The U.S. and UK’s Submarine Deal Crosses Nuclear Red Lines with Australia

Yves here. If possible, this article understates how bad this nuclear submarine deal is for Australia. For instance, the US is making Australia buy three cast-off submarines. And it hopelessly ruptures Australia’s once-good relations with China. I recall when I live in Oz the government eagerly inking an LNG deal with China, and later liberalizing immigration rules, significantly to the benefit of Chinese, who then further big up Australia’s already overheated housing market.

By Prabir Purkayastha, the founding editor of, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement. Produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter

The recent Australia, U.S., and UK $368 billion deal on buying nuclear submarines has been termed by Paul Keating, a former Australian prime minister, as the “worst deal in all history.” It commits Australia to buy conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines that will be delivered in the early 2040s. These will be based on new nuclear reactor designs yet to be developed by the UK. Meanwhile, starting from the 2030s, “pending approval from the U.S. Congress, the United States intends to sell Australia three Virginia class submarines, with the potential to sell up to two more if needed” (Trilateral Australia-UK-U.S. Partnership on Nuclear-Powered Submarines, March 13, 2023; emphasis mine). According to the details, it appears that this agreement commits Australia to buy from the U.S. eight new nuclear submarines, to be delivered from the 2040s through the end of the 2050s. If nuclear submarines were so crucial for Australia’s security, for which it broke its existing diesel-powered submarine deal with France, this agreement provides no credible answers.

For those who have been following the nuclear proliferation issues, the deal raises a different red flag. If submarine nuclear reactor technology and weapons-grade (highly enriched) uranium are shared with Australia, it is a breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which Australia is a signatory as a non-nuclear power. Even the supplying of such nuclear reactors by the U.S. and the UK would constitute a breach of the NPT. This is even if such submarines do not carry nuclear but conventional weapons as stated in this agreement.

So why did Australia renege on its contract with France, which was to buy 12 diesel submarines from France at a cost of $67 billion, a small fraction of its gargantuan $368 billion deal with the U.S.? What does it gain, and what does the U.S. gain by annoying France, one of its close NATO allies?

To understand, we have to see how the U.S. looks at the geostrategy, and how the Five Eyes—the U.S., the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—fit into this larger picture. Clearly, the U.S. believes that the core of the NATO alliance is the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada for the Atlantic and the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia for the Indo-Pacific. The rest of its allies, NATO allies in Europe and Japan and South Korea in East and South Asia, are around this Five Eyes core. That is why the United States was willing to offend France to broker a deal with Australia.

What does the U.S. get out of this deal? On the promise of eight nuclear submarines that will be given to Australia two to four decades down the line, the U.S. gets access to Australia to be used as a base for supporting its naval fleet, air force, and even U.S. soldiers. The words used by the White House are, “As early as 2027, the United Kingdom and the United States plan to establish a rotational presence of one UK Astute class submarine and up to four U.S. Virginia class submarines at HMAS Stirling near Perth, Western Australia.” The use of the phrase “rotational presence” is to provide Australia the fig leaf that it is not offering the U.S. a naval base, as that would violate Australia’s long-standing position of no foreign bases on its soil. Clearly, all the support structures required for such rotations are what a foreign military base has, therefore they will function as U.S. bases.

Who is the target of the AUKUS alliance? This is explicit in all the writing on the subject and what all the leaders of AUKUS have said: it is China. In other words, this is a containment of China policy with the South China Sea and the Taiwanese Strait as the key contested oceanic regions. Positioning U.S. naval ships including its nuclear submarines armed with nuclear weapons makes Australia a front-line state in the current U.S. plans for the containment of China. Additionally, it creates pressure on most Southeast Asian countries who would like to stay out of such a U.S. versus China contest being carried out in the South China Sea.

