What Is AUKUS? The Military Deal Giving Australia Nuclear Capabilites

AUKUS is the slightly awkward acronym given to a strategic military deal between Australia, the UK, and the US. It was launched under Prime Minister Scott Morrison in 2021 where it may as well have been called AWKUS since, at that historic announcement, President Biden forgot the name of our then-leader, calling him “that fella down under.”

The deal sees the three nations cooperate on a whole range of military technologies in an effort to ‘deter’ certain actors in the Pacific region *cough* China *cough*. Crucially, it grants Australia access to nuclear-powered submarines, which won’t be armed with nuclear weapons but will be able to stay at sea for long periods of time. Critics have said this decision is in breach of nuclear proliferation treaties.

When the deal was announced in 2021, details were light on the ground. The only real impact that we saw was the subsequent fallout with the French after Morrison backed out of a prior agreement with France to buy submarines from them. Morrison apparently told French President Emmanuel Macron the day before the deal was announced via text message. Macron later publically called him a liar.

Now, we’ve finally got some meat on these AUKUS bones after a joint announcement from Biden, UK PM Rishi Sunak, and Anthony Albanese in San Diego, California.

Biden said that the deal is a testament to the three nations “shared commitment of ensuring the Indo-Pacific remains free and open, prosperous and secure, defined by opportunity for all.”

“AUKUS has one overriding objective: to enhance stability in the Indo-Pacific amid rapidly shifting global dynamics,” he said.

Albanese shared similar sentiments, calling the deal a “new chapter” in the relationship between Australia and our other two allies.

“This is a genuine trilateral undertaking. All three nations stand ready to contribute, and all three nations stand ready to benefit,” Albanese said.

“I look out from here today, and I see new frontiers in innovation to cross, new breakthroughs in technology to achieve, a new course for us to chart together”.

Indeed, AUKUS is the biggest national security announcement in Australian history, so it’s probably worth getting your noggin around. Here’s what you need to know.

What Is AUKUS?

AUKUS is primarily a military agreement that brings Australia, the UK, and the US much closer together, with Australia being let in on some key military technology secrets.

It’s been in the works for over a decade but was pushed through as global tensions increase about the power and influence of China. Australia being the biggest and closest ally the US has to China, it’s keen to bolster our military capabilities should we ever need to fight a war.

The deal was finalised under Morrison but Labor has never been critical of it, knowing that they would likely be the ones to carry it out. There’s really very little opposition to this deal from either of the major parties.

While there are many ‘projects’ in the pipeline under the AUKUS banner, the first of these is getting nuclear-powered submarines into Australian hands. This is known as ‘Pillar One’. ‘Pillar Two’, the next step, will involve the UK and the US sharpening up our own defence capabilities more broadly.

Under Pillar One, Australia will be getting eight nuclear submarines, designed in Britain, using American technology, and built in Australia. We’re also getting three second-hand Virginia-class submarines from the US too and maybe two more, giving us 13 new underwater shooty-boats in total.

How Much Will the AUKUS Deal Cost?

Well, ahem, oh boy. The bill for this deal is estimated at $368 billion over 30 years. It’s the largest single military investment project that Australia has ever embarked on, working out to about $11 billion each year from now until 2055.

Our current total defence budget spend is currently $48.6 billion, so this is a significant step up. It’s likely that we will have to restructure our defence forces in order to pay for these subs.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has already pledged his support to help the government cut the budget in other areas, suggesting that the National Disability Insurance Scheme could be carved up to pay for the weapons. This is something Treasurer Jim Chalmers has ruled out.

Spending this much on military hardware during a cost-of-living crisis where economic alarm bells are ringing all over the shop has turned a few heads. Not least of all that of former Prime Minster Paul Keating, who went off on the deal on Wednesday at the National Press Club.

“For $360 billion, we’re going to get eight submarines. It must be the worst deal in all history,” Keating said.

“History will be the judge of this project in the end. But I want my name clearly recorded among those who say it is a mistake. Who believes that, despite its enormous cost, it does not offer a solution to the challenge of great power competition in the region or to the security of the Australian people and its continent.”

Keating also pointed out that Australia “wouldn’t need submarines to sink an armada of Chinese boats” because we could “just do it with planes and missiles.”

Dutton described Keating’s comments as “unhinged” while Albanese has said that Australia can’t afford to not do this deal in order to increase the capability of our defence force.

When Will the AUKUS Submarines Be Delivered?

It’s a good thing we’re not fighting a war with China tomorrow or we’d be in trouble – not that we wouldn’t be in trouble anyway, even with all these subs.

The AUKUS nuclear submarines are not expected to be delivered for another three decades. That’s right, the people who may eventually actually fight in them — if it comes to that — likely haven’t even been born yet.

Five AUKUS subs will be delivered by the mid-2050s, with the final three in the 2060s. As for those op-shop Virginia-class submarines the US is flogging us to bridge the gap, they’re also not coming until next decade.

How Does AUKUS Impact Our Relationship with China?

China has not reacted well to what they see as military provocation on our part. In 2021, when the deal was announced, the Chinese government said that the deal “has seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race and undermined international non-proliferation efforts”.

A Chinese Communist Party tabloid even went as far as to say that the deal would mean Australian troops would be “the first batch of western soldiers to waste their lives in the South China Sea”.

Albanese has worked hard since coming to power to thaw the frosty relationship we have with our largest trading partner, with trade sanctions and other blockages having been repealed, and he is hoping to visit Beijing next year. The latest move in the AUKUS partnership risks torpedoing that progress.

China has already lashed out following the announcement, claiming that the delivery of “weapons-grade enriched uranium to a non-nuclear state” is textbook case of western double standards that will affect the authority of non-proliferation treaties.

Will AUKUS Make a Difference?

In one sense, this is a major leap forward for Australian military capabilities. But in another, it could actually be a step backwards and put us at greater risk of conflict.

As stated above, China is viewing this as a military provocation and could see this as justification for an attack — or at least, it could be pushed further in that direction.

In addition, Australia isn’t getting these machines, which are more expensive and more complicated than the space shuttle, for decades. By the time they arrive, technology could have progressed exponentially to the point that they’re rendered virtually useless. If military equipment we had ordered in the 80s turned up today, it’s unlikely it would be of much use.

Finally, Australia will have to restructure its military in order to pay for and accommodate these submarines. That means becoming a military that is more heavily focused on naval capabilities, rather than air or land. While this might make sense, given we’re an island, it’s still a big risk to leave other areas of defence less capable when conflict in the future could happen on any of those levels.

Still, the AUKUS deal is expected to create some 20,000 jobs over its lifespan, with all new submarines to be built in Adelaide. It will also require major military restructuring, training, and the development of expertise. Experts are partly wondering how we’re going to pay for it, with Albanese at pains to stress the benefits that Australians will get from the deal. In 40 years’ time we’ll find out whether or not it was all worth it.

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