OPINION | AUSMIN: the submarine conundrum continues

The US Navy submarine USS Mississippi arriving at Fleet Base West, Western Australia (Photo: Royal Australian Navy)

Despite the customary expressions of friendship, warmth, and praise for an unbreakable alliance at the 2022 Australia-US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) in Washington this week, the still-secret deliberations on AUKUS and the promise of nuclear-powered submarines for Australia has clearly been front-of-mind for the leaders.

The day prior to the meeting, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles visited US submarine builder Electric Boat. The day after, both Marles and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace for what was billed as the first AUKUS defence ministers meeting. The media asked about nuclear-powered submarines at every opportunity, though all participants and the communique issued afterwards merely re-stated that the “optimal pathway” will be revealed in early 2023.

It raises the question: is the awesome quest for nuclear-powered submarines sucking up all the oxygen in the defence relationship? Judging by the content of the AUSMIN communique, that must be a real concern.

“There was also little to no mention of the other crucial advanced defence technologies covered by the AUKUS agreement.”

In what was a noticeably shorter joint statement than last year – in terms both of word count and breadth of subheadings – there were nonetheless a series of defence-related “announceables”.

The Force Posture Initiatives, which have seen US Marines in Darwin for more than a decade, are set to expand further, including as-yet unspecified US bombers, fighters, and other navy and army capabilities. (Austin clarified that the details of those new rotations were yet to be determined.) Further, it was announced that US military stores, fuel and munitions would be “prepositioned” in Australia and that logistics at the so-called RAAF “bare bases” in the Top End would be co-developed. Significantly, it was announced that Japan will be “invited” to participate in the Force Posture Initiatives, a prospect enabled by the signing of the long-awaited Reciprocal Access Agreement earlier this year. With Japan and Australia set for two-plus-two meetings of foreign and defence ministers later this week, further details are anticipated.

The Pacific Islands were the topic of modest attention, including the offer from the US Coast Guard to provide training under the Pacific Maritime Security Program, which has seen Australian-built patrol boats donated across the region for decades. Additionally, it was noted that the Papua New Guinea Defence Force, the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, and His Majesty’s Armed Forces of Tonga would participate in TALISMAN SABRE 2023 and other exercises in the future.

There was only cursory mention of Australia’s nascent sovereign missile manufacturing plan (the Guided Weapon and Explosive Ordnance enterprise or GWEO), which received “reaffirmed support” – although given the growing realisation that the war in Ukraine has put incredible pressure on the supply chains for advanced munitions among allies, no urgency was evident. There was also little to no mention of the other crucial advanced defence technologies covered by the AUKUS agreement (though the subsequent AUKUS defence ministers joint statement did mention efforts to accelerate development of undersea and autonomous technologies and cited plans to demonstrate hypersonic and autonomous systems sometime in 2023 and 2024).

“Decisions on submarines can’t be allowed to overshadow equally important defence issues or emerging technologies.”

In recent weeks, scholars and analysts have published thoughtful recommendations for consideration at AUSMIN. To mention just one, though arguably one of the most important, that the United States should streamline foreign military sales and reduce constraints on the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations (ITAR) for key allies and partners. CSIS’s James Carouso, plus an extraordinary assemblage of former US ambassadors to Australia Thomas Schieffer, Jeffrey Bleich, John Berry and Arthur Culvahouse co-authored a piece arguing that the “ITAR system should end for Australia” as the two countries cannot achieve their ambitious goals of sharing and co-developing critical and emerging technologies under its aegis.

“ITAR is the most significant obstacle to win this strategic competition (with China),” they wrote. The AUSMIN communique did note a commitment to strengthen efforts in this regard, but it fell well short of committing to the reforms needed.

Some have privately likened Australia and nuclear-powered submarines to the proverbial barking dog that finally catches the car, and having done so, is then perplexed what to do next. That is a luxury the country can’t afford. The decisions about nuclear-powered submarines are momentous. But they can’t be allowed to overshadow equally important defence issues or emerging technologies.

This story originally appeared on The Interpreter, published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Justin Burke

Justin Burke is a non-resident fellow at the Center for Maritime Strategy and Security at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University and a PhD candidate in naval strategy at Macquarie University.