Unpacking the AUKUS Trilateral Security Partnership: Politics, Proliferation and Propulsion - Valdai Club

The AUKUS agreement, and particularly the nuclear-submarines component, appear to be part of a broader plan to bolster US capacity in the Asia-Pacific, reassure regional allies of the US commitment to defence of the region, and perhaps above all, to counter the perception of a “rising” and more assertive China. At the same time, it will look to many like US double standards and even reflective of a neo-colonial attitude to nuclear proliferation where some countries are deemed “responsible” nuclear operators and others are not, writes Valdai Club expert Prof Andrew Futter.

Prof Andrew Futter

The Australia-UK-US trilateral security partnership, or AUKUS for short, has been the subject of much speculation and debate since it was announced in September 2021. While some of its provisions will take many years to reach fruition, notably building a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, the announcement has already had considerable impact and driven concerns about nuclear proliferation, double standards, and the security situation in the Asia-Pacific region. It has also caused a rift in between NATO allies, especially between the US and France, in part due to the way it has been handled, and has been strongly criticised by China. While we still actually have very few details about what the partnership will involve in the years ahead, and in particular how the commitment by the US and UK to “deliver a nuclear-powered submarine fleet for Australia” will unfold, it is useful to understand the different possible implications of this deal and how the technology, politics and security aspects will play out in the years ahead. 

The agreement

Despite the focus on submarines, the AUKUS partnership actually involves cooperation on a number of other areas too, ranging from quantum, cyber, AI and undersea capabilities, as well as the purchase of Tomahawk cruise missiles and joint work on future long-range precision strike weapons, including hypersonic missiles. But the main focus has been on the decision to help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines, known as SSNs, which will make it only the seventh state to deploy this military capability, and the only state that does not also possess nuclear weapons. The deal shares some similarities with the 1958 Mutual Defence Agreement signed by the United States and the United Kingdom to share — amongst other things — nuclear propulsion technology, upon which current UK SSBNs and SSNs are based. 

The plan appears to be for the UK and US to provide highly sensitive information about nuclear-submarine design to Australia, and to provide the nuclear reactor and nuclear material needed to power the boat. The Australian Navy apparently plans to build at least 8 of these boats, although due to the considerable time it will take, these won’t be ready for service for at least a decade. There are a number of questions about how the submarine deal will work in practice and these are currently being hammed out by an 18-month task force. From UK government announcements about “jobs in the UK”, it seems likely that Rolls Royce will design and build the reactors and UK companies will be involved with the development of other advanced components. 

The AUKUS agreement effectively replaces a previous £50 billion deal for the Australian government to purchase a fleet of conventional/diesel-electric submarines from France. Whether this deal was officially cancelled before AUKUS was announced — something strongly disputed by France — is a moot point, and needless to say the move was not well received in Paris, with the French government moving to recall its Ambassadors from Washington and Canberra in response. Either way, the handling of this shift was haphazard, not least because France could potentially have been part of a new nuclear-propulsion submarine deal given that it already operates nuclear-armed submarines too. This suggests that securing the US role in Australian security was more important than alliance politics with France. 

Nuclear-powered submarines have several advantages over non-nuclear propulsion including longer endurance, speed and range, enhanced stealthiness, and the ability to carry heavier weapons payloads. However, it is important to be clear that nuclear-powered submarines are not the same as nuclear-armed submarines, although some submarines can be both nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed. 

Of course, because the actual submarine capability will take many years to materialise, this announcement is primarily symbolic, and is designed to send a strong message to the region, and to China, and to complement other agreements such as the reformed Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. That said, the US could decide to lease a nuclear-powered submarine to Australia in the meantime, and an Australian SSN capability in the medium term could help plug a gap in US and allies submarine capacity in the next decade as older US SSNs are replaced. Nevertheless, the announcement could lead to a “submarine gap” for the Australian Navy in the short term. 

