November 24, 2021

Why Did AUKUS Happen? Because the World Changed.

Australian Navy personnel look at the UK nuclear-powered attack submarine HMS Astute docked at HMAS Stirling Royal Australian Navy base in Perth, Western Australia.
Australian Navy personnel look at the UK nuclear-powered attack submarine HMS Astute docked at HMAS Stirling Royal Australian Navy base in Perth, Western Australia.

What is AUKUS and what is it not? What does it mean for Europe, NATO and the Indo-Pacific?

The Australia-UK-US partnership announced by American President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on 15 September 2021 shows how much the world has changed in just five years.

Back in 2016, when Australia selected a French diesel electric design as the basis for its key deterrent weapon—its next generation submarine—a nuclear submarine was not in the options considered. That’s because Australian government and military leaders did not see Australia’s strategic environment as warranting the difficulty and complexity of acquiring and operating nuclear submarines, and because neither the US nor the UK governments would have been likely to agree to share nuclear submarine technologies with Australia if Australia had asked. Neither government has shared this technology with any other partner since they entered the US-UK nuclear partnership in 1958.

A single factor explains the shift in these three governments’ positions between 2016 and 2021: the now manifest systemic challenge that a powerful, aggressive Chinese state under President Xi Jinping poses to security in the Indo-Pacific, and globally. President Xi has made what was unthinkable in 2016 necessary in 2021. AUKUS, therefore, is about one big thing: shifting the military balance in the Indo-Pacific away from China to raise the cost of Beijing using military power and intimidation to achieve its ends.

It is about reducing the likelihood of conflict in the region by strengthening credible deterrence. That’s essential and urgent because President Xi has already shown a willingness to make big moves fast against others’ interests when he thinks he can get away with it (as we have seen with China’s militarisation of the South China Sea and occupation of disputed features and areas there, with Beijing’s breach of the Sino-UK Treaty on Hong Kong, in aggressive moves by China on the India-China border, in the East China Sea with Japan and in and around Taiwan). The Chinese government is continuing to push its defence sector and its technology sector to equip the Chinese military to fight and win wars. And Xi continues to direct the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) to be “be ready to strike at a moment’s notice”, with training and exercising showing the PLA is acting on this instruction.

For the US and the Biden Administration, AUKUS is an emphatic demonstration that the Afghanistan withdrawal was worth the pain because it is letting the US focus time and resources on the Indo-Pacific in a way neither Barack Obama nor Donald Trump did. It shows that Biden meant what he said during his presidential campaign—he has ended the US commitment to Afghanistan, he is seeking to rebuild the US economy through infrastructure, technology and investments that address climate change and generate economic and technological strength, and he is facing up to the challenge of China. AUKUS can give President Biden some of the momentum his administration needs.

It is, as Charles Edel has said, “a sea change in US strategic thinking towards empowering its allies, redistributing its forces around the Indo-Pacific, and better integrating its allies into its supply chains and industrial planning to deal with an increasingly aggressive China”.

For the UK, AUKUS is an enormous injection into the substance of the UK’s Indo-Pacific Tilt set out in its Integrated Review. It’s a part of the Global Britain ambition post-Brexit. And AUKUS connects to UK strengths—in cyber and science and technology.

For Australia, AUKUS is a response to the government’s description of Australia’s deteriorating strategic environment, set out in the July 2020 Defence Strategic Update, primarily because it is the vehicle for adding offensive power to Australia’s military that raises the costs to others in the region of contemplating conflict involving Australia. Furthermore, it reinforces Australia’s deep alliance and security partnerships with the US and the UK, again with a regional focus.

The Five Nots—What AUKUS is Not

AUKUS, though, is five ‘Nots’. It is not just a pact about sharing nuclear submarine technology that leads to Australia acquiring and operating eight of these “peak predator” deterrent weapons. It is not a military alliance that contains commitments to come to each other’s aid in times of crisis and conflict. It is not a sidelining of the other key rising Indo-Pacific-focused minilateral—the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue involving India, the US, Japan and Australia. It is not a signal that Australia seeks to be less engaged in existing regional multilateral architecture like the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the East Asia Summit. And it is not a substitute for the deep and successful Five Eyes intelligence partnership involving the US, Canada, the UK, New Zealand and Australia.

Taking each “Not” in turn: AUKUS has a clear agenda that includes the nuclear submarine program, but it goes beyond this into four essential areas of future but near-term military advantage: artificial intelligence, cyber, quantum technologies and undersea technologies (other than the submarines). These focus areas of AUKUS are critical for the three nations and for security in the Indo-Pacific over the next 5, 10 and 20 years.

Australia doesn’t need a new alliance with the US—it already has the ANZUS Treaty—and the Australia-UK partnership is already deep, with mutual expectations of consultation and assistance if either were to face conflict or crisis. The Five Eyes partnership is central here.

The Quad partnership between four of the major powerful democracies in the Indo-Pacific has a security and technology dimension, but it’s central purpose is, as India’s Prime Minister Modi has said, promotion of a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. This means that the Quad’s agenda is as much about “public goods” that bind the region together and promote open and transparent values and behaviours as it is about hard-edged security cooperation aimed at deterring Beijing’s leaders from using military force and intimidation to achieve their ends. To the extent that AUKUS increases the military power of the US, Australia and the UK and shifts the military balance away from China in the Indo-Pacific, it is deeply complementary to the Quad, and a foundational contribution to a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. No doubt, this is why new Japanese Prime Minister Kishida has welcomed AUKUS.

