AUKUS is Much More Than Submarines

AUKUS partners are shown the capabilities used during the Integrated Battle Problem 23.3 exercise at Fleet Base East, NSW. Source: LSIS David Cox /

AUKUS is Much More Than Submarines

06 MAY 2024
By Dr Michael de Percy and Professor Sascha-Dominik (Dov) Bachmann
This article originally appeared on Australian Outlook and is republished here using a CC BY-ND 4.0 licence. 

AUKUS, the trilateral security partnership between Australia, the UK, and the US, is a major security alliance that just happens to include the transfer of nuclear technology to Australia, which has otherwise been denied since 1946. Given that Japan is also expected to join the alliance, albeit without nuclear technology transfer, AUKUS represents an important platform for Australia in terms of future security alliances, particularly since ANZUS’ aim to protect the security of the Pacific lost its regional character after the security relationship between NZ and the US deteriorated in 1984. AUKUS will also strengthen Australia’s role as a NATO-enhanced opportunity partner (as is Japan) which aims at maintaining and intensifying security cooperation along shared security challenges. Perhaps too many commentators have over-emphasised the usefulness of nuclear-powered submarines and their capabilities versus the strategic importance of the technology and capability-sharing alliance.

Any argument about the efficacy of nuclear-powered submarines versus uncrewed subs has little to do with technology transfer or alliances. If Japan joins the AUKUS alliance and Australia doesn’t exploit the opportunities provided by nuclear submarines, then it will seem as if Australia is uncommitted to its regional security role in the Asia-Pacific and therefore no longer a serious middle power. Indeed, given Australia’s declining military capabilities, driven by inefficacious procurement practices, and amid poor recruitment prospects and unserviceable materiel, there are large social elements that define Australia’s lack of defence capability.

Australia’s nuclear history

Following the Second World War, the Chifley Labor government set about securing atomic weapons for Australia. As the United States went on to jealously guard its nuclear technology, along with its strategic and uranium-rich partner, Canada, the British turned to Australia as a potential source of skills, resources, and space to conduct their own nuclear testing.

Much of the blame for the human impacts of nuclear testing in Australia was placed on the Menzies Coalition government. Yet the desire to procure atomic weapons has emerged at times with the rise of various crises, including the Malayan Emergency, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. At this time, Australia was conscious that not only had Britain, post-WWII, become a potentially unreliable ally for regional security, but that the emergence of the Cold War and the Soviet Union’s development of atomic weapons in 1949 meant that the US was otherwise distracted from events further south.

Australia’s uneasy relationship with nuclear weapons is very much a product of revisionist history. The McClelland Royal Commission’s terms of reference for the impacts of nuclear testing in Australia were limited from 1952 onwards. This effectively cleansed the historical record of bipartisan support for Labor’s desire to obtain atomic weapons from Britain, and Chifley’s commitment to the Woomera Rocket Range, uranium exploration, and significant funding for the Australian National University to use the nearby Snowy River Scheme to conduct nuclear research.

Indeed, the Snowy River Scheme was established under the Commonwealth’s defence powers in a not-dissimilar fashion to former Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent “multi-ministries” controversy. The McClelland Commission’s ambit ensured that Labor’s part in Australia’s nuclear ambitions was excised from living memory. Yet many parallels from that time can be observed in the present, particularly with the Albanese Labor government’s approach to Australia’s major liberal democratic ally in the Middle East, Israel.

During the early part of the Cold War, Australia’s recruitment prospects were so poor that various national service schemes were implemented from 1951 to 1972. National service was effectively a form of conscription that saw the military and the Citizen Military Forces swell to numbers that are unimaginable in our current recruitment drought, where things are so bad the Albanese government is recruiting non-citizens for Australian military service.

Similarly, the Australian Communist Party and its hold on some of the more militant trade unions was complicit in providing intelligence to the Soviet Union, which arguably facilitated the Soviet Union’s ability to develop the atomic bomb. The Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), established by the Chifley Labor government, was born out of Australia’s leaking intelligence sieve. ASIO’s establishment went some way to developing a professional intelligence capability and restored Australia’s reputation as a reliable ally.

Sympathy for communism in the Labor Party’s hard left, however, created the great Labor split of 1955 where anti-communist Labor supporters, influenced by Bob Santamaria, left and created the socially conservative Democratic Labor Party. The split along ideological lines in 1955 was not dissimilar to circumstances that are arising again in the present concerning Israel’s war with the proscribed terrorist organisation, Hamas. Labor’s left is playing down Australia’s alliance with Israel in favour of domestic politics where critical Labor-held seats are at risk from pro-Palestinian supporters who are against support for Israel’s war and may use their influence at the ballot box.

Technology transference is key 

Much like Australia’s experience at the beginning of the Cold War, ideology is front and centre in the current geopolitical situation and again nuclear technology is a backdrop. At the same time, the key issue to emerge from this historical period was the ANZUS Treaty, and the fledgling nuclear capability centred around the HIFAR research reactor at Lucas Heights near Sydney was a consolation prize for years of helping Britain develop its own nuclear capability.

Australia now finds itself in a similar position in that recruitment is grossly inadequate, capabilities are hampered by materiel and procurement decisions, and any future capability is so far on the horizon that it provides no tangible assurances about Australia’s ability to defend itself, let alone contribute to essential coalition operations against Houthi rebels in the Red Sea or indeed freedom of navigation exercises closer to home.

But to talk of AUKUS as being about crewed nuclear-powered submarines that will be obsolete before we receive them is to deny the importance of the technology transfer and the resulting deepening of the alliances with our allies who have historically bled for Australia’s defence. AUKUS also represents the part acquisition of a technical capability that had bipartisan support from 1946 until the Whitlam Labor government ratified the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1973.

The importance of Australia’s alliances in the absence of any credible defence capability cannot be overstated. Any spending that contributes to strengthening interoperability along a multitude of capabilities and technologies (under the second pillar of AUKUS) as well as in terms of the size and capability spectrum of the allied submarine fleet is a tangible outcome that contributes directly to Australia’s ability to deter a potential aggressor both physically (through nuclear-powered submarines and technologies) and numerically as part of a larger, coherent coalition of like-minded allies.

AUKUS is about much more than boats and it is one boat that Australia should not miss if it is to ensure its security into the uncertain global future.

Michael de Percy is a political scientist and political commentator at the University of Canberra. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, and a Member of the Royal Society of NSW. He is also a graduate of the Royal Military College, Duntroon and a member of the Australian Nuclear Association. He was appointed to the College of Experts at the Australian Research Council in 2022.

Sascha-Dominik (Dov) Bachmann is Professor in Law and Co-Convener National Security Hub (University of Canberra), University of Canberra, and a Research Fellow with the Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa, Faculty of Military Science, Stellenbosch University. He is also a Fellow with NATO SHAPE – ACO Office of Legal Affairs where he works on Hybrid Threats and Lawfare.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.