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AUKUS is underway, but key challenges remain

Posted By , and on March 16, 2023 @ 06:00

The bold and complex plan [1] to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines represents a paradigm shift [2] in US strategic thinking on empowering allies, redistributing its forces and better integrating like-minded partners into American supply chains and industrial planning.

The optimal pathway for Australia’s SSN acquisition revealed on Monday in San Diego is a momentous demonstration of the three partners’ commitment to sharing critical technologies under the AUKUS pact. It may well be worth the cost in dollars, effort and diplomatic capital given the spectre of an expansionist and bellicose China. [3]

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin says [4] the plan ‘will strengthen our combined military capabilities, boost our defense industrial capacity, enhance our ability to deter aggression, and promote our shared goal of a free and open Indo-Pacific … for decades to come’.

Six months ago, we at ASPI DC identified [5] challenges that Australia, the UK and the US would need to address to advance AUKUS. Chief among them was a lack of clarity about AUKUS’s strategic purpose and what each partner aimed to achieve and how the AUKUS narrative would be rolled out to allies, partners and adversaries.

In particular, we noted that there was a dearth of detail on how the AUKUS partners would engage with commercial industry and energise their publics to enable and reap the benefits of the agreement’s second pillar—critical technology sharing beyond the submarine deal.

We posited that these concerns needed to be addressed to ensure public support in the partner countries and the acceptance—if not full endorsement—from regional states concerned about further militarisation of the Indo-Pacific and worried that AUKUS might lead to escalation of conflict rather than stability.

No fair listener should expect three heads of government to provide in-depth details of the plan in a short ceremony; however, the lack of strategic clarity is deafening.

Is AUKUS a demonstration of the US pivot to the region in a way President Joe Biden’s predecessors never imagined? By building this security pact, is the US aiming to show regional partners that it is committed to fostering and maintaining stability in the Indo-Pacific for the region’s benefit? Or is this agreement really all about America’s strategic competition with China and expanding US power?

For Australia, the stated purpose is to respond to China’s rise, Beijing’s increased aggression and the revelation of Australia’s strategic deficit in a tough neighbourhood. But fundamentally, to achieve security, Australia has historically ‘bandwagoned’ [6] with one of the region’s great powers in support of a regional and global order balanced in Australia’s favour. AUKUS is a double-edged sword that may uncomfortably tie Australia to the US and its foreign policy while also reinforcing America’s tether to Australia’s security.

For the UK, AUKUS represents an opportunity to revive a lagging defense industrial base and to prove its continued worth as a prime-time global player capable of an Indo-Pacific tilt. The UK government recently released [7] a refresh of its 2021 integrated review reinforcing these strategic aims.

All three countries say that AUKUS will stabilise the Indo-Pacific, but none of them has yet explained how it will do that.

The partners have yet to articulate why and how AUKUS is in the interests of other Indo-Pacific states. Back in September, we said the deal must register beyond the need for nuclear submarines; as of today, it still hasn’t.

The ABC’s Steven Dziedzic reported [8] that the Australian foreign-policy team spent weeks making dozens of calls to leaders across the region in advance of yesterday’s announcement. No doubt, the US and UK have also engaged with relevant partners.

While this outreach indicates an effort to listen more to regional voices following the surprise announcement of AUKUS in 2021, the narrative requires more work. Canberra, London and Washington must engage in ongoing, explicit conversations with allies and partners [9] about how the deal will produce the stated purpose. So far, AUKUS’s justification has centered on deterrence; however, it isn’t clear how Australia’s acquisition of nuclear submarines will effectively deter China—particularly as only UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak explicitly named China as an adversary. The partners must explain the calculus of why AUKUS won’t lead to nuclear proliferation or conflict escalation through greater militarisation of the region.

Observers are justified in their concerns about whether AUKUS will stabilise the region. The pathway [10] calls for more US port visits, more rotations by US and UK submarines, and, eventually, many more submarines—Australian, British and American—in the waters surrounding Australia. Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles said [11] he saw the need for AUKUS because the region was experiencing the largest military build-up since World War II. Australia, he said, has a duty to respond and shirking the responsibility ‘would see us be condemned by history’. Regional partners are waiting to hear a reassuring story about how AUKUS will affect their interests.

AUKUS will need resources and support from the breadth of society in Australia, the UK and the US. But the optimal pathway announcement says little about relations with commercial industry and less about generating public enthusiasm for paying for pillar 1, the submarines, and kickstarting pillar 2, which is not a government-to-government arrangement and requires public–private sector coordination.

The sticker price for the acquisition of Australia’s submarines is as much as $368 billion over three decades—if it runs to cost [12], which previous defence spending patterns indicate is highly unlikely. The financial costs to the US and UK are unknown. But given the uncertainty in global markets and in the AUKUS partners’ economies, their publics will need to better understand and accept that the benefits outweigh the costs even if they mean many years of difficult funding choices and painful levels of privation.

In the absence of a geopolitical crisis—such as China invading Taiwan—buy-in from the rank and file in all three countries will likely centre on the creation of training opportunties and jobs for engineers, shipbuilders and submariners. While we don’t yet know the exact details of these programs, Albanese has said that AUKUS will produce at least 20,000 new jobs [13] for Australians over 30 years. However, when broken down, that translates to just 666 jobs per year.

Statements yesterday by the AUKUS leaders barely acknowledged the promises of pillar 2. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese suggested [14] that the SSN ‘will be a catalyst for innovation and research breakthroughs … not just in one field, but right across our advanced manufacturing and technology sectors’. Despite this reference, the announcement doesn’t explain how the partners will engage with the private sector under pillar 2.

AUKUS is progressing, but there’s a long way to go. At the very least, additional announcements will need to clarify the specific objectives AUKUS partners seek to achieve across vastly different technology sectors, with diverse partners and among their own populations.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/aukus-is-underway-but-key-challenges-remain/

URLs in this post:

[1] plan: https://breakingdefense.com/tag/indo-pacific/

[2] paradigm shift: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/what-drove-the-united-states-to-aukus/

[3] spectre of an expansionist and bellicose China.: https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/we-do-not-want-war-but-australia-needs-to-be-ready-read-our-experts-verdict-in-full-20230302-p5coyi.html

[4] says: https://www.defense.gov/News/Releases/Release/Article/3327747/statement-by-secretary-of-defense-lloyd-j-austin-iii-on-aukus-optimal-pathway-a/

[5] identified: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/despite-progress-major-challenges-lie-ahead-for-aukus/

[6] ‘bandwagoned’: http://keia.org/sites/default/files/publications/australia_and_u.s.-china_relations.pdf

[7] released: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/integrated-review-refresh-2023-responding-to-a-more-contested-and-volatile-world

[8] reported: https://twitter.com/stephendziedzic/status/1635401720170971136?s=20

[9] allies and partners: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/are-australia-s-neighbours-ready-aukus

[10] pathway: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/03/13/fact-sheet-trilateral-australia-uk-us-partnership-on-nuclear-powered-submarines/

[11] said: https://twitter.com/stephendziedzic/status/1635410931596537856?s=20

[12] if it runs to cost: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/oct/10/defence-projects-suffer-65bn-cost-blowout-as-marles-promises-more-scrutiny-in-future

[13] new jobs: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-03-13/aukus-submarine-deal-to-support-20000-jobs-next-30-years/102087324

[14] suggested: https://www.pm.gov.au/media/aukus-remarks-0

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