Report

U.S. Seeking Basing in Australia After Submarine Deal

The Biden administration is hoping to rotate fighters and bombers to the land Down Under.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
The F-22 Raptor after refuelling from the KC-10 Extender off the Queensland coast on July 17, 2019 in Brisbane, Australia.
The F-22 Raptor is seen after refueling from the KC-10 Extender off the Queensland coast in Brisbane, Australia, on July 17, 2019. Chris Hyde/Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is hoping to secure more U.S. military basing rights in the region, multiple current and former officials told Foreign Policy, in the wake of a landmark deal to build nuclear-powered submarines with Britain and Australia.

Plans to bring rotations of U.S. fighters and bombers to northern Australia will be raised at a remote ministerial meeting between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and their Australian counterparts, officials said.

Two top Biden administration National Security Council officials, Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi, briefed officials and experts on the plan for the Australians to field nuclear-powered submarines during a call Wednesday night. During the call, described to Foreign Policy by one participant, the officials said the deal could eventually extend to include long-range precision strike weapons. The Agence France-Presse first reported that Australia would receive Tomahawk missiles.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is hoping to secure more U.S. military basing rights in the region, multiple current and former officials told Foreign Policy, in the wake of a landmark deal to build nuclear-powered submarines with Britain and Australia.

Plans to bring rotations of U.S. fighters and bombers to northern Australia will be raised at a remote ministerial meeting between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and their Australian counterparts, officials said.

Two top Biden administration National Security Council officials, Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi, briefed officials and experts on the plan for the Australians to field nuclear-powered submarines during a call Wednesday night. During the call, described to Foreign Policy by one participant, the officials said the deal could eventually extend to include long-range precision strike weapons. The Agence France-Presse first reported that Australia would receive Tomahawk missiles.

The fledgling partnership will spend the next 18 months hammering out a joint plan to deliver nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, which could take more than a decade to deploy. Teams from each country will also exchange notes on cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and undersea technology, though officials did not provide specific details about those initiatives. A senior administration official told Foreign Policy that the Biden administration didn’t plan to announce the provision of more capabilities right now.

The new plans represent one of the most audacious steps the Biden administration has taken yet to shore up alliances in the Asia-Pacific and expand its military footprint amid geopolitical competition with China. But it has also drawn criticism, including from fellow NATO ally France—which had a multibillion-dollar contract to build Australia’s new submarines—as well as nonproliferation experts who worry about Washington sharing sensitive nuclear technology for submarines with another country.

The move underscores how Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government is growing increasingly concerned about the Chinese navy’s rapid growth, with the People’s Liberation Army Navy already the largest fleet in the world. Though U.S. officials have denied the announcement is connected to China, the fielding of submarines would give the Pacific ally more military capability to resist Chinese coercion.

“[It’s] hard to overstate how significant a moment this is for Australian defense planning,” said Richard Maude, who served as deputy secretary for the Indo-Pacific Group in the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade until 2020. “It reflects sharp concerns in the Morrison government about a deteriorating security environment in the Indo-Pacific, China’s military buildup, and Beijing’s use of coercive power.”

Further rotations and basing could be contingent on military exercises between the three countries, officials said. In the past, the United States has looked at RAAF Base Tindal in Australia’s Northern Territory as a spot for possible flight rotations, and more than 2,000 Marines are stationed in Darwin, Australia, on a temporary basis, which is near where China has sought to lease a port facility. (The deal is currently facing an Australian national security review.)

The submarine alliance, which makes Australia just the second U.S. ally to receive nuclear-powered submarine technology after Britain, would have implications for the Pentagon’s undersea posture. The Defense Department could acquire more rotational basing for its submarines in Perth, Western Australia, where Australia’s fleet of diesel-electric, guided-missile submarines are currently based.

The new steps in the so-called “AUKUS” framework drew praise from U.S. lawmakers—including Republicans—who have pressured the Biden administration to step up U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific to counter China.