Proliferation concerns

Australia does not currently possess nuclear weapons or have the ability to enrich uranium, neither does it operate any nuclear power plants. But it does have large uranium deposits, several working uranium mines, a nuclear research reactor, and an advanced laser enrichment programme. Australia previously considered acquiring its own nuclear weapons, first through a possible deal with the UK in the 1950s and later in the 1960s indigenously, and was also host to UK atmospheric nuclear testing in the early part of the Cold War. However, Australia signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a Non-Nuclear Weapon State in 1973, and is currently a member of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, and the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ), although it is not a signatory to the recent Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (or Nuclear Ban Treaty). As with civilian power reactors, the use of nuclear material for naval propulsion does not violate the NPT or the NWFZ.

But, helping Australia with nuclear-powered submarines will involve the transfer of fissile nuclear material, in this case uranium, to use in the reactor that will power the ship. And here is one of the problems: current US and UK nuclear-armed submarines use 93% highly enriched uranium for fuel — this is essentially the same material that can be used to make a nuclear weapon. Nuclear submarines, such as those operated by France (and those planned by Brazil), can use also low enriched uranium (less than 10%) that wouldn’t be “weapons grade”, but this means the submarines need to be refuelled every 10 years. Using HEU rather than LEU means that the submarine never has to be refuelled in its lifetime, and theoretically means that Australia won’t have direct access to the fissile material. 

The second problem is that this HEU will be outside of international regulation and control by authorities such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This is because of a clause in the IAEA Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement that allows nuclear material to be removed from inspection regimes if it is used in naval propulsion (partly because of the difficulties of monitoring the material when submarines are on patrol). Whether Australia will have the ability to access and service the nuclear reactor, or whether it is built and delivered “sealed” is therefore very important. The concern is not so much that Australia will use this loophole to build nuclear weapons, although this future possibility shouldn’t be ruled out entirely, or that the nuclear material will not be well protected, but rather that it sets a worrying precedent that others might follow. Top of this list will be Iran, but it could also include states such as South Korea, which recently had its interest in a similar submarine deal with the US rebuffed. 

The Politics

The AUKUS agreement, and particularly the nuclear-submarines component, appear to be part of a broader plan to bolster US capacity in the Asia-Pacific, reassure regional allies of the US commitment to defence of the region (a particularly pressing concern for Australia’s security policy elite), and perhaps above all, to counter the perception of a “rising” and more assertive China. Indeed, the AUKUS Agreement follows closely the revelation that China may be building a large number of new ICBM silos, and speculation that the Chinese nuclear weapons stockpile could increase rapidly in the years ahead. It also needs to be seen in the context of a decade of worsening relations and growing suspicions between the US and China, and even for some the fear of a “new Cold War”.

Bu there is a second, arguably more important set of implications from the AUKUS and submarine deals, and they are for wider global nuclear order and governance. First, it is difficult to see how this move will aid broader arms control efforts, whether between the US and Russia, or talks also involving China. Second, while the politics are significant, the AUKUS deal will look to many like US double standards and even reflective of a neo-colonial attitude to nuclear proliferation where some countries are deemed “responsible” nuclear operators and others are not. Such “conditional proliferation” will also make it much more difficult to address other states that seek to share or develop naval nuclear propulsion capabilities, but perhaps for more nefarious purposes. Finally, it seems likely to weaken the already stretched global nuclear security, verification and monitoring regime embodied by the IAEA, and making it more difficult to combat future nuclear proliferation.

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Valdai Club to Discuss a New Cold War in the Indo-Pacific

Prof Andrew Futter to speak at event

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On November 10, at 15:00 Moscow time (GMT+3), the Valdai Club will host an expert discussion, titled “AUKUS: A New Cold War in the Indo-Pacific?”

“Emerging” technologies and Deterrence Stability in the 21st Century

Deterrence Stability in the 21st Century and Emerging Technologies

This lecture by Dr. Andrew Futter, Professor of International Politics, University of Leicester, is part of the VCDNP’s Deterrence and Emerging Technologies (DET) Webinar Series.

