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Look beyond the Washington beltway for why AUKUS matters

Posted By and on March 23, 2023 @ 11:30

Last week, US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced the pathway for AUKUS [1] that will deliver nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. Canberra will purchase three to five Virginia-class SSNs from the United States before buying eight newly designed, UK- and Australian-built ‘SSN AUKUS’ subs. The deal outlines new docking, training and rotation agreements that will provide the US with a more robust strategic hub in the Indo-Pacific.

The three leaders have promised that the submarine project will create jobs, educational opportunities and investment for all three countries. While the announcement is welcome in its bold strategic vision, it remains scant on details and does not address the elephant in the room: the weakness in the combined defence industrial capacity to produce so many boats in so little time with so few resources.

Recent discussions [2] about a lack of industrial capacity to support the AUKUS submarine project highlight the continuing difficulties facing the trilateral technology security agreement. Leaders in Washington, Canberra and London all express the will [3] to make nuclear attack submarines a reality for the Australian Defence Force in order to deter China in the Indo-Pacific. But the hard work of building submarines doesn’t happen in the national capitals. Regional, state and local politics and markets—including debates about sourcing of raw materials and development of skilled labour pools—require attention.

Public pressure is the force necessary to untangle the Byzantine knot of regulations frustrating the sharing of classified and otherwise sensitive know-how, and will make or break the program. While platitudes around  [4]mateship [4] [4] and the strength and history of the US–Australia alliance sound comforting, the fundamental groundwork to make AUKUS a success will require previously unimagined levels of political and financial investment in the locales where SSNs are designed, constructed and maintained.

As ASPI DC Director Mark Watson noted [5] recently, ‘regardless of the strongly stated political and military support for AUKUS, members of Congress could begin to take a more ambivalent view [6] if it comes at the expense of US operational readiness’, even when the strategic logic is compelling. Moreover, if policymakers don’t provide incentives and benefits—jobs, educational opportunities or tax breaks—to get rank-and-file voters onboard, the American, British and Australian publics will be unlikely to make the necessary sacrifices and investments to see the deal through.

Failure to seek public support among key populations and to explain why AUKUS matters beyond the strategic area of the Indo-Pacific reveals a misunderstanding of what is required. For example, while US congressional committees and Oval Office staffers make key decisions on the future of nuclear submarines for Australia, American taxpayers will, at some point, demand evidence of a return on their investment.

Without that dividend, Australia’s requirement for a long-range submarine capability will remain unmet. And American interests [7] in linking industrial bases and integrating defence supply chains to share the burden of countering China through ‘collective efforts over the next decade’ will founder. US officials, Australian and British diplomats, and supportive strategists and researchers must make these arguments now.

The term ‘subnational diplomacy’ refers to the engagement of non-central governments in international relations and can include the foreign policy efforts of states and cities. We’ve seen negative publicity regarding subnational diplomacy in Australia in the case of the Victorian government’s aborted agreement [8] with China on a proposed Belt and Road Initiative project in 2019. But for countries such as Australia and the US, these sorts of relations are commonplace and generally constructive. As Washington’s prime characteristics are partisanship [9] and a short attention span, it’s no wonder that many promising bipartisan projects falter when campaign seasons begin or when other pressing foreign or domestic issues distract policymakers from following through. A subnational campaign to drive home the importance of AUKUS could help overcome these perennial structural problems.

For starters, entrenching the US–Australia alliance and particular projects associated with AUKUS at a state level can ensure Australia sells the importance of its interests to American voters. Australia has proposed investing $3 billion [10], mostly in America’s shipyards to expand and expedite production of the Virginia-class submarines. Australian policymakers will need to visit more than just Washington to discover the people who will be front and centre for AUKUS and who will help Australia meet its needs. Sending delegations that include officials and industry representatives from Australian states to boat-building cities in Connecticut and Virginia is a necessary next step.

