AUSMIN 2022: defence capability

As Australia’s foreign and defence ministers and the US secretaries of state and defence prepare to meet for the annual AUSMIN consultations, ASPI is releasing a volume of essays exploring the policy context and recommending Australian priorities for the talks. This is a slightly abridged version of the first chapter from the collection, which will be published next week.

Progress on AUKUS

In the year since the original AUKUS announcement, progress has been mixed. The public evidence indicates that the first stream of activity—the development of an Australian nuclear-powered submarine (SSN) capability—is progressing well. The signing of the Exchange of Naval Nuclear Propulsion Information Agreement showed that things can move quickly and has permitted close cooperation between the three nations. The head of Australia’s SSN taskforce has reported that he’s getting the necessary level of support from his AUKUS counterparts.

That doesn’t change the complexity of the challenge. It’s important that the government consider all viable options, particularly in the area of industrial strategy. There are potential paths that will deliver jobs and industrial capability and support our AUKUS partners that don’t involve assembling entire submarines in Australia. We should identify the most productive division of labour rather than inefficiently duplicating production lines. For example, the US Navy is facing significant maintenance backlogs for its submarine force. Consequently, an Australian focus on the sustainment of both Australia’s and our partners’ submarines may in fact be of greater benefit to both our own and our partners’ submarine capability and will create enduring industrial demand signals.

While the currently dominant view is that a US SSN design will be selected, it will be vital for AUSMIN principals to ensure that AUKUS remains a true trilateral partnership. Understanding the strengths that the UK brings, including to the global narrative that this isn’t just about the US and Australia, will be key to AUKUS’s success.

There’s less public information available on the second AUKUS track: the eight named areas of advanced capabilities. Two activities were announced in April 2022—a project on undersea capabilities and ‘an arrangement’ on quantum technologies. It should be a high priority for the government and industry partners to announce additional AUKUS projects as soon as possible.

While AUKUS’s Pillar 1 (the SSNs) needs to be led by the three respective defence organisations with other agencies in supporting roles, there is no reason why this must be the case in all Pillar 2 activities (the advanced capabilities). Innovation in Pillar 2 areas such as cyber, artificial intelligence and quantum are being driven by the commercial sector but have broad applications relevant to security and other sectors beyond defence that contribute to national power. As such, non-defence agencies can play leading roles to drive innovation and implementation in these capabilities.

It’s increasingly clear that the most urgent outcome that AUKUS will need to deliver is a way forward that will overcome the ‘dead hand’ of the US’s International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which effectively act as a barrier to sharing, increase the cost of entry of new industry players and discourage many companies from working with the US. Efforts to streamline ITAR will require full support from the US administration to overcome vested interests in the US bureaucracy and Congress. An initial tranche of second-track projects, specifically supported by AUSMIN principals, can act as test cases (or more directly, battering rams) to overcome ITAR processes. To bring appropriate attention to this issue, the joint communiqué should specifically state that both parties agree to work together to resolve the constraints that ITAR imposes on information sharing within AUKUS.

One of the drivers of AUKUS uncertainty is the absence of any authoritative public document on what AUKUS is. Consequently, commentators project their own hopes and fears onto it, often with little basis in fact. AUKUS would benefit from the publication of a public document setting out its guiding principles, how it will function and its objectives and outcomes.

If the original agreement isn’t widely distributed, a short charter would empower the national leads to overcome a business-as-usual mindset in the national bureaucracies, in much the same way as the brief appointment letter provided to Australia’s Covid-19 national vaccination rollout coordinator effectively empowered him to overcome bureaucratic resistance and inertia.

United States Force Posture Initiatives

After more than 10 years of activities, the United States Force Posture Initiatives are achieving their potential, but there’s more that can be done.

The enhancement of fuel holdings in northern Australia that’s currently occurring is a vital first step in improving the alliance’s ability to conduct operations from northern Australia. A next step would be to improve air bases at shared cost, including bare bases in Western Australia and Queensland. This could include protected shelters for aircraft, air-defence missiles and radars; expanded aprons to park more aircraft; larger munitions storage and loading facilities; and facilities to support larger numbers of personnel operating those bases.

