Tech

The US, UK, and Australia are teaming up to develop new defense technology — including nuclear-powered subs

  • President Joe Biden announced a new security partnership — dubbed “AUKUS” — with the UK and Australia.
  • The trilateral security partnership deepens cooperation on defense technology, including nuclear-powered subs, cyber, and artificial intelligence.
  • Officials told Politico that a subtext of the agreement is countering China.

President Joe Biden announced a new security partnership with the UK and Australia at the White House on Wednesday, joined virtually by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

The three countries will work together to “strengthen the ability of each” to pursue their defense interests through cooperation on defense technology.

“We have always seen the world through a similar lens,” said Morrison. “We must now take our partnership to a new level.”

Morrison said the first major initiative of AUKUS would be to deliver a new nuclear-powered submarine fleet to Australia, working together over the next 18 months “to seek to determine the best way forward to achieve this.” The subs will be built in Adelaide, the prime minister said.

Morrison stressed that Australia is not seeking nuclear weapons or to develop a civil nuclear capability and would adhere to its nuclear nonproliferation obligations.

“This will be one of the most complex and technically demanding projects in the world, lasting decades and requiring the most advanced technology,” Johnson said, hailing it as “a new chapter in our friendship.”

The AUKUS acronym “sounds strange,” Biden said in his remarks, adding “but this is a good one.”

Biden said the three countries will work together to improve their “shared ability” to take on 21st-century threats.

“We’re taking another historic step to deepen and formalize cooperation among all three of our nations because we all recognize the imperative of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long-term,” Biden said.

“This effort reflects the broader trend of key European countries playing a supremely important in the Indo-Pacific,” Biden added, citing France as having “a substantial” presence in the region, where it has several overseas territories.

According to Australian media, Canberra will abandon a roughly $66 billion deal with France for 12 state-of-the-art conventionally powered attack submarines. A French firm was picked to build the subs in 2016, but the deal fell apart amid local disputes, rising costs, changing designs, and delayed schedules.

Gerard Araud, a former French ambassador to the US, tweeted that the US and the UK “have stabbed [France] in the back in Australia.”

Biden also emphasized that Australia was not seeking a nuclear weapons capability.

“We’re not talking about nuclear-armed submarines. These are conventionally-armed submarines that are powered by nuclear reactors,” Biden said. “This technology is proven. It’s safe.”

Details of the agreement were reported earlier on Wednesday by US and Australia media.

US officials stressed that the partnership was “not aimed or about any one country,” and China wasn’t mentioned during the leaders’ remarks, but a White House official and a congressional staffer familiar with the matter told Politico that countering China is an important subtext of the new partnership.

The leaders on Wednesday stressed the joint nature of the effort, but the agreement comes as countries in the region seek to bolster the ability of their militaries to operate together and individually. Australia has already announced plans for major defense investments and to add new military capabilities, including long-range missiles.

Australia’s efforts and those in other countries have grown recently, spurred by China’s rapid increase in military strength.

It’s become clear over the last four years that the US and Australia “publicly now agree and recognize that the United States’ military preponderance in the Indo-Pacific is passed,” Ashley Townshend, director of Foreign Policy and Defence at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said at an event earlier this month.

Washington and Canberra “are now very much in a Plan B-era where both countries are working together collectively alongside other committed regional security partners … to advance a networking agenda that can in some way offset and compliment the United States’ extended security guarantees to Asian countries going forward,” Townshend added.

Long-range missiles remain a focus, but submarine construction and presence in Australia are both important for Australia, Townshend said Wednesday, calling the new partnership a “surprising and very welcome sign of Biden’s willingness to empower close allies like Australia with highly advanced defence tech assistance.”

US export controls and concerns over defense industrial issues may still limit the extent of cooperation, but the three leaders stressed their need to cooperate against common threats.

“We need to be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region and how it may evolve because the future of each of our nations and indeed the world depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific enduring and flourishing in the decades ahead,” Biden said.

Watch the leaders’ full speeches here:


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