AUKUS raises questions Australia must answer
27 Jan 2022|

‘The future is always beginning now.’
— Mark Strand

The AUKUS agreement announced in September marks a milestone in Australia’s national security posture that will be felt for decades to come. It will shape how Australia meets the challenges of a dynamic geostrategic environment, especially in the Indo-Pacific. Last week’s AUKMIN ministerial talks with the UK have underscored the importance of the agreement. In adapting to an uncertain future, AUKUS presents new opportunities and benefits that extend well beyond the ground-breaking acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines.

However, AUKUS is still in its early days—with arguably more promise than detail. As the Australian National University’s Stephan Fruehling has noted, while there would have been much consideration during negotiations as to how the agreement would meet national interests, it’s hard to fully comprehend what it will mean for Australia. Nonetheless, there are aspects worth considering as to how the deal may affect the future.

Beyond submarines, AUKUS promises to deliver a wide range of technological and information-sharing benefits for Australia. From hypersonic weaponry to quantum technology and artificial intelligence, AUKUS will create opportunities for Australia to strengthen its security and strategic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific.

Notably, it provides Australia’s best opportunity to harness the near-future technological revolutions and accelerate the development and acquisition of critical and emerging defence technologies, such as advanced uncrewed aerial and underwater systems. This will not only help the nation maintain a regional capability edge but also enhance Australia’s emphasis on self-reliance in concert with key partners, which has been a recurrent theme in government policy guidance.

Seizing these opportunities, however, will necessitate a better integrated whole-of-society approach. Australia’s science, technology, industrial and supply bases must become intimate with  AUKUS for Australia to maximise its benefits. Developing a defence force that can effectively adopt these technologies will need an investment in the human capital to build the technical skills and innovative mindset to link the new capabilities with new warfighting concepts.

The benefits of having access to revolutionary technologies and capabilities, however, will come with costs—notably the expectation of a more proactive Australia in the Indo-Pacific. This may mean revising Australia’s ‘middle power’ mentality to step up as a regional leader that’s more responsive to neighbours, especially in thwarting the pervasive threat of grey-zone warfare.

In this, Australia must continue its engagement with partner nations to understand how it can best contribute to security and support our strategic partners. As ASPI’s Malcolm Davis highlights, Australia needs to be extremely active in its defence diplomacy to positively influence a region that may view AUKUS as a reinforcement of Anglo-American views and dismissive of regional ones. This may demand that Australian Defence Force personnel develop diplomatic skills earlier in their careers rather than has historically been the case. Typically, diplomatic efforts are the realm of select senior officers.

AUKUS will provide Australia with a new strategic paradigm to operate from. The UK’s inclusion marks further recognition that the global centre of power is shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  Australia’s place in the centre of the Indo-Pacific, in contrast to the US and UK, means changes in the regional strategic environment are of extra significance.

This paradigm shift brings the opportunity to rethink Australian strategy and ways of doing business. That may require redefining old notions of regional engagement while revolutionising the ADF’s warfighting concepts and effects. However, these changes rely on grasping the intellectual edge to engage in new ideas and thinking. The entire defence enterprise will need to be leveraged and empowered to explore potential futures, opportunities and options.

As part of this new strategic paradigm, it will be critical to answer how AUKUS fits into Australia’s security outlook. It will be important to clearly understand how it aligns with existing security relationships including ANZUS, the Five Power Defence Arrangements and the Quad, as well as key forums such as ASEAN. Finding answers to questions such as, ‘Will Australia’s strategic focus drive or be driven by AUKUS?’ and ‘To what extent will access to technology drive strategy?’ will also be essential.

AUKUS will inevitably more closely intertwine Australia’s actions with those of its key allies. While positive in many aspects, this growing interconnectedness and dependency could also involve making unfavourable compromises, such as on issues of sovereignty.

Consider Australian reliance on AUKUS support to operate the technology gained through it. How long will Australia be reliant on this external support? How much domestic capability must be developed and what are the priority areas? These questions are particularly pertinent when it comes to acquiring nuclear-powered submarines.

Ultimately, the question on sovereignty that AUKUS raises is one of freedom of action: to what degree will Australia continue to be able to pursue independent operations when using AUKUS technology and information? While this has always been an issue for Australia, AUKUS will provide a renewed focus on what sovereign capabilities Australia requires while contributing to alliance obligations. This argument also applies to space and cyber, where increasingly critical operational activities are taking place.

These questions are not intended to scare; AUKUS will be enormously advantageous and is a necessary alliance for enhancing Australia’s security in increasingly complex times. But these questions must be considered and eventually answered to clearly define a strategy for this ‘dangerous decade’ and beyond.