We’re now seeing the full potential of the enhanced air cooperation stream of the US Force Posture Initiatives being demonstrated. The recent extended deployment of US Air Force B-2 bombers to northern Australia showed that the sustained operation of this powerful long-range strike capability is possible, providing a strong conventional deterrent. Such activities should be continued to develop the Australian Department of Defence’s understanding of long-range strike concepts and operations as well as the facilities and enablers needed to support them.

The enhanced air cooperation program is a useful template for the next logical step, which is to implement extended visits by US Navy SSNs to HMAS Stirling in Western Australia. This should be supported by the forward deployment of one of the US Navy’s submarine tenders. This will achieve several things. First, it will be a very visible demonstration of resolve and commitment to AUKUS. Second, it will allow Royal Australian Navy personnel to have firsthand experience of the capabilities of SSNs. Finally, it will help develop Australian understanding of the basing, maintenance and logistics systems needed to support SSN operations. It’s highly likely that the SSN taskforce is already engaging US counterparts on this issue. An in-principle AUSMIN announcement that such visits will occur in the near future would demonstrate to the public that progress is being made.

Enhancing air power

Air power is essential in the vast distances of the Indo-Pacific. It also has the potential to bridge any strike capability gap in the long transition to Australia’s SSN force, which could last into the 2050s. As we’ve noted, recent rotations of USAF B-2 bombers here have shown the utility of long-range strike operations from northern Australia. It’s time for Australia to seriously consider the re-establishment of its own bomber capability. While a bomber is a different capability from a submarine, it delivers similar ‘top-order’ effects as a long-range strike platform, imposing cost, risk and uncertainty on a potential adversary and acting as a conventional deterrent. Consequently, it’s possible that a bomber may act as a ‘gap filler’ in the SSN transition as well as serving as an enduring part of the Australian Defence Force’s force structure.

The most obvious candidate for this role is the B-21 bomber currently under development by Northrop Grumman for the USAF. Such an acquisition would of course be very expensive, imposing an opportunity cost on the ADF force structure; however, it may allow Australia to avoid the cost of the acquisition of an interim submarine, which would also draw industrial capability away from the Collins and SSN programs. Any decision would of course need to be informed by a robust understanding of the capability. So far, little information on the B-21 program has been released by the US.

Ministers should seek the agreement of their counterparts for Australia to engage at the classified level with the USAF and Northrop Grumman to develop a high-level initial business case for the development of an Australian B-21 capability.

The USAF fighter program, the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, is less mature than the B-21 program, but early engagement would have potential benefits for Australia. First, it would allow Australia to develop a deep understanding of the capability being developed. Second, it would allow Australia to participate. Since the NGAD is highly likely to be a system that will involve collaboration between crewed and uncrewed platforms, early engagement could allow Australia to contribute its MQ-28A Ghost Bat, which is being developed by Boeing Australia, to the program. It also opens the door to future acquisitions of NGAD-type crewed fighter capabilities that could complement both the F-35A and Ghost Bat platforms, as well as the B-21.

Sovereign guided weapons production

AUSMIN 2022 has the opportunity to secure US support for Australia’s guided weapons and explosive ordnance (GWEO) enterprise. There have been numerous announcements since the 2020 defence strategic update, but as yet no statements detailing which weapons will be produced in Australia and when. As with AUKUS, the GWEO enterprise can’t be allowed to drift, let alone fail, as every modern conflict reconfirms the importance of guided weapons and the limited stockpiles of those weapons.

The US government owns the intellectual property for many US guided weapons and controls its release. Moreover, the US Department of Defense is likely to be the largest customer for Australian-produced weapons after our own defence force. Therefore, the US government can play a key role in driving Australia’s GWEO enterprise, both by committing to releasing the necessary IP and by sending reliable demand signals.

AUSMIN can drive the GWEO enterprise. For example, it could announce that Australia will commence local production of specific weapons that Australia has already committed to acquiring as soon as possible. The LRASM, Javelin and HIMARS M31 rockets are all worthwhile candidates.

Editors’ note: This article was originally published on 23 November 2022. It was temporarily removed while amendments were made to the fourth paragraph under the ‘AUKUS’ heading to clarify the scope of the projects announced under the agreement’s advanced capabilities stream.