AUKUS’ Crumbling Public Perceptions 

There has been progress and criticism surrounding the Australia-United Kingdom-United States Partnership (AUKUS), which aims to provide Australia with nuclear-propelled submarines. Critics, including the nuclear nonproliferation community and China, fear that the deal could lead to nuclear material proliferation. However, proponents argue that AUKUS strengthens the global non-proliferation regime by clarifying the naval nuclear propulsion loophole and setting a precedent for responsible nuclear stewardship.

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Almost two years after the September 2021 announcement regarding the Australia- United Kingdom-United States Partnership (AUKUS), there has been significant progress accompanied by a wave of criticism. Why? AUKUS intends to deliver nuclear propelled, conventionally armed, Virginia-class and eventually, SSN-AUKUS submarines to Australia. Though some of the details remain to be seen, many critics from the nuclear nonproliferation community and nations, such as China, think that AUKUS will act like a “Pandora’s Box” for nuclear material. Critics suggest that once Australia is outfitted with the technology, know how, and ability to use nuclear material to proliferate and create a nuclear weapon, it will do so. Although Australia’s robust history as a non-nuclear weapons state and adherent to the Non-Proliferation Treaty proves otherwise, this rhetoric has gained significant traction among concerned Indo-Pacific partners and other global actors.  

However, AUKUS is truly an exercise in strengthening the global non-proliferation regime. AUKUS’ precedent supports the regime by finally clarifying the naval nuclear propulsion loophole — a notable grey area — and providing clarity to the rest of the world for other nations looking to also invoke a similar arrangement. As a non-nuclear weapons state, Australia will set a precedent should they successfully implement new safeguards and guidelines to becoming an independent naval nuclear propulsion operator. Finally, AUKUS presents a way to protect shared and vital interests in the Indo-Pacific across a variety of sectors like trade, energy, and manufacturing. But what does this mean for the future of AUKUS? How can the partnership address these concerns and emphasize its positive impact on nonproliferation norms and the stability of the Indo-Pacific region? This article will delve into the reasons behind the criticism, explore the implications of AUKUS, and discuss potential strategies to alleviate concerns and promote transparency.  

The Australian, British, and American governments must become more aggressive in their public messaging about the positive factors of this deal. AUKUS’ survival and ability to provide Australia an undersea platform to address maritime security concerns is in danger if these critics continue to shift the narrative towards the threats as opposed to the benefits. This means focusing dialogue on how AUKUS can both protect nonproliferation norms while also charting new paths for nations who seek naval nuclear propulsion and to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific. The three countries need to focus on a direct messaging campaign that deals with both internal and external misconceptions and dissent to continue to prove that AUKUS will stabilize the nonproliferation regime and provide transparency to how to effectively transfer naval nuclear propulsion technology to other responsible states.  

After the 2021 announcement, AUKUS entered an 18-month consultative period where all three nations worked amongst themselves, and with stakeholders like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to align on how to transparently transfer naval nuclear propulsion technology to the Australians. In a March 2023 announcement, President Biden, Prime Minister Sunak, and Prime Minister Albanese clarified points regarding the delivery of conventionally armed submarines and provided a 58-page report on how Australia would train a workforce and attain the skills needed to operate nuclear-propelled submarines. Australia also clarified that it would receive submarines with welded nuclear cores, which would not require refueling or reservicing during their lifetime. Nevertheless, criticism of AUKUS remains. At the IAEA Board of Governors meeting in June 2023, US Ambassador Ian Biggs called for IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi’s report on Australia’s naval nuclear propulsion program, which confirms Australia’s commitment to various reporting requirements, to be made public. While this is an important first step in highlighting transparency in the AUKUS process, much more can be done.  