Engaging on the ground means learning about and dealing with local politicians and community leaders. It also means dealing with labour unions, fabrication companies and the manufacturers of components beyond the nuclear technology that garners so much attention among DC tongue-waggers. State governments hold the purse strings on building new and refurbishing old shipyards [11] or creating tax conditions and tax breaks for AUKUS-related investments. Collaborating with state governments, county officials and mayors will promote a smoother process of getting submarines quickly into the hands of Australian defence personnel. Moreover, robust subnational outreach opens the door to new investment opportunities for American companies and for Australian companies in the US to invest in Australia.

The demand for full-society cooperation and coordination is even more important for the second pillar of AUKUS, which promises cooperation on advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, cyber, quantum computing and undersea capabilities—and in which states such as Arizona [12]Michigan [13] and Utah [14] may play prominent roles. In these various fields, the private sector is often the lead innovator—and the lead investor. Commercial players working in conjunction with state and local governments is the way to fast-track the development of dual-use technologies and avoid ponderous federal bureaucracies and partisan DC politics.

Selling governors and mayors on the benefits of AUKUS investment—things they already want—coupled with a national security message is smart. Subnational engagement will pay dividends when the time comes for Australia to develop maintenance facilities for the new SSNs or to create new industrial hubs to support integrated AUKUS shipbuilding that combines the industrial bases of all three partners. Australia [15], too, will need workers [16], high-tech fabrication yards and access to vital materials. Standard-setting across shops and opportunities for cross-training workers—including apprenticeships connecting specialists in Groton and Newport News and experts in Barrow-in-Furness with trainees in Perth and Adelaide—will be important.

The all-of-country approach needed to meet the strategic challenges facing the US, the UK and Australia is an ‘integrated industrial base [5]’ that benefits all three societiesThe SSN AUKUS deal is a welcome step in the right direction. However, if the partners are serious about deterring China, subnational engagement—from the politician to the welder—is imperative.

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

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/look-beyond-the-washington-beltway-for-why-aukus-matters/

URLs in this post:

[1] pathway for AUKUS: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/03/13/joint-leaders-statement-on-aukus-2/

[2] discussions: https://www.forbes.com/sites/craighooper/2022/12/06/aukus-lets-us-slow-new-sub-deliveries-fix-submarine-maintenance-problems/?sh=2f9a29797526

[3] express the will: https://courtney.house.gov/media-center/in-the-news/australian-aukus-subs-pact-basic-national-regional-security

[4] ‘: https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/1562745/us-australian-service-members-mark-100-years-of-mateship/

[5] noted: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/whos-going-to-build-australias-nuclear-submarines/

[6] more ambivalent view: https://www.afr.com/politics/leaked-letter-reveals-us-concerns-over-aukus-submarine-deal-20230106-p5cavp

[7] American interests: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/U.S.-Indo-Pacific-Strategy.pdf

[8] Victorian government’s aborted agreement: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/taking-low-road-chinas-influence-australian-states-and-territories

[9] partisanship: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/2022-us-midterm-elections-and-what-they-might-mean-australia

[10] investing $3 billion: https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2023-03-13/australias-nuclear-submarine-plan-to-cost-up-to-245-billion-by-2055-defence-official#:~:text=Australia%20will%20also%20provide%20A,of%20U.S.%20Virginia%2Dclass%20submarines.

[11] refurbishing old shipyards: https://www.cbs19news.com/story/42264317/industry-leader-investing-dollar644-million-in-newport-news

[12] Arizona: https://www.allaboutcircuits.com/news/semiconductor-fabs-dotting-arizona-silicon-desert/

[13] Michigan: https://www.michigan.gov/whitmer/news/press-releases/2022/09/01/whitmer-and-sk-siltron-bring-semiconductor-supply-chain-to-michigan-with-new-bay-city-facility

[14] Utah: https://www.deseret.com/utah/2019/8/21/20827294/salt-lake-city-tech-next-big-hub-other-major-cities

[15] Australia: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-09-26/sa-premier-reassured-nuclear-subs-will-be-built-in-adelaide/101472696

[16] workers: https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/defence/australia-to-train-2000-workers-for-submarines/news-story/55a4eee303fef66316fbe6795224896b

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