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EXPERT OPINIONS – US-Russia Strategic Stability Dialogue: Why It’s Good to Talk

The symbolism of the two-leading nuclear-armed states recognising the dangers of a more complex and perhaps dangerous global nuclear order is significant, and neither party will lose anything by seeking to better understand the potential flashpoints and pathways that could lead to conflict and even the use of nuclear weapons in the years ahead, writes Valdai Club expert

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Prof Andrew Futter, principal investigator on the Third Nuclear Age project, has featured in the University of Leicester Centenary Inaugural Lecture series.

Risk of nuclear use and perhaps even nuclear war are higher today than for at least a generation. This talk unpacks the different technological, political and normative factors driving this shift, and makes the case for theorising this transition in nuclear order as the move towards a “third nuclear age”

Prof Futter’s Zoom presentation is available online at: Link

This exciting presentation included discussion of this project, outlining the priorities of NUCLEARREV.

By Andrew Futter, Professor of International Politics at the University of Leicester, UK.                            
15 February 2021

This work is funded by the European Research Council grant number: 866155. For more on the Third Nuclear Age research project see:

Seventy-five years after two nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there appears to be a recognition in both academic literature and policymaking circles that a “new nuclear era” could be upon us.  This shift is being driven by a mixture of political, normative and technological dynamics, which together are challenging the thinking and frameworks upon which global nuclear order is based, the way nuclear stability is maintained, and the nature of nuclear risks.  We can think of this as the start of a Third Nuclear Age.

For sure, characterising nuclear history into “nuclear ages” (a first nuclear age is said to have existed during the Cold War and focussed on the US-Soviet arms race, and a second nuclear age that focussed on regional proliferation and nuclear terrorism in the years that followed) is historically imperfect and overly Western-centric notion.  But using such constructs help focus attention on the most pressing problems and risks we face, and hopefully prevents us from sleep-walking unprepared into a more precarious and uncertain chapter in our nuclear story.

Arguably the most prominent feature of the Third Nuclear Age is the impact and importance of “disruptive technologies”.  Of course, the influence of military technological developments upon nuclear order is not new, but today the challenge is different because it is a whole suite of weapons and enabling technologies, many of which are non-nuclear, intangible and dual use, and at the same time a transformation in the nuclear information space.  It is also an inherently global phenomenon.

The incorporation of Artificial Intelligence into nuclear planning, possible uses of Computer Network Operations (cyber) across the nuclear realm, 3D printing, the rise of non-nuclear counter-space capabilities, moves towards full-spectrum missile defence, uninhabited weapons systems, quantum computing, advances in remote sensing, tracking and the development of long-range precision conventional weapons (including hypersonic missiles), as well as a nuclear real-time digitised nuclear ecosystem, all create different pressures for stable deterrence relationships, secure-second strike forces, escalation, crisis management and proliferation. 

The Third Nuclear Age also seems set to be characterised by the weakening of previous international arms control mechanisms and norms of nuclear restraint.  Part of this is a recognition that many of the treaties and negotiating bodies established in the First and Second Nuclear Ages are either under pressure and don’t reflect the current nuclear reality (the Non-Proliferation Treaty), risk falling away (the Treaty on Open Skies), have been badly damaged (the “Iran deal”), or in the case of the INF Treaty, which helped bringing stability to Europe for a generation, have been abandoned altogether.  The recent decision to extent New START is welcome, but it is less clear what will follow in five years’ time.

Some of this erosion can be explained by the impact of new military capabilities and rekindled geopolitical rivalries, but it is also a reflection of what appears to be a growing nuclear apathy among global publics and policymakers.  This in turn may be contributing to what some have mooted as a withering of the nuclear taboo (and the return of warfighting and aggressive nuclear rhetoric), and a general disinterest in nuclear issues as an existential threat to humanity more broadly. 

While we may still be living in a predominantly US-led nuclear world, the Third Nuclear Age will be far more geographically interlinked and interdependent, whereby actions or developments in one region will have global implications.  Indeed, nuclear balances and risks in the Middle East, South and Northeast Asia will be on a par if not exceeding the historical focus on the Euro-Atlantic.  Consequently, we must move to adjust our theoretical and conceptual nuclear frameworks, and the largely Western and Euro-Atlantic-focussed arms control and governance architectures, to account for this. 