Australia will continue to be an engaged member in the regional architectures for diplomacy and dialogue on security and economics in the Indo-Pacific, notably the ASEAN-centred architecture that includes the East Asia Summit and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). However, AUKUS is equally a message that, as with the Quad, Australia and the US see a crucial need to add real weight to a balancing strategy. Dialogue and cooperation are essential, but without real deterrence and a serious balancing counterweight, dialogue will achieve little and genuine cooperation will have limits.

The Five Eyes intelligence partnership between the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand has a healthy overlap with the technology focus areas of AUKUS. High end intelligence capabilities must involve an understanding and application of artificial intelligence, cyber and quantum technologies. However, the purpose of the Five Eyes partnership in these technology areas is an intelligence one, and much of the cooperation is within highly classified boundaries. So, approaches inside this domain don’t naturally bleed out to the militaries or national security communities of the Five Eye partners. With AUKUS, the US, UK and Australian leaders have recognised this and set out a path for faster progress for their militaries that does not depend on the intelligence community.

If Australia getting nuclear subs is central to AUKUS, then won’t stronger deterrence have to wait until the 2040s?

The obvious problem for AUKUS if it were mainly about nuclear submarines as the key to shifting the military balance in the Indo-Pacific is that eight additional nuclear attack submarines by themselves in the hands of the US and its close allies in the Indo-Pacific will not shift that balance enough. Furthermore, even the contribution it will make to deterrence of conflict is some way off. Public statements from Australian naval officials since the AUKUS announcement state a goal of having at least one Australian nuclear submarine before 2040 and an ambition to have more than one by that time. The 19 years between now and then are almost certain to see continuing rapid growth in China’s military power and deployment of novel weapons systems (an example being the developmental hypersonic glide vehicle launched from space in two tests earlier this year).

It’s no coincidence, then, that AUKUS has a two-speed timetable. The slow speed program is about nuclear submarine cooperation. Whereas the rest of the AUKUS agenda relating to AI, cyber, quantum and undersea technologies other than the submarines is designed to shift the military balance over the 2020s and through the 2030s, with the nuclear submarine element adding further deterrent power after that.

There is little doubt that the leaders’ direction to their defence organisations to accelerate getting applications of these technologies into the hands of their military personnel is a sign of frustration that this was not already happening at speed and scale.

What AUKUS is

AUKUS is a trilateral technology accelerator between the governments of the three signatory nations with a ruthless focus on increasing the military power of each nation by accelerating the development and application of key technologies into the hands of their service men and women. It is a trilateral agreement that is bringing into being three other joined ‘trilaterals’ in each of the three nations: between the governments, the research organisations and the companies—including tech firms outside the traditional defence sector. AUKUS will succeed as a technology accelerator if it keeps its focus on the particular technology streams identified in the joint leaders’ statement and if the three nations, their defence organisations and research and corporate sectors understand the imperative of delivering tangible capability advantage to the US, UK and Australian militaries.

Success also requires not expecting existing institutional arrangements about force development contracting and procurement to deliver, because if they were doing so already, AUKUS would not have been required. So, AUKUS is a challenge to the “incumbents”, including the defence organisations, their procurement arms and the traditional defence firms in each nation.

What Does AUKUS Mean for NATO and the EU?

Most obviously, AUKUS is a powerful statement about the priority of the Indo-Pacific—and the systemic challenge of China for the three partners, reinforcing the assessments driving the Quad partners’ increasingly deep cooperation. The tension AUKUS has provoked between each of the partners, most notably Australia, and France flowing from the loss by the French of a $90 billion conventional submarine program has been playing out in ugly, angry and personal ways between the leaders, including in the margins of the recent G-20 and Glasgow COP26 events.

In the short term, this tension has disrupted the growing cooperation on the China challenge between the AUKUS partners and France, and complicated EU and member state engagement also, despite the growing number of European nations with Indo-Pacific policies, strategies and guidelines and the recent EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. This is likely to be a less important disruption in the medium term, however, as the force driving convergence between the EU, individual European states and the AUKUS partners is a common assessment of the systemic challenge from China.

In the region, ASEAN members have expressed mixed views on the new partnership, with Indonesia and Malaysia expressing concern about the potential destabilisation that nuclear submarines might cause, while others are at least quietly welcoming the partnership, despite low key official statements. There is an underlying understanding of the value of balancing Chinese power, with this being done outside the existing dialogue and engagement architecture. This mindset will be equally applicable for European partners to appreciate as they implement their various Indo-Pacific directions.

AUKUS is also a new ‘minilateral’ that joins a small set of other Indo-Pacific-focused minilateral partnerships Australia works within. The Quad and the Australia-Japan-US trilateral are key examples.

These minilaterals have different purposes and agendas but, managed well, are mutually reinforcing. They are a way of conducting “fast multilateralism”. They allow the particular groupings in each to pursue specific agendas where the partners have strong common interests and are willing to apply resources to advance these, with a sense of urgency. This means that the minilaterals can move faster and do more than wider multilateral groups. The UK’s deeper engagement and presence in the Indo-Pacific through its ‘Indo-Pacific Tilt’ set out in its recent Integrated Review makes it a welcome partner for these other non-AUKUS groupings.

The rise and increasing priority of these minilateral groupings is a challenge to existing broader groupings like NATO and the wider set of US allies, just as it is to the existing multilateral groupings in the Indo-Pacific.

They are a statement that the larger institutional groupings aren’t acting with the common purpose and speed that the current strategic and technological environment demands, just as the current institutional arrangements for capability development and delivery within the AUKUS partners has also not delivered what is now required. How NATO responds, and whether small partner groupings within NATO and the EU will likewise seek a ‘minilateral’ approach, while also working within the larger groupings, is probably the subject of analysis and perhaps decision to be made in various capitals.

There’s more to like about AUKUS than wondering about the utility of nuclear submarines.


This article was written for ICDS Diplomaatia magazineViews expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).