September 16, 2021 - 2:42pm

An exhausting cabinet reshuffle last night left little attention for arguably the most important political story of the day. The UK, US and Australian governments have announced a new security partnership, focusing on the Indo-Pacific region. The headline news is that Australia will join the elite club of nations who possess nuclear submarines. Although not as quiet as diesel electric submarines, the range, power and diving depth make them fantastic assets for serious naval powers.

AUKUS (the term for the pact) doesn’t just cover submarines, but promises deeper cooperation on AI and other security technologies. The significance of the agreement is made even clearer by the transfer of nuclear technology. If you can build a nuclear reactor, you can arguably build nuclear weapons, and for obvious reasons the US is very careful about whom it shares this knowledge with. Previously, the US has only helped the UK build nuclear submarines.

This capability is not easily obtainable. Very few countries possess the technical knowledge to build submarines in the first place — Australia has only previously built diesel electric submarines, and the last one was completed over 20 years ago. The creation of the Collins class shared some unfortunate similarities with the UK’s nuclear-powered Astute class’s troubled construction, which the Royal Australian Navy’s eight new boats will probably be based on. Worryingly, some of the specific challenges involving welding are historic problems in both the UK and Australia’s experience of building submarines. Yard-specific knowledge and the difficulty of transferring technical skills will prove a significant challenge.

This programme should help reduce America’s burdensome task of patrolling the Pacific, but may also have some unintended consequences regarding NATO funding — after-all, if Australia is willing to take on such a significant burden, why can’t Germany pay more for its own defence?

New Zealand is quite pointedly excluded from the pact, perhaps due to concerns of the Chinese Communist Party’s influence in Jacinda Arden’s Labour Party and Government. In order to afford this hugely expensive programme, the Australian Government has in all likelihood cancelled its AUS$90bn order for 12 non-nuclear French built submarines with very little, if any, warning. This is a huge blow to French industry, and one which may leave the French Government feeling rather puzzled. It was after all the Australian government which asked for a non-nuclear adaption from Naval Group, and the French are helping Brazil acquire its own nuclear submarine.

It should serve as caution to anyone supplying the Australian military; they will cancel on you if the goods aren’t up to scratch. The UK could potentially learn a lot from this approach. The MoD has tended to soldier on regardless of the issues in procuring expensive platforms — the current Ajax disaster is a depressing example of this. Not every development in international politics is a lesson for the UK, but in this case the UK should be learning from how Australia has prioritised its own needs, and acted accordingly.