While the U.S. motivation to draft Australia as a front-line state against China is understandable, what is difficult to understand is Australia’s gain from such an alignment. China is not only the biggest importer of Australian goods, but also its biggest supplier. In other words, if Australia is worried about the safety of its trade through the South China Sea from Chinese attacks, the bulk of this trade is with China. So why would China be mad enough to attack its own trade with Australia? For the U.S. it makes eminent sense to get a whole continent, Australia, to host its forces much closer to China than 8,000-9,000 miles away in the U.S. Though it already has bases in Hawaii and Guam in the Pacific Ocean, Australia and Japan provide two anchor points, one to the north and one to the south in the eastern Pacific Ocean region. The game is an old-fashioned game of containment, the one that the U.S. played with its NATO, Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), and Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) military alliances after World War II.

The problem that the U.S. has today is that even countries like India, who have their issues with China, are not signing up with the U.S. in a military alliance. Particularly, as the U.S. is now in an economic war with a number of countries, not just Russia and China, such as Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Somalia. While India was willing to join the Quad—the U.S., Australia, Japan, and India—and participate in military exercises, it backed off from the Quad becoming a military alliance. This explains the pressure on Australia to partner with the U.S. militarily, particularly in Southeast Asia.

It still fails to explain what is in it for Australia. Even the five Virginia class nuclear submarines that Australia may get second hand are subject to U.S. congressional approval. Those who follow U.S. politics know that the U.S. is currently treaty incapable; it has not ratified a single treaty on issues from global warming to the law of the seas in recent years. The other eight are a good 20-40 years away; who knows what the world would look like that far down the line.

Why, if naval security was its objective, did Australia choose an iffy nuclear submarine agreement with the U.S. over a sure-shot supply of French submarines? This is a question that Malcolm Turnbull and Paul Keating, the Australian Labor Party’s former PMs, asked. It makes sense only if we understand that Australia now sees itself as a cog in the U.S. wheel for this region. And it is a vision of U.S. naval power projection in the region that today Australia shares. The vision is that settler colonial and ex-colonial powers—the G7-AUKUS—should be the ones making the rules of the current international order. And behind the talk of international order is the mailed fist of the U.S., NATO, and AUKUS. This is what Australia’s nuclear submarine deal really means.

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  1. digi_owl

    Do wonder who came up with the “rotational basis” excuse, as the same kind of legal word games are being used to house USMCs in Norway these days.

    One starts to wonder how much “kompromat” USA has on various politicians around the world.

    1. Stephen


      The Guardian article that is linked goes all in on implicitly accusing Turnbull of being in cahoots with China financially. In a typical media way that cites no real evidence but leaves the taste of accusation to linger. But it fails to ask the opposite contextual question of whether western politicians are similarly compromised by the US. As Lavrov has asserted, there are suggestions that UN votes are influenced by the US threatening to sanction individuals and / or making it harder / easier for children of leaders to study at top US schools. All of these decisions allegedly taken in the national interest may have similar drivers. Albeit I am not accusing people of outright corruption but US soft power makes a difference and can be subtle.

      Seems too that my own misguided country the U.K. seeks to reverse the 1960s Retreat from East of Suez. An alliance called AUKUS feels like a joke to me anyway. The original stated point of the U.K. developing nuclear arms back in the late 1940s was to be able to assert national independence when needed. That idea was effectively lost long ago and this underlines it.

      Weapons systems that optimistically will take twenty years to build (maybe add another decade given the track record) feel like a joke too. Just think of it historically. In 1935 we are a European country that orders a wunderwaffen that is supposed to be ready by 1955 but is actually available by 1965. I wonder how useful that decision would have proven to be and whether it would ever have been built anyway.

      1. digi_owl

        On that note, Navalny’s daughter is apparently studying political science or some such in USA right now.

        1. Stephen

          I do not know the rights and wrongs of how Navalny was and is being treated. Wikipedia presents a narrative that no doubt is not unbiased.

          At any rate, Julian Assange is not being treated more fairly, or justly, it would seem. So we cannot shout from the rooftops how great our liberal democracy is.

    2. Kouros

      random election of representatives would blow an impossible hole in this blackmailing approach US is taking with friends and foes alike.

