Implications of AUKUS on Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime
23 September 2023
The NPT bans the transfer of nuclear weapons, materials or technology to a non-nuclear weapon state. It allows for transfer of nuclear materials and technology for peaceful uses, which are generally considered to be for civilian nuclear energy generation. Whether this can be interpreted to also include naval propulsion for military submarines is a contentious issue, a loophole exploited by the USA, UK and Australia to execute the AUKUS deal.
Concerned over China’s growing power, the USA has ramped up its diplomatic engagement with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region. It has been actively seeking out new minilaterals and small groupings with like-minded states to prepare for a potential conflict. Even within existing alliance frameworks, the USA has been crafting interest-based groupings that are envisaged to play pivotal roles in its battle strategy to counter China’s military might.
In Southeast Asia, it has gained access to four military bases in the Philippines. Battle preparations are also underway in Northeast Asia. Japan is set to acquire hundreds of cruise missiles, while the marine regiment at the Okinawa base is being modernized. Meanwhile, the recently concluded Camp David summit has reconfigured the bilateral treaty alliances with South Korea and Japan into a trilateral framework.
AUKUS is one such grouping which Washington has put large stakes into. Most strikingly, the deal represents the very first time in which the USA has agreed to transfer nuclear propulsion technology to another country. This is expected to equip Australia with cutting-edge underwater warfare capabilities. However, concerns have been raised as to whether this could allow the government of Australia or other actors to utilize the same for acquiring a nuclear weapon. This article delves into this debate, while assessing whether existing nuclear non-proliferation norms can prevent such a scenario.
AUKUS: What is the (big) deal?
AUKUS, is a three-way strategic defense alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom (UK) and the USA to enhance their deterrence and warfighting capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region. The alliance has been primarily motivated by the three countries’ concerns over the growing Chinese naval influence in the Indo-Pacific. As per the terms of the arrangement, two naval powers, the USA and the UK shall extend their assistance to equip Australia with eight nuclear-powered submarines. The deal marks the first of its kind that the USA is sharing nuclear propulsion technology with an ally.
Nuclear-powered submarines are different from nuclear armed submarines. While the latter is equipped with nuclear-tipped missiles, nuclear-powered submarines are powered by a small nuclear reactor. Nuclear propulsion allows the submarine to have “greater speed, stealth and firepower”. As opposed to conventional diesel-electric submarines which need to surface frequently to recharge their batteries, nuclear-powered submarines can remain submerged for at least three to four months. In general, nuclear propulsion also generates a much lesser acoustic signature than diesel-electric propulsion. A more sustained source of power in these ways reduces the chances of detection by an adversary. While the Australian Navy already operates the Collins class conventional submarines, acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines will equip it with formidable underwater capabilities.
Along with the submarine component, the AUKUS deal also strives to deepen cooperation and improve interoperability across a spectrum of emerging technologies including artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and robotics. By strengthening cooperation across these areas, the alliance seeks to boost their joint warfighting capabilities and protect their vision of a stable and peaceful Indo-Pacific. This shall be done through bringing together sailors, scientists, and industries to maintain and increase the alliance’s collective capacity in the region.
China claims that the AUKUS Deal represents “the illegal transfer of nuclear weapon materials, making it essentially an act of nuclear proliferation”. The deal has also sparked nuclear proliferation concerns among international observers including the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) prohibits a nuclear weapon state from transferring nuclear technology or material to a non-nuclear weapon state for weapon uses. However, it does not explicitly prohibit the transfer of nuclear technology or material for non-weapon military uses. Hence, the transfer of nuclear technology for naval propulsion has been interpreted by the AUKUS partners as being compliant with the terms of the NPT.
The three signatories to AUKUS have taken precautionary measures to alleviate the proliferation risks. In order to reduce the risk, Australia has decided to have their submariners trained in the US and UK rather than at their own facilities. Meanwhile, the USA and the UK will supply fissile material in welded units that do not require refueling throughout the course of their lifetime. This reduces the chances of Australia enriching or reprocessing the spent nuclear fuel. Australia has further committed to refraining from purchasing the tools required to chemically reprocess spent fuel and make it suitable for use in weapons.
At a political level, Australia is a signatory to the Treaty of Rarotonga, also known as the South Pacific Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty. Signatories to this treaty agree to maintain a nuclear-free zone in the South-Pacific region and are prohibited from the “testing, usage, creation, stationing, and possession of any nuclear weapons around the South Pacific states”. The forum had further proposed a ban on the entry of ships carrying nuclear weapons or items that could be used to create nuclear weapons into the South Pacific region.
The Future of AUKUS
Considering the measures that have been taken to prevent the diversion of nuclear material for weapon uses, the AUKUS deal falls in line with the Raratonga Agreement. Still, it is important to establish clearer guidelines to allay concerns regarding the misuse of nuclear activities of the AUKUS partners or any other nations that might adopt a similar agreement. Working individually and jointly to establish such a stronger baseline would be wise for Australia, the UK, and the USA. However, decisions must be made far in advance of the submarines approaching Australian shores.
The international community must seek new strategies to complement established legal nonproliferation and arms control frameworks. Specifically, the creation of voluntary, cooperative, complementary measures will be required. Such steps should be taken to ensure that nuclear activities involving verification exemptions for military applications, particularly top-secret projects like naval propulsion, are not diverted for weapon uses.
Australia has a proud history of assuming leadership roles in the international non-proliferation regime. It has signed a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol with the IAEA. The three states have been collaborating with the IAEA to ensure that their individual nuclear non-proliferation commitments and duties are fully upheld when Australia purchases conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines. However, this collaboration can benefit from the creation of further verification mechanisms. The onus is on the three AUKUS partners to jointly dispel the worries of the international community regarding potential misuse of the deal and strengthen their respective non-proliferation credentials.
Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.
Ishita is a resident Nuclear Policy Fellow at Trivium. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at the School of Liberal Arts at the Alliance University, Bengaluru. Her doctoral research focuses on India’s nuclear policy and strategy across changing times, with a specific focus on India’s approach to nuclear multilateralism.
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