Former UK Royal Navy Second Sea Lord Vice-Admiral Sir Nick Hine suggested that Australia should be making their own Hollywood-esque movies about its naval nuclear propulsion project and treat the endeavor like its own moon landing. The Australian government needs to capitalize on this unique ability to create pride and national excitement about the endeavor. Though it is quite the feat that the AUKUS pact survived the turnover between the Morrison and Albanese administration, the government must do more to convince feuding parties and its citizens that AUKUS is the right move for the country. Right now, domestic political opposition to and public discontent with the pact is coloring global views of AUKUS. A Lowy Institute poll showed that the number of respondents in 2023 who were strongly in favor of acquiring nuclear-propelled submarines dropped from 33 to 26% in 2022. Similarly, the number of respondents who were somewhat against the acquisition jumped from 17 to 21% in the same time frame. Even more concerning, a recent Guardian Essential poll confirms that Australians remain wary of the AUKUS deal. When asked, a common concern is that the AUKUS pact and the technology that comes with it will draw Australia into conflict in Asia in the near-term future.  

Though submarines are excellent deterrents, the Albanese administration should work to create digestible media that focuses on the benefits of bolstering Australia’s military and defense capabilities, and underscore the credible reasons for acquiring these submarines, outlined in the AUKUS Optimal Pathway report. TV mentions, voter-friendly reports and pamphlets, and a dedicated spokesperson who facilitates AUKUS events and coverage could all turn the tides down under. Efforts undertaken would likely require close coordination between entities in the government, public media, private media, think tanks, and strategists to curate messaging that will sway Australia’s populace. A strong show of support, done through transparency mechanisms on the world stage, domestic public awareness campaigns, and attempts to bolster national pride could improve perceptions of the AUKUS pact both domestically and in the region.  

The United States and the United Kingdom can also lead efforts to bolster support for AUKUS. In the United States, the focus needs to be on garnering support on the Hill for the AUKUS Undersea Defense Act and the subsequent efforts and shifts that will need to be made in the US Navy’s shipyards. For every submarine being built or refurbished for the AUKUS pact, that stands to be one platform that the Navy will go without despite robust efforts to push force modernization and a larger naval fleet. Similarly, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategies, Plans, and Capabilities Mara Karlin testified that AUKUS’ unique capabilities will require new and prolific changes to the export control regime. To truly support the robust technology sharing and capability building AUKUS intends to do, the United States needs to get serious about a whole-of-government approach that maintains high export control standards that protect sensitive information while ensuring that our allies can participate in ‘seamless military collaboration.’  

According to the Optimal Pathway report, the United Kingdom will construct the SSN-AUKUS, a cutting-edge submarine design, as well as conduct numerous port visits to western Australia to increase the trilateral presence in the region. Similarly, to Australia, the United Kingdom should focus on international messaging that signals a clear adherence to the nuclear nonproliferation regime and a strong desire to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific. Though the Optimal Pathway Report discusses the idea of nuclear stewardship, the responsible planning, operation, and handling of nuclear materials and technology, the United Kingdom should lead efforts to underscore how members of the AUKUS pact are acting as responsible nuclear stewards.  

Like the US, the UK will also need to examine its export law and technology transfer to avoid delays and issues just as the pact begins to get momentum. This coordinated messaging effort, alongside the Australians, is imperative to engaging with partners in the region, like Indonesia, who may still hold concerns regarding the AUKUS pact. Finally, both states will need to engage in senior-level discussions to ensure that burden sharing within the AUKUS pact does not pose any grave national security concerns in the coming decades. 

As much as AUKUS still faces great technical issues in the coming decades, challenges in messaging pose the biggest threat to the agreement. Without these actions and coordinated messaging fronts, the AUKUS pact will crumble, not due to a lack of technical aptitude, but rather from an unwillingness to actively shift public perception.  

Jasmin Alsaied  is a US Navy Surface Warfare Officer and a 2023 YPFP Rising Expert in Defense and Security. Her research focuses on nuclear challenges in the Indo-Pacific and emerging technology integration. She holds a M.S. from Georgetown University.  The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or the U.S. Government.  

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