  2. The Rev Kev

    There is a missing part of this puzzle which appeared yesterday. Australia has agreed to buy over 220 Tomahawk missiles. Maybe the same type that a degraded Syrian missile defence was mostly able to shoot down a coupla years ago when a hundred or so were launched at them. So look at it from the perspective of the Chinese down the track. Tensions ramp up between the US and China and now the Chinese have to pay close attention to US subs in their region. But now there are more subs appearing. Are they American or Australian? You know that both carry Tomahawk missiles but you know that only the US has nuclear tipped ones while the Aussie ones don’t (supposedly). If any get launched are they nuclear or not? You’ll only know if they hit. It’s like the old shell game. Why would our government sign up for this lunatic scheme? Because they have fully signed up for keeping the US as head of a unipolar world but one that no longer exist anymore. The present government actually talks about the ‘rules-based order’ and how it must be maintained at all costs. They are beyond redemption right now-

    1. scott s.

      The US 2022 Nuclear Posture Review rejected the sea-launched cruise missile program supported previously as redundant so I don’t think nuclear Tomahawk is an issue currently, though obviously that could change over the life of this program.

  3. vao

    The Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, “in contact” with China have enough trouble with this country’s claims in the China sea, but neither do they want to become first line foot soldiers to satisfy the ambitions of the USA in the region.

    So far, Indonesia was somewhat removed from that dilemma. With the AUKUS deal, it gets now sandwiched between two antagonistic nuclear-armed blocks. How will it react? What can it actually do?

  4. HH

    Caitlyn Johnstone, called this one correctly. The Aussies are paying protection money to the hegemon, just the way the Saudis once did. But this is for protection from U.S. economic warfare, not China. They would be better off just handing over the money as tribute from a vassal; at least that way they would not be damaging their relations with China.

    1. tevhatch

      “at least that way they would not be damaging their relations with China.”

      but that is half the point.

  5. tevhatch

    Caitlyn Johnstone and Rev Kev make clear, this is Australia’s NordStream 2, it is meant to cleave Australia from Asia and bind it to US economic interests, in part by the large number of MIC-IMATT parasites with a vote it will take up. If China does not suspend economic relations with Australia, then Australia will suspend them with China… all of this is part of a mad jig to dance the Australian people over the cliff.

    “it hopelessly ruptures Australia’s once-good relations with China” I don’t know about hopelessly, the Chinese are good at mending things, and particularly good at using time. The interesting thing will be how Indonesia takes it. 20,000 boats with Indonesian settlers off the coast would be an interesting answer. I’d be brushing up on my Bahasa if I was Australian Government worker hoping to stay employed.

    1. digi_owl

      USA oh so desperately wants to return to the 60s, when it had a captive market west of the wall. But in practice it resembles more and more 80s USSR.

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        I’m not sure the US is governed by people who can reason beyond the US is 11ty times the bestest.

  6. Mr Robert Christopher

    I think Mr Keating doth protest too much! :)

    It’s not as though the 2016 French deal was ‘simple’, and it was an unexpected win:
    How France sank Japan’s $40 billion Australian submarine dream [in 2016]

    And the 2016 deal wasn’t done with full agreement, or certainty:
    Dick Smith furious at $50 billion subs ‘fiasco’
    A WAR of words has erupted between the government and a group of prominent Australian businessmen over a controversial $50 billion spending splurge.

    “The group says it can’t understand the Federal Government’s decision to award a multi-billion deal to French supplier DCNS, which will be required to deliver 12 diesel-powered submarines for which there are no drawings and no plans.

    “It’s a bit like trying to turn a cat into a dog. It’s crazy. Why would you do it?” he told Sky News. “They haven’t got a drawing, they haven’t got a plan. Their current nuclear submarine, the Barracuda, is sitting on a slipway. It won’t even be tested until next year.”

    The Anglosphere has kept to the contract, while the French have used every avenue to punish Brexit, threatening to cut off Electricity to the Channel Islands and the interconnector to England. They have also made the NI negotiations difficult, when the problem originates from EU law that forces Eire to patrol their own border with non-EU countries. And there is general uncooperativeness, apart from Ukraine, of course, so France’s behaviour isn’t out of the ordinary.

