The AUKUS Alliance Has a Lot More to Offer Than Submarines
As the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia determine a path forward for Australia to acquire the nuclear-powered submarines promised by the Australia-United Kingdom-United States trilateral security pact (AUKUS), the agreement has faced domestic criticism in member states and external criticism from both China and Russia, which have condemned it as a threat to international stability. In the United States, lawmakers have argued that AUKUS is coming at a direct and unwise cost to U.S. security, worried that the undue burden resulting from the promised submarines to Australia will push an “already-strained industrial base” to its “breaking point.”
However, nearly all of the global attention has been laser-focused on the nuclear-powered submarines and has not sufficiently accounted for the broader, arguably more significant impact AUKUS could have on innovation incubation, technology and information-sharing, and reinforcing a stronghold in the Asia Pacific. Critics who focus solely on the cost of the submarines miss the bigger picture: AUKUS can provide one of the most robust means for the United States and its allies to counter China's technological advancements, and it represents a cost-effective investment in national security. Moreover, the partnership is not a one-way street; the U.S. stands to gain not only critical knowledge and expertise from partner countries on emerging technologies, but an avenue to more quickly and effectively research and develop capabilities that should not be overlooked.
The Delayed Promise of Pillar II
The security pact, which has continued to ruffle international feathers since September 2021 when it was first announced, encompasses two lines of effort. Pillar I: submarines, both nuclear and conventionally armed—which is most widely featured in news coverage—and Pillar II: other advanced military capabilities such as AI-enabled and autonomous capabilities (in particular, robotic and autonomous undersea systems), quantum computing projects on precision, navigation, and timing (PNT), cyber, hypersonic and counter-hypersonic technology, electronic warfare, and other technological innovation and information-sharing efforts.
Concerns over the lag on Pillar I have largely overshadowed the potential of Pillar II, which promises to have a wide-ranging effects on U.S. national security as it becomes the mainstay that continually delivers while the first builds slowly over time. The delay in Pillar I, combined with what seems like the U.S. approach to these pillars being sequential rather than in parallel, has unnecessarily delayed progress on Pillar II. Some American officials have argued that “reforms to U.S. laws on technology-sharing are required before advancing further to Pillar Two,” sometimes referring in particular to ITAR, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations regulatory regime that restricts the exports of military-related technologies, as placing difficult constraints even on “other Aukus members even though they are partners in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing community,” such that the U.S. will be unable to “move at the pace we would want it to if we want to out-innovate the Chinese.” Bill Greenwalt, former deputy undersecretary of defense for industrial policy in the Bush administration, put it simply: "The submarine portion will not happen in time to be relevant to a near-term conflict with China. What happens in Pillar Two could be, but only if ITAR is radically changed."
If the United States cannot pick up the pace of emerging technology development, it risks falling behind. To keep pace with China's rapid advances and to secure U.S. national interests, the United States must collaborate with other states if it wishes to stay ahead of the curve. It is no secret that the United States needs to do more with allies and partners, including in capability development, something that the Biden Administration has prioritized, especially in its approach to addressing the “pacing challenge” that China presents. AUKUS, particularly this second pillar, provides a potential avenue to do just that. By bringing together the expertise and resources of three powerful nations, Pillar II can serve as an incubator for innovation, jumpstarting progress that might otherwise be slowed down by bureaucratic hurdles and knowledge gaps.
Accelerating Innovation: How AUKUS and Pillar II Can Break Down Bureaucratic Hurdles and Drive Emerging Technology Advancement
Beyond the standard benefits of knowledge and technology transfer, by sharing and co-developing emerging technology projects, the U.S. can potentially leapfrog over some bureaucratic and organizational challenges that have been hindering U.S. defense AI advancement in particular.
Just as the aid packages the Biden administration provided to Ukraine generated opportunities to fast-track cutting-edge capabilities and even fine-tune them in real-time—such as the still-secretive Phoenix Ghost loitering munition which was sent directly “from the design table” to the battlefield—so too can AUKUS provide unique opportunities to better workshop and evolve capabilities.
Despite the lag of Pillar I, there are early indicators that this is already starting to happen. For example, U.S.-based military technology Anduril was, in part, able to expand its operations to work closely with the Australian Defence Force thanks to AUKUS, and has already been able to deliver new capabilities at breakneck speeds, unheard of in the U.S. for similar technologies. The Ghost Shark drone submarine prototype was unveiled three months early—it took a total of just 161 days to go from the first conversation to a signed contract of sale, according to the chief scientist for Australia’s Defense Science and Technology Group. More importantly, the subs will be “ITAR-free” instead, falling “under the US Commerce Department’s much less restrictive dual-use program.”
Moreover, by co-developing and having structured pathways for sharing these capabilities with partners, within the broader context of achieving integrated deterrence, important concepts like interoperability and Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) will be more likely to be built into new systems, rather than added as an afterthought.
Collaborating to Stay Ahead
As the pace of technological advancement continues to accelerate, the United States faces increasing pressure to stay ahead of its competitors. As China and others continue to invest heavily in emerging technologies and to make significant strides in areas such as quantum computing and AI, the United States must look to collaborate with its allies and partners if it is to secure its interests.
AUKUS not only signals U.S. solidarity with and commitment to its allies and partners but also mutually reinforces its efforts to spur defense innovation. Beyond simply sharing knowledge and technology, Pillar II in particular can serve as a powerful instrument for developing and refining critical technologies and capabilities more quickly and efficiently than they could be otherwise. Crucially, it can serve as a partial stopgap to some of the bureaucratic and organizational challenges that have historically hindered U.S. defense innovation. By streamlining the development and procurement process and incorporating concepts such as interoperability and JADC2 into new systems from the outset, the United States and its partners can work more efficiently and effectively to develop the critical capabilities needed to secure their interests in the face of mounting competition.