Rarely does one foreign policy decision undermine two foundations of a country’s national security, but the Biden administration achieved that ignoble feat last week. Attempting to deter China by selling Australia nuclear-powered submarines in lieu of the non-nuclear ones that France had contracted to sell, the administration endangered both nuclear nonproliferation and the trans-Atlantic alliance. Fortunately, there is a way to promote all three US objectives — nonproliferation, NATO, and deterrence — if President Biden seizes the opportunity.
The administration’s intentions were good, and Australia has a legitimate aspiration for nuclear-powered submarines. China repeatedly has coerced neighbors, including Australia, and violated international law by asserting sovereignty over other countries’ territory. Australia feels vulnerable and wants to bolster its technology and alliances to defend itself. Depending on military strategy, Australia might achieve more security with a few nuclear submarines — which have greater range, capabilities, and stealth — than a larger number of conventional ones.
The first big problem, however, is that the deal would undercut five decades of US efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Since the 1970s, the United States has restricted the export of nuclear weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium, and sought to retrieve previous exports even as small as two pounds. But each sale of a US or British attack submarine would come with about 1,000 pounds of HEU, sufficient for at least 20 nuclear weapons, and Australia seeks eight such vessels.
This would set a terrible precedent. Until now, the six countries that have obtained nuclear-propelled ships did not raise proliferation concerns because they already had nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, and India. Australia would be the first country without nuclear weapons to acquire naval propulsion reactors, and the planned fuel is weapons-grade uranium.
Other countries understandably would demand the same privilege. When Iran previously said it needed HEU for a future nuclear navy, the world scoffed and threatened punishment, but how could the international community legally deny Iran what the deal provides Australia? South Korea and Japan might demand HEU vessels too, fueling a nuclear arms race with China and North Korea. Brazil had planned to build submarines with lower-grade uranium, but why would it now accept second-class status?
HEU is especially proliferation-prone in navies because of a loophole in regulations. The International Atomic Energy Agency typically inspects nuclear fuel in countries lacking nuclear weapons — except for material declared for military non-weapons purposes. Thus, if Iran or another such country claimed its HEU were for naval propulsion, it legally could block international inspections for decades, raising obvious perils.
The deal’s second problem is that by undercutting France’s previous contract to sell conventional submarines to Australia, the United States gratuitously endangered its bilateral relationship, and thus the NATO alliance. Some commentators dismiss France’s unprecedented recall of its ambassadors to the United States and Australia as indicative of a temper tantrum that will pass, but they seem not to understand the economic stakes. France’s GDP is only one-eighth of U.S. GDP, so its $66 billion submarine deal was equivalent to half a trillion dollars for the United States. If a country stole that much revenue from us, would we still consider it an ally?
Luckily, there is a way to solve all these problems, because France’s own nuclear submarines are fueled with low-enriched uranium that is unsuitable for nuclear weapons. The new security pact between Australia, Britain, and the United States, called AUKUS, should be expanded to include France, which then could sell LEU-fueled submarines to Australia instead.
This expanded alliance, perhaps renamed FRAUKUS, could achieve all key objectives. Australia would get nuclear submarines and a larger western alliance, bolstering deterrence against China. France could preserve its submarine sales, sustaining the trans-Atlantic alliance. And the dangerous spread of HEU would be averted, preserving the nuclear nonproliferation regime.
The only potential losers would be the American and British companies hoping to sell submarines to Australia. But the Navy could rectify that by developing LEU versions of their vessels. Since 2016, Congress has funded research and development of Navy LEU fuel, aiming to phase out domestic HEU commerce. Such R&D now could have another benefit — enabling lucrative foreign military sales.
The Biden administration failed to assess fully the national security ramifications before hatching its secret deal with Australia. Fortunately, the agreement calls for an 18-month period to work out the details. That gives Biden the chance to convert a diplomatic fiasco into a crowning achievement of his foreign policy.
Alan J. Kuperman is associate professor and coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin.