Pacific alliance: Australia's nuclear submarines - what the Aukus deal means for Europe

When Australia decided to pull out of the submarine deal with France in 2021, there was excitement in France and across EU Europe.

Pacific alliance: Australia's nuclear submarines - what the Aukus deal means for Europe

When Australia decided to pull out of the submarine deal with France in 2021, there was excitement in France and across EU Europe. Although the multi-stage contract expressly provided for interim results to be reached and then the project to be evaluated, when the government in Canberra actually opted out, they were treated like a traitor. Australia had good reasons for this. Construction and purchase of the French Attack class (Shortfin Barracuda Block 1A Design) became more expensive and delayed. But these internal difficulties of the Aussie-French project were not the reason for the failure.

The world had changed. Relations between Australia and the emerging world power China had tightened significantly. With this in mind, the United States and the United Kingdom have made Australians an offer they couldn't get before. Only under Donald Trump did the USA decide to share even the most modern weapons with its allies and offer them on the market. The USA and Great Britain now offered Australia a partnership in the pinnacle of submarine construction, the production of nuclear submarines. What is meant by this are submarines that are powered by a nuclear reactor, they can, but do not have to, carry nuclear weapons. The result of this is the Aukus Agreement. Aukus stands for the first letters of the three states: "Australia, United Kingdom, United States".

Nuclear-powered submarines are Australia's best means of covering conceivable operational scenarios. The German and Swedish shipyards, for example, are building small, quiet submarines that are supposed to block off limited spaces in the Baltic Sea, for example. Australia, on the other hand, wants to do more than just defend the barrier reef. They want to be able to project the power of the submarine fleet across the Pacific to stand up to Beijing. The sheer size of the operational area can only be conquered by the long operating and diving times of a nuclear submarine. This put the conventional variant of the French Barracuda class out of the race.

There are to be up to eight nuclear submarines that are to be deployed by the mid-2050s. The project will cost up to 368 billion Australian dollars, which is 231 billion euros. For a household of four, that works out to almost $50,000. This number shows that these submarines are Australia's most important and essential armaments project. They are Australia's contribution to securing the Pacific. The high costs are put into perspective because a large part of the added value is generated in Australia. The submarines are not bought, they are developed with and for Australia and are also largely built there. This technological sharing and partnership is what makes the deal so attractive. A total of 20,000 jobs are to be linked to the project.

A new class of boats is being developed for Australia and London together with the USA, the SSN-Aukus, a further development based on the existing and American submarine designs. The SSN-Aukus are attack submarines, in World War II one would have said fighter submarines. What does that mean? Attack Submarines or Hunter-Killer Submarines are intended for fighting military targets, primarily against enemy ships and submarines. The other major class are strategic submarines, they carry missiles for a strategic nuclear strike. However, the new development should not be operational until the end of the 2030s at the earliest. The old conventional Collins-class submarine fleet is already no match for a modern opponent. To close this gap, Australia wants to buy three American Virginia-class submarines from 2030. With an option for two more.

A submarine alone is just a module to build naval power. Training and bases of the navies of the countries should be closely interlinked. The effectiveness of the British and Australian boats will increase greatly if they can draw on the network of US bases and other US military resources in the Pacific region. To put it bluntly, one can say that the Aukus agreement wants to produce an integrated navy. The US is the most powerful partner. However, the other two countries are to provide far more than just auxiliaries, but become an integrated part of the Pacific Fleet. Painful for Europe: Australia partners with the only truly global sea power, the USA, and junior partner Great Britain. Washington, and to a lesser extent London, are capable of mustering strong, if not overwhelming, naval power anywhere in the world. The other western Europeans are at best regional powers of the oceans. Every now and then the German Navy sends a frigate to the Pacific to show the "flag" there. These are symbolic gestures, far from a real projection of power. Even if Canberra and London are only the junior partners in this association, they will nevertheless become part of the most powerful navy in the world. "Australia rules the waves", one could say.

So far, nuclear armament of the Australian boats has been ruled out. They should only be conventionally armed. Australia has already announced that it will procure 220 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the USA. Missiles, like those used by the boats of the Virginia class. Technically, it would not be a problem to launch cruise missiles with a nuclear warhead from these submarines. The legal rules of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would not even have to be violated as long as a US officer has to clear the deployment. There is a similar construction, for example, in the case of the Federal Republic's nuclear participation. However, this is currently a purely hypothetical variant.

The Aukus Agreement is serious about an alliance structure that is always demanded in NATO and never implemented. In NATO, each country would like to have its own complete military force, with a mini-air force, a few tanks, a few helicopters, etc. In the Aukus agreement, Australia is bringing in one module in particular, the submarines. The eight nuclear attack submarines would be oversized for an independent fleet concept, but not in cooperation with the US Navy. In this context, the British carrier program also makes sense. Your entire navy is hardly able to permanently protect the two carriers with one group each. With a concept like Aukus, Great Britain would not only be able to reinforce the joint force with submarines, but also with two carriers operating in conjunction with the US carrier groups.

Geopolitically, Australia and London are now becoming part of a powerful alliance with a naval power capable of dominating the Pacific. A space that is crucial in the dispute between China and the West. EU-Europe, on the other hand, has so far been able to do little more in this area than to deliver symbolic gestures or, in the event of a conflict, to provide the fleet of allied aid services. Since the submarine deal had been announced for a long time, it will not have surprised Beijing or Moscow. But more important than technical details about the Aukus boats, which will not be operational until sometime around 2040, is the political signal of the close military ties between the allies. Former US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is among those soldiers with a deep knowledge of military theory since ancient times. In the sentence "Nations with allies thrive, nations without allies wither" (nations with allies thrive, nations without allies wither) he succinctly summarized the most important key to world power. Mattis despaired of Donald Trump's behavior, but Joe Biden's agreement is entirely in line with this. And Beijing can currently see Russia as a country with no real allies, relying only on war profiteers and a number of rogue states.