Understanding AUKUS | The Strategist

Since its announcement a year ago, the AUKUS deal, linking the US and UK to Australia’s ambitions to acquire nuclear submarines, has had divided opinion.

Critics have portrayed the pact as an alliance that could destabilize the security architecture of the Indo-Pacific region. The idea is that proliferation of nuclear-powered submarines could lead to a regional arms race and leave the door open to the eventual arming of future Australian submarines with nuclear weapons.

A year later, are the critics correct in their concerns about AUKUS? This question can only be answered by understanding what AUKUS is and is not, and why this Agreement is relevant beyond its immediate technical terms.

AUKUS is not a security alliance. There is no provision in it that suggests such a notion, and none of the steps taken so far have been aimed at making it an alliance.

AUKUS is a technology accelerator agreement for national defense purposes, nothing more and nothing less. It aims to allow three countries to work closely together to translate the promise of today’s mature technologies, such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence, into tomorrow’s military edge.

Last April, the three participating governments said the implementation of AUKUS would be overseen by senior officials and joint steering group meetings that would define different efforts.

These areas would be developed by 17 technical working groups. Nine of them focus on the submarine program, while eight relate to advanced skills. This is not a political process of forming alliances, although the sensitivity of the technologies involved requires a commitment to sharing highly classified information.

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This clarification leads to a second observation. AUKUS is not about achieving stability through some form of nuclear-armed submarine deterrence.

Rather, the issues in the advanced capability working groups suggest that the main goal of the pact is to increase the intelligence and deterrent value of conventional capabilities.

In this regard, one of the most striking assumptions about AUKUS is its belief in technology as the key to unlocking the full potential of conventional underwater capabilities through enhanced early warning and, when required, unmatched targeting accuracy.

In addition, AUKUS has shown how leaders in the three national capitals view the maritime sphere as a central pillar to the stability of the Indo-Pacific and the broader international order.

It is therefore strategically important to understand what AUKUS is all about. It is important because it sheds light on a worldview in which the sea is vital to international affairs, and consequently technology that enables better operations in and out of that area has vital value.

The world view of AUKUS is based on the knowledge that the maritime foundations of the international order are subject to state constraints. Safe shipping lanes and intact submarine cables are engines of economic prosperity and political stability. This is as true in the Indo-Pacific as elsewhere.

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The recent Russian blockade of Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea and China’s military maneuvers across the Taiwan Strait are reminders of the risks of global prosperity being disrupted by states willing to exploit the maritime order to exert political pressure.

AUKUS is therefore a down payment to prevent one of the most important components of the international order from being further destabilized.

AUKUS is a statement of why such a specific technology agreement has broader strategic relevance. It does not destabilize regional security, as no other element of the regional architecture is designed to ensure that the sea remains open to business and unchallenged by revisionist states.

However, like any investment in future capabilities, AUKUS is likely to change over time. The sensitivity of the advanced capabilities being explored in the collaboration, from submarines to hypersonic missiles, will result in closer proximity and strategic convergence between the partners. The recent news that Australian submarines will train on British boats implies an understanding of such a demand and a willingness to pursue it.

This is the second reason why AUKUS is strategically important. In an environment where advanced technology is becoming increasingly important to maintain a military edge, only trusted partners will be able to get the most out of defense collaborations.

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In the case of AUKUS, renewed discussions about cooperation between Australia and France and between Japan and the AUKUS partners indicate that AUKUS is not an exclusive club, but one whose membership is characterized by high standards of innovation and information security.

That doesn’t mean AUKUS won’t face challenges getting there before Australia deploys nuclear submarines in 2040. The implementation of the agreement will put national industrial capacities under pressure. Recent comments from senior American officials suggest that the idea of ​​building Australia’s first submarines in the US could be problematic.

Until the selection of the propulsion system, however, the design and construction of the boats remain an open question. Compared to the impact of technology on future changes in systems and sensors, division of labor is likely to remain an important variable of change.

What is certain is that a year later, AUKUS started showing a clear path as to what it is and why it is important. AUKUS is moving towards a maritime-informed worldview, where accelerating collaboration in cutting-edge technology may very well make the difference in how to secure strategic advantages and maintain maritime stability.

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