AUKUS: What Are These Three Really Up to Under the Surface?
(Source: special to Defense-Aerospace.com; posted April 14, 2022)
The political leaders of Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom (L to R) announce the AUKUS partnership on September 15, 2021. (WH photo)
When the creation of AUKUS came to the knowledge of the public, on September 15, 2021, comments largely focused on the disruption of the historical A$90bn contract with France’s Naval Group for conventional submarines and the procurement of nuclear-powered submarines to the Australian Navy.

Until then, only the five UNSC permanent members and India were operating such platforms (with Brazil on the course of developing its own as well). Many questions remain about this ambitious program, notably as to which companies will design and build the subs, how will intellectual property be shared among partners, what offsets could be conceded to Australian companies, or under which conditions will Australia source its highly enriched uranium.

However, while analysts like the director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Program Sam Roggeveen have argued that the delivery of nuclear-powered subs may well turn out to be overly ambitious and never take place, the dynamic launched in September is well underway. On February 8, the Exchange of Naval Nuclear Propulsion Information Agreement (ENNPIA) entered into force, granting Australia access to American and British classified information on the matter. The (at-least) eight submarines should be built in Adelaide and delivered in the 2040s. By then, Australia could extend some of its Collins-class submarines by 10 years and lease others from the UK and the US.

Downsides of the nuclear submarines deal for Australia.

The development of nuclear- powered submarines will have several important implications for Australia. For now, the country has neither the infrastructure, nor the experienced workforce required to play a significant industrial role in the program. While some offsets will certainly be offered to Australia, most of the workload will certainly fall on to American and British companies, contrarily to what was originally planned with Naval Group.

Lockheed Martin, originally in charge of procuring the weapons systems of Naval Group’s submarines, as well as other major US companies involved in the development of such platforms (notably Huntington Ingalls), will compete for the industrial workload associated with the contract with BAE and Rolls Royce. The latter were awarded a contract for the design and development of the UK’s new nuclear-propelled submarines just two days after the announcement of AUKUS, which may benefit them, as argued by the former director of RAND Canberra Jennifer Moroney and Georgetown scholar Alan Tidwell.

In addition to this lesser industrial implication from domestic firms, Australia’s strategic autonomy will paradoxically be reduced by the strength it will gain from nuclear propulsion. Such platforms could play a key role in the case of a major crisis between China and the US thanks to their much wider operational range. And as emphasized by Sam Roggeveen, “saying “no” to an ally when having the means to say “yes” is hard.”

AUKUS will become a major hub of defense innovation.

While the merits of the submarine deal are still debated in Australia, multiple benefits will undoubtedly come out of AUKUS for all its parties. As explained by Stanford’s Asia-Pacific Research Center scholar Arzan Tarapore, “beyond submarines, AUKUS seeks to win the technology competition against China by pooling resources and integrating supply chains for defense related science and industry.” And the race to hypersonic weapons lies at the very center of this collaboration.

On April 5, the three allies agreed to cooperate on their development. Such efforts have already been ongoing between Australia and the US since 2007, and most recently under the SCIFiRE program, which aims to develop and test hypersonic cruise missile prototypes.

Australia has also consented efforts of its own, and it recently allocated $3mn to Hypersonix, a domestic company, for the development of the 3D-printed airframe of a reusable hypersonic UAV travelling up to speeds of Mach 12. Such technology is of high interest to the US, and AUKUS will enable the three nations to benefit from their respective strengths in the field.

Companies from other countries could also benefit from this dynamic: Australia has recently invested $10mn to open a Hypersonics Research Precinct in Eagle Farm, Brisbane, where Thales Australia is located.

While being a key feature of this collaboration in defense innovation, hypersonics are far from being the only technological focus of AUKUS. The alliance encompasses programs across various fields, aiming to develop various advanced capabilities, most being dual in nature. Among them, electronic warfare may well be the only purely military field, where the three nations are planning to share “tools, techniques and technology.”

More specific elements were disclosed in other fields, such as undersea capabilities, with the AUKUS Undersea Robotics Autonomous Systems Project, eyeing initial trials for 2023. Its aim is to deploy undersea drones operating alongside submarines, as part of “systems of systems”.

The US Navy, which issued in 2020 its Robotics, Autonomous Systems and AI 2040 Strategy, has already ordered five Boeing Orca extra-large UUVs for missions of mine-laying and intelligence gathering. Australia might jump onboard this program, while the UK is currently moving towards the phase 3 of its experimental extra-large autonomous submarine Manta.

Here again, technological cooperation and interoperability will be at the core of the three countries’ future moves in the field. The three allies are also looking towards quantum technologies, with the AUKUS Quantum Arrangement (AQuA), primarily focused on uses in the field of Positioning, Navigation and Timing. Finally, artificial intelligence and advanced cyber capabilities were mentioned as some of the domains identified by the US, the UK and Australia. These will be as many chances for the latter to generate intellectual property in dual fields and attract investment in the country, while cementing the US and its allies’ Indo-Pacific strategy.

AUKUS is not limited to its three core members.

While the UK, the US and Australia constitute the core of the alliance, as historical allies and members of the Five Eyes intelligence community, the treaty was thought of as an “open architecture”, to which several key regional partners could be associated in the relevant areas. One would naturally think of Canada, which has not even been consulted on the creation of AUKUS, as a future partner. The country, for which the September 2021 announcement came as a strategic shock, is yet to release its Indo-Pacific strategy, which it started to work on in November 2021.

Japan is another natural partner; while not keen on nuclear subs, the country voiced through its ambassador to Australia Yamagami Shingo its willingness to participate in AUKUS initiatives in the fields of AI and cybersecurity.

European countries will also certainly look to cooperate with AUKUS; Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies researcher Jagannath Panda anticipates a sort of “AUKUS Plus” format, inspired from the “QUAD Plus” model, for such collaboration. Some other potential regional partners, more reserved as to the AUKUS’ purpose, include India and South-Korea. While the former cherishes its strategic autonomy and is not likely to join this dynamic (although limited collaboration remains possible), the latter sees the transfer of nuclear submarines technology to Australia as the ultimate justification for its repeated unsuccessful demands to Washington for such cooperation.

Should the US and AUKUS refuse to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Seoul, the country will likely try to purchase them from France, according to Moon Chung-In, chairman of the Sejong Institute.

Finally, while being skeptical about the presence of nuclear submarines near their waters, New-Zealand (which plans to deny Australian nuclear subs entry, in line with its ban on such platforms) and Indonesia will probably have to be associated in some shape or form.

Collaboration in cyber capabilities looks like the most suitable field to start with for these countries.

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