At the moment, all nuclear-armed states are modernising and, in some cases, expanding their nuclear and strategic non-nuclear capabilities, which suggests nuclear weapons may be becoming more rather than less important in international politics.  It also suggests that we have probably reached the end to the 30-year trend of reducing global nuclear stockpiles, at least for the time being.  This may even have been compounded by the Nuclear Ban Treaty, which seems to have further widened the fissures and differences between the nuclear haves and have-nots rather than creating a viable pathway to achieving nuclear reductions. 

Thus, the Third Nuclear Age will be conceptually and materially different from the two nuclear ages that preceded it and require a concerted global reengagement with the challenge of ensuring nuclear peace.  Consequently, new, innovative and perhaps flexible frameworks and mechanisms of managing nuclear risks will be required as we go forward.

This may look daunting considering the clear complications of pursuing arms control for disruptive technologies, particularly given their very different nature to what we have experienced in the past, and especially in such an unconducive and fractious geopolitical climate.  The task is not made any easier by the fact it will also involve seeking to reengage global public opinion and the attention of policymakers in an environment where the challenges of climate change and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic continue to take centre stage.  But the world has faced similar challenges before, including during times of heightened geopolitical tension and transition, and determined thinking about risk reduction, informal mechanisms of restraint, different types of confidence building mechanisms, and education across all levels of society, can help to prepare us what seems likely to be a more dangerous nuclear world as we move into the Third Nuclear Age.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent the institute’s policy.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 February 2021


Three decades after what is widely referred to as the transition from a First to a Second Nuclear Age, the world stands on the cusp of a possible Third Nuclear Age where the way that we conceptualise the central dynamics of the nuclear game will change again. This paradigm shift is being driven by the growth and spread of non-nuclear technologies with strategic applications and by a shift in thinking about the sources of nuclear threats and how they should be addressed, primarily, but not solely, in the United States. Recent scholarship has rightly identified a new set of challenges posed by the development of strategic non-nuclear weaponry (SNNW). But the full implications of this transformation in policy, technology and thinking for the global nuclear order as a whole have so far been underexplored. To remedy this, we look further ahead to the ways in which current trends, if taken to their logical conclusion, have the capacity to usher in a new nuclear era. We argue that in the years ahead, SNNW will increasingly shape the nuclear order, particularly in relation to questions of stability and risk. In the Third Nuclear Age, nuclear deployments, postures, balances, arms control, non-proliferation policy, and the prospects for disarmament, will all be shaped as much by developments in SNNW capabilities as by nuclear weapons. Consequently, we advocate for an urgent reassessment of the way nuclear order and nuclear risks are conceptualised as we confront the challenges of a Third Nuclear Age.

To continue reading this article, please visit the European Journal of International Security website, at

Prof Andrew Futter is on a panel at this event, taking place on 3rd February 2021.

Invitation to attend SCRAP’s webinar: Beyond Aegis: Strategic Stability and Emerging Technologies, on the 3rd February 2021 between 17:00-18:30 GMT

In November 2020, for the first time ever, an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICMB) was shot down by a U.S. warship: the Aegis Combat System. Such recent advancements in Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) systems and nuclear and conventional weapons pose a serious threat to global security.

How are emerging technologies shaping global security and stability? What implications do capabilities like the Aegis Combat System have for geopolitical dynamics? What changes in U.S. foreign policy can we expect to see with the Biden administration?

Our webinar is amongst the first to discuss the significance of the successful Aegis test for global stability. The webinar will explore the most recent developments in international relations alongside the politics and policies behind global security and powerful emerging technologies.


Mr Ankit Panda, Stanton Senior Fellow in Nuclear Policy

Ms. Eva-Nour Repussard, Researcher, SCRAP Weapons

Mr Eric Gomez, Director, Defense Policy Studies, Cato Institute

Ms. Nancy Ehrenberg-Peters, Researcher, SCRAP Weapons

Professor Andrew Futter, University of Leicester

Mr Pavel Podvig, Director, Russian Nuclear Forces Project

Professor Dan Plesch, Director, CISD, SOAS

Register Here