The new AUKUS trilateral security partnership between Australia, the UK and the USA to help Australia develop nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN) is in India’s interests. India may not enthusiastically welcome it owing to its relations with France, which has reacted sharply since the partnership was announced and it lost the Australian submarine project, but Australia is an important strategic partner of India and the military cooperation between the two is increasing at a rapid pace. Together with Japan, which is also beefing up its defence budget and capabilities, a militarily strong Australia will help ease the pressure off India, both along its border and in the Indian Ocean, where Chinese naval presence has grown in recent years. China has established a naval base in Djibouti and regularly sends warships, submarines and intelligence gathering vessels to the Indian Ocean. Australia and Japan both supported Taiwan’s defence, an issue that China regards as a red line.

AUKUS sets a precedent for India to acquire critical naval nuclear reactor (NNR) technology, likely from France, which after this setback of losing the submarine project will be willing to engage. In the past, India has secretly partnered with Russia for its Arihant class of ballistic missile submarines.

India’s official reaction came from Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla who said AUKUS has no relevance to the Quad when there was talk about AUKUS sidelining the Quad. Yes, the AUKUS and Quad are two different kinds of entities. AUKUS has no relevance to the Quad if it is just looked at as a forum that brings four major democracies and economies of the Indo-Pacific together to discuss and create action plans on the challenges of the time where multilateral institution like the United Nations has failed, a point highlighted by India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.

However, the Quad is more than that, as stated in the joint statement after the Quad leaders met in Washington—“Together, we recommit to promoting the free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law and undaunted by coercion, to bolster security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. We stand for the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity of states”.

Commitment to maintain free and open oceans, rule of law, and countering threats requires capabilities and enforcement mechanisms. The four Quad nations are jointly conducting “Malabar” naval exercises to increase their interoperability. Security is an integral part of the Quad although it is not a similar alliance to NATO, which seeks only collective defence. Its members acquiring potent military platforms helps the group achieve its objectives. Therefore under AUKUS, Australia acquiring SSN armed with long-range cruise missiles will help in keeping China in check in the western pacific, which for the Indian Navy is a secondary area of interest.

Quad is a grouping for the 21st century, with new ideas on how like-minded countries with shared values and common interests can work on regional and global challenges, and for economic and military security in the Indo-Pacific rather than solely focused on security, as was the case with alliances formed in the previous century.

Australia’s Strategic Doctrine

Australia has become more assertive in recent years and is seeking to develop independent defence capabilities. Australia updated its defence strategy last year with its stated objectives: to shape Australia’s strategic environment; to deter actions against Australia’s interests; and to respond with credible military force, when required.

In order to meet the stated objective, it is developing a force structure that includes submarines, long-range missiles, and will spend $270 billion on acquiring defence capabilities in the next decade. Just like India considers itself to be a net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region, Australia is looking to do the same, to act independently, even as it continues to be in a treaty alliance with the US.

Acquiring SSN adds teeth as well as sends a message of Australia’s commitment to keep the Indo-Pacific free and open. Australia scrapped its plan to acquire 12 French Shortfin Barracuda at an estimated cost of $40 billion. The cost had reportedly risen to $65 billion, which is significantly more expensive than the nuclear-powered attack submarines that are currently operated by the US and UK. Australia also fears that the Shortfins would be obsolete by the time they entered service.

From being a country that was “neutral” to China due to its economic dependence on it, Australia has become a vocal critic, passing laws against foreign interference, and especially since the pandemic struck when China imposed trade sanctions on Australia for demanding investigation into the origin of COVID-19.

India And Australia

India’s relations with Australia have perhaps grown more rapidly than any other country in the recent past. From a not-so-favourable relationship due to Australia’s opposition to India’s nuclear weapons programme, to a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”. Australia has committed to investing $100 billion in India by 2035. Military cooperation between India and Australia is growing especially in the maritime domain. The two countries have signed a logistics agreement and there is potential for them to use each other’s naval bases. The large Indian diaspora in Australia and increased people-to-people contact is strengthening ties. Three important Indo-Pacific middle powers—Japan, India, and Australia—are directly impacted by expansionist China and are working together to combat the challenge in their trilateral format as well.

Indo-French Collaboration

A positive impact of the AUKUS for India could be the potential to acquire French NNR technology. There is an incentive for both to collaborate. India needs a more powerful reactor than that which currently powers its Arihant submarine, and France which has lost a massive order and is smarting from being left out. France has been a rock solid partner for India, backing it even when the Western world sanctioned India after its nuclear tests. India’s defence purchase from France goes back decades and currently its most potent fighter jets and submarines are French. The French are the frontrunners in India’s tender to acquire another six conventional submarines.

The French have mastered the technology of naval nuclear reactors using low-enriched uranium (LEU) compared to the US and UK using highly enriched uranium (HEU). As with the UK and US, India uses HEU for the Arihant class, though not at weapons-grade levels. French submarines are designed with special hatches for refuelling during refit, which allows for better operational availability as compared to the current Indian design based on Russian technology which requires cutting open the submarine hull to refuel and welding it back, a process that can take up to two years, thereby reducing operational readiness.

US submarine reactors are designed to last their lifetime of about 35 years without the need to refuel. However, these use weapons-grade uranium which requires costly enrichment process and availability of uranium. The US which has a global presence needs more operationally available assets. India’s naval requirement is for the Indo-Pacific and it also needs uranium for its strategic programme.

There has been some discussion in India about why it has not been included in the AUKUS’s collaboration on the SSN. The question is, does India need American nuclear submarines or asked for it? India, which already operates nuclear ballistic missile submarines, plans to build its own SSN, which has already got government clearance. India has more experience in making submarines than Australia, having built the conventional Shishumar and Scorpene classes, and nuclear Arihant class. It is usually the same set of people who are opposed to buying critical weapons from the US since they view the country as an unreliable supplier that is prone to imposing sanctions. Australia is a treaty alliance partner of the US and fought every war the US has in the last 100 years. In a sense, AUKUS is not a new security alliance, but a partnership of old treaty allies who have decided to help Australia build nuclear submarines.