facility in-country that matches its needs.
Relations between Australia and China have deteriorated sharply in recent years and the Aukus alliance undoubtedly makes good sense. While Aukus can also be considered as an extension and strengthening of the existing ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing agreement, I see this as being far more than just a trilateral security partnership.
Leaving aside Australia’s decision to scrap the deal that it had signed with France in 2016 to acquire twelve conventional diesel-powered submarines to replace its conventional fleet of Collins class vessels and the far more logical decision to replace these with nuclear powered submarines, the Aukus alliance shows three nations that share the same language and values reaching out to form a natural alliance. Aukus is to my mind hugely significant and in respect of allied defence strategy within the Indo-Pacific region, I anticipate Aukus to play a pivotal role within allied strategy from here on.
Despite increasing investment in air and maritime defence capability in recent years, Australia is considered by many defence analysts to have been slow to react the increasing influence of China in the Indo-Pacific region. Taiwan may well be foremost on China’s mind, Australia and other nations within the region cannot afford to be complacent of Chinese strategy and intention. Given the size of the Australian continent and the increasing level of threat that China potentially poses, Australia’s important decision and the lead it has taken in forming the Aukus alliance is welcomed.
Consternation and anger from the French Government that Australia has decided to end the 2016 agreement that was worth an estimated £27bn for the supply of diesel-powered submarines to Australia is hardly surprising. However, we should not forget that the deal has been a constant source criticism within Australia and questions asked why the country was buying what many considered to be an obsolete design as opposed to nuclear powered vessels. As a powerful nation and one with an important voice in a massive region Australia requires to build its own submarines. That France was unwilling to share nuclear technology with Australia is the price that it has paid. For Australia, even if a much longer period is required before the nation has the level of desired nuclear-powered submarine capability, the decision to pull away from buying an obsolete design is the right one to take. The UK by the way, withdrew the last four diesel-powered Victoria/Upholder class submarines as long ago as 1994 and since then has operated an entirely nuclear-powered fleet of submarines.
I will not attempt here to speculate on the wider potential benefits that the Australian decision to develop and build its own nuclear-powered submarine fleet provide to its UK and US allies other than to suggest that with both having considerable expertise in SSN design, build and operation, this could be enormous. The Australian Government has said that it will spend the next 18 months considering safety, design, construction, operation, maintenance, ultimate disposal, regulation, training, environmental protection, installations and infrastructure, basing, workforce and ultimate force structure.
France now needs to pick up the pieces of what it has lost and move on. That the nation decided to recall its US and Australian ambassadors was a natural reaction and in situations such as this, not unprecedented. France remains an important member of NATO and a crucial part of the overall western alliance. That France was not consulted about Aukus is hardly surprising particularly given the necessary secrecy involved behind its establishment. While France has, without any knowledge of the discussions, been quick to portray the UK as being a junior partner in Aukus, it does not have grounds to even part lay the blame for the Australian decision to pull out of the submarine agreement on the UK. Suffice to say that by refusing to accept basic concepts of potential technology transfer of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, France has only itself to blame.
In a few words, well done to Clarion Events for organising what can only be described as a brilliant and successful DSEI 21. Down perhaps on quantity and numbers of those who had attended DSEI 2019 but as far as I am many other industry attendees are concerned, the quality of those that did attend was undoubtedly very high.
Few were surprised that the now former Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson was one of the casualties in the PM’s reshuffle last week. But for those of us whose mission is defence remember that it was this particular former Secretary of State for Defence who in June 2018 made headlines requesting a £20bn increase to the defence budget, in order to pull UK defence spending up to three per cent of GDP, and was reported to have even threatened to bring the government of Theresa May down unless the PM agreed.
Gavin Williamson may not have won much more money for defence with that call but at least he was prepared to openly challenge other members of Cabinet, was prepared to speak out and demand what many of those of us who follow defence or are directly involved believed was an absolute necessity.
Williamson’s call on Theresa May and the then Chancellor of Exchequer, Philip Hammond had come about in part as a response to former Chief of the Defence Staff General (now Lord) Nick Houghton’s suggestion that “it might be the UK should cease to be a world military power”.
Like the rest of us, Williamson may well have had faults and maybe a few oddities too, but let no one suggest that as Secretary of State for Defence he was not prepared to stand up and fight for defence and accept that it should be properly funded.
CHW (London 20th September 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785