What the new Aukus submarine deal really means

·2-min read
A submarine (Ministry of Defence/PA) (PA Media)
A submarine (Ministry of Defence/PA) (PA Media)

The announcement of the Australia-UK-US alliance Aukus looks a bit like handbrake turn. By going into a submarine and cyber deal with the UK and Australia, Joe Biden could appear to be sidelining European allies and deliberately provoking the simmering confrontation with China and Russia.

But this is no spur-of-the-moment deal. It had real urgency because of the latest turn in the armed isolationism of China and the unpredictable behaviour of Russia and its surface and submarine fleets.

America and Britain are leaders in submarine naval science — their two active classes of attack boats, the Virginias and the Astutes, are the most advanced stealth hunter boats currently deployed across the world’s oceans. More of them are needed — not least because of the new ways Russia and China are on the prowl.

China has been interfering with fishing fleets across the Pacific — it has got particularly bad with the Philippines and Indonesia this year — all in the name of national security, of course. It is also just completing its massive new nuclear sub base. Recently president Xi Jinping has turned off international contact — China still hasn’t formally accepted to attend next month’s G20 summit, according to the hosts Italy.

The French are livid and are shouting betrayal as the deal dumps a previous £40 billion contract signed in 2016 to build 16 diesel electric subs in Australia. But they are not fit for purpose. The new boats are stealthier and have a much longer range — both the Virginia and Astute can run until food is gone. This all suggests how EU maritime defence is behind in this vital strategic capability. The deal also embraces cyber warfare, space and development of AI and quantum computing for defence and security. But the focus is on the submarines, which are needed to counter China’s threat of naval dominance from Africa to the west coast of the States.

Britain is set to do well from the deal because of the Astute’s advantage — it is faster, cheaper and leaner than the Virginia — with 90 crew to 125. Virginia is the successor to the Los Angeles sub — the villain in the BBC’s drama Vigil.

The Australian connection offers jobs, bases and help with new technology. The three-power pact is important because, unlike the Five Eyes and Nato alliances, it has no nuclear dissidents like New Zealand in the former and Iceland in the latter.

It will take 18 months to scope and decide the roles of the different partners in the alliance. But Australia is to get its new nuclear-powered, though not nuclear armed, hunter-killer submarines. Some are hoping it can be done in time — there are growing and frighteningly realistic fears that China’s isolationist emperor Xi is about to do something strategically daft, like invade Taiwan.

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