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The Anglophone military alliance in Asia is seriously ambitious – The Economist – 13.03.23

America, Australia and Britain will build, man and arm each other’s nuclear subs in Asia.

IN 1908 the second USS Missouri, an American battleship, sailed from San Francisco to Sydney, part of the so-called Great White Fleet’s tour of Asia and circumnavigation of the world. Her successor, the third USS Missouri, hosted Japan’s surrender in 1945. On March 13th the fourth USS Missouri, a Virginia-class attack submarine, lived up to this illustrious lineage by etching her own name in the history of American naval power in the Pacific.

On a warm afternoon in San Diego, Joe Biden, Anthony Albanese and Rishi Sunak, leaders of America, Australia and Britain, gathered in front of the Missouri and revealed the next chapter of the AUKUS pact signed by their countries 18 months ago. The resulting agreement will intensify American and British involvement in the Pacific and bind the three allies together in unprecedented ways, into the 2040s and beyond.

This saga began in 2016 when Australia agreed a $33bn-deal to replace its ageing Collins-class attack submarines with a dozen French diesel-electric boats. In 2021, increasingly mindful of the threat from China, it tore up that deal and signed AUKUS with great fanfare. Under its terms, America and Britain would help Australia build a fleet of at least eight nuclear-powered (though not nuclear-armed) submarines. These have far greater range, endurance and stealth than electric boats (see map). They are also far more complex. Only six countries have them and America has until now only shared the technology with Britain.

Many expected that Australia’s future submarine would be modelled on America’s current Virginia-class sub or on its planned successor. Yet Mr Biden, Mr Albanese and Mr Sunak revealed that it will in fact be based on Britain’s future attack sub, a hypothetical boat known as the SSNR (“SSNs” are attack submarines, which carry conventional weapons and hunt other subs and ships, as opposed to “SSBNs”, which carry nuclear-armed ballistic missiles). Britain will build the first boats at Barrow in north-west England. Australia will learn from the prototypes and then build its own in Adelaide. The idea is to create an economy of scale, with Australian investment boosting British shipbuilding capacity and a larger aggregate order lowering the cost to both countries.

American technology will suffuse this new “SSN-AUKUS”. America will provide its vertical launching system, a set of tubes that can hold a greater number of missiles, and more advanced ones, than traditional torpedo tubes. No British attack submarine has had this capability. The defence industries of all three countries will be entangled to an unprecedented degree. Subsystems like communications gear, sonar and fire control should be compatible between the Anglo-Australian boat and the next American one. “We’ll almost be one joint nuclear submarine force”, says one official involved in the pact. It will be a “beautiful, blended submarine” gushes another.

But, like that of whisky, the production of high-end subs is measured in double-digit years. Australia’s current boats are around 30 years old and will need to be retired by the early 2030s. The first SSN-AUKUS will not be in Australia’s hands until the early 2040s. It takes at least 15 years to produce a submarine commanding officer in America’s navy, says Tom Shugart, who reached that position himself—partly because of the complexity of training officers how to use and maintain nuclear propulsion systems. China’s navy, already the largest in the world, looks dangerous. To bridge the gap, the three leaders announced two further path-breaking steps.

First, as early as 2027, America and Britain will deploy their own subs to the Pacific in a scheme that some officials are calling “enhanced rotational presence”, a deliberate nod to NATO’s “enhanced forward presence” of armoured battle groups in eastern Europe. America typically has two-to-four attack subs in Asia at any time, according to one official. Under the new set-up it will rotate up to four Virginia-class subs to hmas Stirling near Perth—a big and relatively conspicuous step that will require ending a longstanding policy of near-total secrecy about sub deployment. Britain plans to rotate one of its own Astute class subs, out of a planned fleet of only seven. Australian sailors have already started embedding in American and British subs.

Second, in the early 2030s, and assuming Congress approves, Australia will buy three Virginia-class submarines from America at a discounted rate, with the option of two more, as an interim boat to use until ssn-aukus turns up. That America agreed to this is surprising. Renting out a nuclear sub is vanishingly rare: only Russia has ever done it, to India. Australia has struggled to crew its current subs, which take fewer than 60 people; the Virginia-class needs 140 or so. More important, America’s navy is still struggling to churn out enough Virginia-class subs for itself as it races to close the gap with China.

For the full article in pdf, please click here:

The Anglophone military alliance in Asia is seriously ambitious – The Economist – 13.03
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As an addendum to this article here is a report from Australia hot off the press entitled:

USSC insights.

The AUKUS report is one of the most significant defence pacts in Australian history, and experts at the United States Studies Centre have provided their take on today's important announcement. AUKUS is a big play on the global chessboard.

For the full ten page report in pdf, please click here:

USSC insights - AUKUS will be one of the most ambitious defence pacts in history
Download PDF • 64KB

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