    No, I don’t know what the best choice, for Australia, or any other Anglosphere country, is. And it’s not as though the Western Military Industrial Complex is very good at delivering anything on time, within budget, and works.

    Long term, Nuclear will be required to supply Electricity, so I would have thought Australia will eventually get civilian nuclear power, especially as they, with so much sun, have made such a mess of Wind and Solar.

    And I thought we were going to start on nuclear power when I left school, nearly 50 years ago, and the UK government expects to build them, now, instantly, relatively speaking! Ridiculous.

    I find the Obama controlled Bidenomics totally perplexing, especially after the 2014 Maiden coup, and have forgotten the number of times that geopolitics has taken an unexpected route. It’s obvious that Western governments are living in another universe, no matter what the subject is.

  7. nigel rooney
    “As part of this commitment to nuclear stewardship, Australia has committed to managing all radioactive waste generated through its nuclear-powered submarine program, including spent nuclear fuel, in Australia. The United Kingdom and the United States will assist Australia in developing this capability, leveraging Australia’s decades of safely and securely managing radioactive waste domestically. Australia will manage these materials in accordance with its nuclear non-proliferation and other international obligations and commitments.”
    Well, lucky us…..

    1. square coats

      A bit unfortunate timing for suggesting Australia’s record of safely managing radioactive materials…

  8. XXYY

    I always think that these big surface ship and submarine programs have a lot to do with shipbuilding Industries trying to set up gigantic taxpayer-funded construction programs that last decades. The US shipbuilding industry is nearly defunct at this point, and this deal may be a mechanism to get the Australians to pay to build it up again.

    There’s no way this deal can be about the actual submarines themselves. The numbers are ridiculously low, and the rule of thumb is you need three subs in order to have one ready for sea at any given time. So ideally, after spending several hundred billion dollars and waiting some number of decades, the Aussies will get one or maybe two subs they can use on any given day.

    I think wise analysts of this proposed deal will be looking under the covers in the hopes of finding the real motivation.

    1. digi_owl

      Also why Macron got so angry about it, as it would get a whole lot of people work building those subs.

      1. tevhatch

        I doubt Macron gives two hoots about workers, it was the finance interests that got him wet.

  9. WillD

    The US is taking advantage of a government full of weak, ineffectual and inexperienced individuals, to trick them into believing it is a) necessary, and b) a good deal for Australia – neither of which are true.

    Paul Keating, once a Labour leader and Prime Minister, known for his sharp intellect probably wouldn’t even have given the current PM, Anthony Albanese, a junior ministerial post due to his obvious lack of ability. Now, this same junior politician has ended up as Prime Minister, a weak and ineffectual man who only has his job because he’s good at saying yes (how high I should I jump?), incapable of saying no, and therefore easy to manipulate. He and his party won the last election, not on merit, but because the voters rejected the visibly corrupt and incompetent previous government.

    The malicious Murdoch media machine, which dominates Australian media, is pushing hard too, with daily sabre-rattling and warmongering, swamping the Australian people with lies and gross distortions, not to mention the slowly increasing Sinophobia. Even though polls clearly show the majority of Australians don’t want any conflict with China, the media is deliberately trying to scare them into supporting these anti-China moves.

    I live in Perth, Western Australia, and am not happy at all to learn of the future use of the Garden Island naval base, just over 10 miles away, as the base for nuclear subs, making it a prime target for any attack.

    Australia is so very obviously being used, abused, and set up as another US proxy to pay for non-existent ‘protection’ and to subsidise US, and to a lesser extent UK, military industrial complex industries, and then to provide cannon-fodder for a future conflict against China. It has given away its sovereignty, independence and all nation rights without a struggle or even a whimper. I am not proud of being a British Australian (both).

  10. Smelly Unemployed Person

    A view from inside…

    Australia is a country that does not know how to be anything other than a sub servent colony. We have the talent and resources to be an independent middle power, all we lack is the vision.