“AUKUS’ nuclear cooperation also reflects a new level of trust in what were already the United States’ most durable alliances,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement on Wednesday. “It is critical the Biden Administration works to rebuild America’s strategic credibility amid the ongoing aftermath of their disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. Today’s announcement is a welcome step in that direction as we seek to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

The United States already has submarines permanently based in Guam, where the Pentagon and Congress are debating whether to add onshore missile defenses to protect troops within China’s missile range, and in Hawaii, the home of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

Wednesday’s deal has been a long-time coming for Australia. Canberra’s efforts to expand its submarine fleet have dragged on for years, outlasting two prime ministers and scything through a host of foreign bidders, including Japan, France, and Germany, before the United States and the United Kingdom stepped in over the last several months.

But the move has infuriated France, as Canberra tore up a long-standing $90 billion submarine contract with Naval Group, a major French defense contractor, to build 12 attack submarines. Although the program faced numerous delays and slowdowns, French officials appeared to be blindsided by the move, which came as French President Emmanuel Macron expanded French involvement in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

In a strongly worded statement on Wednesday night, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and French Defense Minister Florence Parly said the U.S. move to exclude France “shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret.” The move redoubled France’s desire to secure greater defense capabilities for itself and Europe.

“The regrettable decision that has just been announced regarding the [Future Submarine Program] only reinforces the need to make the issue of European strategic autonomy loud and clear,” Le Drian and Parly wrote. “There is no other credible way to defend our interests and our values in the world, including in the Indo-Pacific.”

For Australia, switching from diesel submarines to nuclear-powered subs makes sense, experts said, despite the additional cost and complications that come from operating such advanced technology. The Australian navy will be able to extend its range by staying underwater for longer periods of time, keeping with Canberra’s framing of the region as the broader Indo-Pacific, which leaves Western navies with another ocean to cover if they mean to counter China’s growing network of ports and naval activity. Nuclear propulsion also requires less hull space than a diesel-electric submarine, giving Australia the flexibility to add long-range weapons systems.

“Nuclear power for surface ships is nice, but for submarines, it’s transformational,” said Thomas Shugart, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a retired U.S. Navy submarine warfare officer. “Nuclear propulsion gives you essentially unlimited power, unlimited propulsion, even without having any outside air.”

Australian officials insist the nation has no interest in becoming a nuclear-armed power, and their U.S. counterparts have insisted the initial 18-month partnership will be consistent with nonproliferation authorities, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations watchdog. But the decision to send nuclear-powered submarines to Australia has left the White House in an uncomfortable spot with its domestic political allies who have backed Biden’s efforts for renewed arms control and nonproliferation diplomacy with Russia and Iran.

During the Wednesday call with Campbell and Doshi, some officials and experts raised concerns that Australian vessels would need to run on highly enriched uranium fuel, something that could potentially deepen nuclear proliferation threats and weaken arms control. Other nonproliferation experts said the decision to share nuclear technology with Australia sets a dangerous precedent for international nonproliferation, even when the technology is being shared with a trusted democratic ally. Top-of-the-line, nuclear-powered U.S. submarines are fueled by highly enriched uranium that is typically not replaced during its life cycle. But such uranium is only produced by a handful of nations, including the United States and United Kingdom, and nonproliferation experts are reluctant to see Pandora’s box flung open.

Biden administration officials insisted that Australia will not produce highly enriched domestically and would be briefed on the “full suite of requirements” that undergird nuclear stewardship during the 18-month planning period “The situation is an exceptional situation and is not precedent setting,” a senior administration official told Foreign Policy. “We are not seeking to do this elsewhere.”

But James Acton, an expert on nuclear policy with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said there is currently a “theoretical loophole” in the global Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty—the cornerstone of international nonproliferation—regarding nuclear submarines. The treaty does not bar states without nuclear weapons from obtaining nuclear technology for submarines, something that would fall outside IAEA inspections and safeguarding.

No non-nuclear state has ever used that loophole—until, apparently, now. The problem, Acton said, is not with Australia but how other countries less friendly to the United States might try to follow suit. “I’m not worried about Australia proliferating. I’m worried about the precedent this sets,” Acton said.

“There is now going to be a non-nuclear weapons state with a possible large quantity of directly weapons-usable nuclear material not under [IAEA] safeguards,” Acton said. “And I worry this is a precedent that other states will seek to exploit. At the top of my list of concerns here is Iran.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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