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Making AUKUS work

Posted By and on March 22, 2022 @ 13:30

Russia’s war in Ukraine has brought into stark relief the dangerous face of revisionist power. It could serve as a catalyst to urgent action in countering both Russian and Chinese revisionism. One avenue for such action is the AUKUS technology-sharing agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

AUKUS presents new opportunities, the first and foremost of which is providing Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. The US has only ever shared nuclear-propulsion technology once before, with the UK. Beyond submarines, AUKUS aims to promote greater sovereign defence capability for Australia and Britain by providing access to US technology. It is designed to push back against any potential weakening of the alliance bonds by selectively combining defence capability between Australia, the UK and the US in the face of strategic competition with China and Russia.

AUKUS is a grand experiment, a focused security partnership intended to deepen collaboration on advanced military capabilities and technologies including cyber, artificial intelligence and quantum concepts. If effectively implemented, AUKUS could become the springboard for revolutionising how the US works with a select group of its most capable allies through the extraordinary depth of technological development, access to highly classified materials and expanded sharing of intellectual property.

AUKUS could open up new avenues for cooperative development and production of armaments (the P-8 [1], Triton [2] and Jammer [3] are examples to follow). It will be important to demonstrate the utility of AUKUS in facilitating a broader defence relationship by laying out a realistic, clear-eyed vision for the partnership; establishing a framework and plan to manage the work; identifying and then addressing barriers; and ensuring that metrics are in place to measure progress. Taking all these steps may help get AUKUS off the ground and bring major benefits to the partners and their regions.

Canberra, London and Washington have each responded to AUKUS differently. While all are committed at the diplomatic level, Australia’s engagement is deepest. Canberra is investing significant resources to ensure that both the nuclear-powered submarine and advanced capabilities workstreams succeed. As one anonymous Australian official noted, AUKUS has virtually restructured the entirety of Canberra’s defence and foreign policy thinking. UK national security adviser Stephen Lovegrove described [4] AUKUS as ‘perhaps the most significant capability collaboration anywhere in the world in the past six decades’. AUKUS fits neatly into the UK’s integrated review [5], which promotes London’s return to the Indo-Pacific. However, the UK is, at least on the surface, the junior partner [6]. The US sits somewhere in between, broadly keen to make it work, but distracted by countless other major world events, like the war in Ukraine and strategic competition with China.

The barriers to AUKUS’s success are numerous [7]. At the national level, each country has its own political and economic challenges. Australians will go to the polls sometime between now and the end of May 2022. In the US, the November mid-term elections will soon distract Congress, so the legislative actions necessary to bring AUKUS into being may well have to wait until 2023. The UK will go to the polls no later than May 2024.

AUKUS’s effectiveness could depend on the development of a new legislative framework in the US, the commitment of organisational resources and access to the requisite expertise, the ability to identify and manage challenges, and the employment of measurable indicators of success. These are not easy tasks, and each carries some risk.

An unprecedented US legislative framework would include information-sharing agreements not just on nuclear propulsion, but also on much broader areas in key sectors. Such a framework could be designed to allow innovation to flourish, particularly as AUKUS looks for opportunities in artificial intelligence, quantum, and other key defence technologies. The role of the private sector, and the complications therein, is an underanalysed aspect of AUKUS. The involvement of defence industry also raises commercial data sensitivities and intellectual property issues—both of which may require additional legislative attention.

AUKUS planners would need adequate resources to take on these tasks, including a distributed governance framework with shared responsibilities and committed staff and resources, along with political and organisational support from the three governments.

Several AUKUS working groups have been established to flesh out the cooperative details. To be effective, these groups should be empowered by strong leadership, informed by evidence-based analysis, and encouraged to convene regularly. They could go beyond admiring the problems to identifying solutions. The success of the working groups will also greatly depend on the active and continuous support of senior leadership from all three nations.

Senior leaders could also ensure that the working groups have access to experts, practitioners and program implementers from Australia, the UK and the US who understand the breadth and depth of the existing barriers and the necessary workarounds. This could be challenging. While developing the cooperative framework, AUKUS may well shine a bright light on the barriers to collaboration—not only technical, but also bureaucratic, budgetary, cultural, regulatory, political and strategic.

Clear, measurable outcomes for each working group could be developed from the outset. For example, meeting deliverable dates is an obvious and essential metric, as is consistent maintenance of meeting schedules and speed of decision-making. Progress in armaments cooperation is another metric, and includes changing processes that facilitate innovation and deepening of cooperation.

The ability to resolve bureaucratic barriers (such as routine overclassification of information) and regulatory challenges (such as technology-transfer limitations) is yet another hurdle to overcome. The three capitals might develop multi-year plans detailing proposed projects, anticipated costs and timelines for delivery. Success on each of these projects could be reported annually.

AUKUS clearly offers significant opportunities for Canberra, London and Washington. More than a repackaging of existing capabilities, AUKUS reimagines the way in which three capable allies work together. The success of AUKUS may rely on the effective management of this minilateral arrangement, and on each country’s willingness to adopt new policies and make legislative changes to allow for close collaboration. Making such changes will require strong management and, crucially, recognition by all parties that such changes are necessary to make progress in addressing common strategic goals.

What happens from here will determine whether Australia, the UK and the US can compete more effectively against China and Russia, or whether AUKUS becomes an interesting footnote in the story of what could have been.



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URLs in this post:

[1] P-8: https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2019/12/12th-and-final-p-8a-poseidon-mpa-arrived-in-australia/

[2] Triton: https://www.navair.navy.mil/news/US-Australia-work-side-side-Triton-UAS-development/Wed-08212019-1422

[3] Jammer: https://defbrief.com/2020/07/16/australia-us-expanding-next-generation-jammer-cooperation/

[4] described: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/sir-stephen-lovegrove-speech-at-the-council-on-geostrategy

[5] integrated review: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/global-britain-in-a-competitive-age-the-integrated-review-of-security-defence-development-and-foreign-policy

[6] junior partner: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/09/17/aukus-submarine-deal-shift/

[7] numerous: https://warontherocks.com/2021/12/changing-my-mind-about-aukus/

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