    “Australia is a lucky country, run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck” – Donald Horne

    1. Piotr Berman

      With this amount of money, Australia could replace entire fossil based electricity production with nuclear (combined with solar? air-conditioning demand coincides with solar power productivity, that would take care of most daily demand variability) and have a lot to spare for other infrastructure etc. Changing power supply in a country has 20 year time horizon as well. It is amazing how much easier is to mobilize the national budget for useless stuff than for useful stuff, at least in a democracy.

    1. Piotr Berman

      I read an article on Solomon Islands by an Australian lunatic (with credentials, and in a “prestigious journal”, of course). Strangely enough, the first half was recapitulating all understandable grievances of Solomon Islands, chief one being Australia + CIA fomenting a separatist rebellion on the second most-populous island. I am not an expert, but it seemed to be objective and well informed. After that explanation, the article made a totally elitist turn, namely that the state interests of a more advanced democracy must trump those of a lesser developed one, and China’s navy having access to ports of Solomon Islands would endanger vital trade routes.

      Trade routes? After a moment of head spinning, I recall from my shaky Pacific geography that shipping to Kiribati and Tuvalu would need to get longer routes, or risk ambushes from emboldened savages. And Kiribati + Tuvalu are vitally important partners of Australia!

      In short, the expertise was there, but the value system was, to me, peculiar. But consistently with that, the state interests of USA must trump those of Australia, and the best an Australian PM or FM can do when talking with Americans is to limit their side of the conversation to “yes”, “sure”, “I understand”, “where should I sign”.

  11. iang

    The French deal was duff – the subs they had were wrong, and someone pulled a bait & switch, saying we can redesign them for new purpose. Sadly, no country made the right subs for Australia’s needs.

    So the end result is to fulfil those needs, the RAN had to go nuclear.

    The reason Oz wants subs is force projection. Which gets AU a seat at the table. Can be done one of 2 ways in the navy – carriers or subs. Carriers was nixed way back in the 80s when the falkland war happened. OT1H, the price for carriers isn’t that bad compared to what is quoted for these subs… OTOH, those hypersonic carrier killers are a bit embarrassing.

    Which leave subs. Which presuming it all goes to plan and budget (little chance) might be ok. But actually RAN has had a lot of trouble fielding the Collins class subs, not least for lack of submariners. Nuclear subs just add to that workload.

  12. Savita

    Thanks for the enlightened comments. Can anyone think of another countries government more subservient to the US? This isn’t new behaviour. Australia has such a long history of this. Readers will also recall posts on NC about the CIA acting to depose Prime Minister Whitlam when he threatened to oppose the Pine Gap military installation.

    I know Rev Kev has pointed out the following, before. But I recall being so angry when observing the sabre rattling going on in the domestic media in 2020. I was watching it unfold simply speechless at the inanity and absurdity of it. Which was, PM Morrison and his cohort P.Dutton threatening China, making flammable and entirely unnecessary verbal attacks in the media. Irrational commentary that could only be highly destructive to relationships. It sort of amounted to, the small kid on the block throwing stones at the adults.
    China actually made public announcements advising its students not to attend Universities in Australia in the aftermath of that. These foreign enrollements from China are one of the few things keeping universities solvent, here. Lo and behold that government announced this submarine pact, a year or so later.

    All the money lost by cancelling the penultimate contract with France, plus the reparations paid to France by the incumbent government, need to be added to the balance for this debarcle.

    It is also infuriating to see how one sided the media is on this issue. So much for an enlightened, well informed society. No critical commentary allowed. Editorials are only in favour, and anyone speaking out of turn ( such as the former PM Keating) is torn down.

    That sum of money quoted is beyond the scope of the human intellect to fathom. What that monetary value represents in practical, real world terms is simply inconceivable. In its impossibility it becomes a mere abstraction; a quantum equation. This is an embarrasment for generations to shoulder. I did read last year of various reasons why ‘this may not come to pass’. I can’t recall the technical or politicals components for why that argument was plausible. We live in hope.

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