Keeping the momentum going on AUKUS
16 Sep 2022|

The AUKUS partnership is of profound importance for Australia’s military capabilities, as a broader strategic framework and as a practical reflection of the friendship among three democratic nations with shared values.

Both the nuclear-powered submarine and advanced capabilities streams of AUKUS appear to be progressing well. In July, the AUKUS partners announced that they were ‘accelerating near-term capabilities in hypersonics and counter-hypersonics, as well as cyber’. Increasingly pressing strategic demands make the first anniversary of the enhanced partnership a good time to consider how Australia can ensure this progress continues apace.

AUKUS was instigated by Australia because Australia will benefit most from it, but it was also an extraordinarily significant decision for the US and UK. In assessing why the US in particular felt it was in its strategic interests to share technology it hadn’t shared in 70 years, it’s important to understand how agreement was sought.

Very deliberately, the first approaches to the US and UK were at the military level. Drawing on a lifetime of professional relationships, particularly in the submarine community, Australia was able to mount the strategic case with those concerned about the deteriorating environment in the Indo-Pacific who understood subsurface warfare and read the same intelligence assessments as we did. Critically, the political level in the US was only engaged once there was a level of comfort within the system. That engagement occurred after President Joe Biden took office.

Once discussions on the submarines were underway at the military and political levels, Prime Minister Scott Morrison opted to broaden the discussions to ensure Australia could access advanced capabilities to help cover any capability gaps in the transition to nuclear-powered submarines.

Morrison also wanted to secure the commitment of the US and UK as partners in Australia’s security and capability needs even if it was ultimately determined that the submarine pathway couldn’t be achieved. Whatever happened with submarines, the three partners would share advanced capabilities that would meet our defence needs. Morrison introduced the concept of AUKUS as an overarching framework publicly binding Australia, the UK and the US together on security and defence matters and committing them to share advanced military capabilities, just one of which would be nuclear submarines.

Ahead of the three leaders meeting in Cornwall in June 2021, enthusiasm grew for an overarching ‘enhanced trilateral security arrangement’ strengthening the relationship’s strategic value and signalling to the world that their nations were as one in their commitment to the Indo-Pacific region.

The Cornwall meeting effectively became the first AUKUS leaders’ meeting, which produced an agreement to pursue this framework. Three months later, the joint leaders’ statement committed the three nations to collaborate on submarines and other advanced capabilities, including information and technology sharing, and deeper integration of security- and defence-related science, technology, industrial bases and supply chains.

This broader agreement sets the scene to grow the arrangement into a broader strategic partnership, much like we have seen with the Quad, the Five Eyes and ANZUS.

Australia can take four steps to continue to drive the partnership.

AUKUS will benefit from leader-level ownership, having been leader-led from the start. Our leaders negotiated the agreement and sealed it with their personal commitment.

Of course, defence ministers and officials are working on the detail, but the level of trust required to share this technology must be nurtured by leaders to ensure broad-based and continuing political and national support.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese signalled his personal commitment to the Quad by attending the leaders’ meeting a few days after his election. A similar signal as Australia’s steward of AUKUS would demonstrate ownership, continuity and the stamp of the leader’s gravitas. A speech or statement to parliament by the prime minister acknowledging the anniversary could set out the government’s vision and help embed AUKUS in Australia’s security lexicon.

This shouldn’t wait for a decision on the submarines or for finalisation of the defence strategic review. Rather, the government’s vision of the AUKUS partnership should help inform both of these endeavours.

The government could nominate an AUKUS ‘champion’, a position comparable to a chief scientist or a national cyber security adviser, who would serve as a national steward, coordinating and driving the partnership, reporting directly to the prime minister but with the authority to speak publicly and work across the government.

The US has taken steps in this direction, appointing a senior adviser on AUKUS in the Pentagon to coordinate the combined submarine and advanced capability efforts, and an AUKUS coordinator at the National Security Council.

An AUKUS champion would drive organic growth in the key areas of cooperation, working across government, the military, industry, academia and think tanks on aspects such as information and technology sharing, science and technology, industrial bases and supply chains. They would seek out trilateral partnerships across sectors to move AUKUS beyond direct military-to-military arrangements and towards a broader security relationship drawing on the agreed AUKUS principles.

Some organisations have already taken the initiative. ASPI has joined with the Centre for Grand Strategy and the Centre for a New American Security for an AUKUS public forum on the partnership’s first anniversary, and the University of New South Wales, King’s College London and Arizona State University have expanded their PLuS Alliance into a security and defence initiative for joint research in the spirit of AUKUS.

Australia should help establish an AUKUS framework for future collaboration with other partners.

While there’s been significant commentary on inviting other nations to be part of AUKUS—JAUKUS (with Japan) and FRAUKUS (with France) have been suggested—the partnership isn’t mature enough for expansion. Time is needed to demonstrate how AUKUS can deliver for Australia and its partners. This includes properly establishing the leader-level, defence-minister-level and organisational governance in all three countries—and delivering advanced capabilities into service.

However, it would make sense now to define the principles and framework for working with other nations. That wouldn’t be done as direct expansion but as targeted collaboration where others bring expertise that could accelerate the development of a specific capability, or where there is a clear strategic driver.

How such collaboration will work needs to be clearly defined by the three nations now, so that they can assess each opportunity with a hard-headed focus to ensure they protect the capabilities and partnership when those opportunities arise in the future.

Australia should persuade its partners to release the AUKUS agreement. It was always intended to be made public and the former government should have made more progress on that in the months following the announcement. The agreement sets out some of AUKUS’s guiding principles and important governance structures.

That would give comfort to Australians and others about what AUKUS is and what it is not. It would help other countries understand what’s involved in future collaboration with the three partners.

There’s much to be excited about with AUKUS. The opportunities are limited only by imagination and effort. Australia should continue to take the lead in driving the partnership, building relationships and securing practical outcomes. This will demonstrate the value of AUKUS to our partners and to our own people and send an important signal to other nations in the region about Australia’s commitment to stability and security.