by Commodore Dr Anjum Sarfraz (Retd)

TO contain Chinese military and economic influence, especially in the Indo-Pacific region, the US and its allies are making all efforts including the supply of nuclear submarines (subs) to Australia – a trusted friend.

On 15 September 2021, Prime Minister of UK Boris Johnson, US President Joseph Biden and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a joint statement announcing the creation of an “enhanced trilateral security partnership” called AUKUS.

The important part of the agreement is to help Australia to acquire 8 nuclear powered subs.

It would be a joint endeavour between the three nations, with a focus on interoperability, commonality and mutual benefit. The statement also announces plans for further collaboration to “enhance joint capabilities and interoperability.

”These will initially focus on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and additional under-sea capabilities.

To begin the partnership, naval officials and technical specialists from the three countries will work together over the next 18 months to equip Australia with the technology to deploy nuclear-powered subs.

But considering the complexity of the technology, these subs may not be operational in the next few years.

Australia cancelled the contract of supply of diesel subs worth $80bn from France.

The latter had expressed resentment by saying it had been “stabbed in the back”.

A senior official from the Biden Administration said the Washington led AUKUS deal was part of larger steps to build cooperation with security partners in Asia “to sustain peace and stability across the entire Indo-Pacific region”.

Moreover, in the light of the competition between the US and China, Washington has described the Indo-Pacific Command as “the single most consequential region for America’s future” and stressed the need to contain Beijing’s influence in the region by boosting its military presence and strengthening alliances.

Mix reaction was observed from the regional countries. China has slammed AUKUS as “highly irresponsible” and said it could trigger a nuclear arms race” while North Korea has expressed serious concern.

Malaysia has also said that the deal serves as a “catalyst for a nuclear arms race. Former Indian naval chief Arun Prakash said that the US had been telling India for years that American laws made it impossible to share its nuclear propulsion technology with anyone.

However, defence analyst consider that this accord will benefit India because it will help counter Beijing’s military power in the Indo – Pacific region.

Commenting on the role of QUAD and AUKUS, Indian Foreign Secretary has stated, “The deal is neither relevant to the Quad nor will it have any impact on its functioning.

”New Delhi tends to see Quad as an Asian North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) but it does not have any commitment to collective security.

The reactors of nuclear propelled subs (SSNs) use enriched uranium mostly from 20 to 40 percent, whereas US and British subs use 93 to 97.

Anything above 90 per cent is considered “weapons-grade” uranium with potentially dangerous implications. Australian subs are likely to use the same grade.

The prime advantage of nuclear powered subs is that these are able to stay under water for longer duration, can maintain high submerged speed, with enough fuel to theoretically run for years which is the biggest benefit in stealth attacks.

These can carry torpedoes and medium/long range anti-ship missiles, which can carry nuclear warheads as well. These are considered most suitable platforms for anti-warships operations especially against aircraft carriers.

There are currently 129 indigenously built nuclear propelled subs operated by six countries including, US 68, Russia 29, China 12, UK 11, France 8 and India 1, with Australia set to become the seventh.

The AUKUS does not talk about the weapons supplied to Australia. It is likely that initially these will be torpedo and anti-ship missiles. At a later stage these may be equipped with long range missiles with nuclear warheads.

Most countries use conventional subs which have diesel powered electric motors for propulsion.

These need to come up to periscope depth regularly so that their batteries can be recharged, allowing them to be spotted more easily. These are mostly equipped with anti-ship torpedoes and cruise missiles which can also be tipped with nuclear warheads.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed in July 1968 by the UK, US, (former) Soviet Union and 59 other states. Additional countries later ratified the treaty; as of 2007 only four countries, India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea are not signatories.

North Korea has signed and then withdrawn from the treaty. It has been extended indefinitely and without conditions in 1995 by a consensus vote of 174 at the UN headquarters.

Its main aim is to limit the spread of nuclear weapons including three elements: (1) non-proliferation, (2) disarmament and (3) peaceful use of nuclear energy.

These elements constitute a “grand bargain” between nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states.

It does not restrict nuclear states to help non-nuclear states in the development of civilian nuclear power, although it is difficult to draw distinction between civilian and military nuclear technology. Probably under this pretext, US/UK are now supplying SSNs to Australia. It is likely that China and other countries having nuclear technology will help the other Indo-Pacific countries to build nuclear subs.

In a few years’ time nuclear arms race will get impetuous and quite a large number of nuclear subs will be operating in this region. Realising the significance of nuclear subs, India had taken on lease a Charlie class nuclear sub from the Soviet Union from 1988-91.

For indigenous construction, Advance Technology Vessel (ATV) project was started by India in early 1980s.

INS Arihant a SSBN has already joined the Indian Navy and second of this class INS Arighat is expected to be commissioned shorty.

Pakistan should take advantage of the new development and build nuclear subs with the help of her friendly allies to maintain strategic balance.