AUKUS is still a toddler with a long way to go
AUKUS turns 2

AUKUS had a quiet 2nd birthday - maybe because it's yet to deliver tangible results or see the hard political and budgetary choices it needs made.

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

15 September 2021 seems a long time ago in AUKUS land.  That’s when Scott Morrison (‘that fella down under’ as Joe Biden memorably called him) stood with Boris Johnson and Joe Biden to announce the birth of this new defence technology partnership that is all about deterring Xi Jinping from ordering his People’s Liberation Army to begin a war – over Taiwan or elsewhere in our contested region.

Since that day, we’ve seen many tri-national working groups of officials formed and meeting furiously. A new Australian Submarine Agency has been brought into being whose staffing is expanding day to day (over 300 last time I looked). A different set of the three nations’ leaders – still Joe Biden but joined by Rishi Sunak and Anthony Albanese – met in San Diego in March to tell us the ‘optimal pathway’ for Australia to get 8 nuclear submarines.

And here in Australia, we had the theatre of the Labor Party conference, with junior Defence minister Pat Conroy making a stirring speech about deterrence to the assembled doubtful delegates, and a carefully-orchestrated deal with unions and anti-American delegates that added an AUKUS attachment to the Party Platform.

Meanwhile, US Congress continues to debate Pentagon plans to transfer US Virginia Class submarines to Australia in the early 2030s as America’s own domestic debate about its military capabilities and its submarine industrial base challenges gathers momentum.  And the Biden Administration is pushing ambitious legislation into Congress to change the way that US export controls – the ITARS laws – operate to enable industrial level sharing of US technology between the AUKUS partners.

A reassuring bottom line to these growing American debates that we have heard a lot about is that, in a divided Congress, Australia and AUKUS are still areas of unanimous positive sentiment and support.  We hear the same here in Australia about the strong bipartisan support for AUKUS from the ‘parties of government’ – the ALP and the Coalition.

What could be disturbing birthday celebrations for the 2 year old AUKUS toddler?  Well, the unfortunate fact is that, since the announcement, none of the three AUKUS partners has had to do anything hard to make AUKUS a reality. 

The current Australian government talking about a $368 billion price tag for the 8 nuclear submarines sounds heroic – but that’s been accompanied by reassurance to the taxpayer that this bill is a long way off in the future and is a small percentage of our GDP. Very like those late night TV adds where you can ‘send no money now’ but fix up those pesky bank details later.

Similarly, any thoughts about where the used highly enriched uranium in the submarine reactors will be stored and where a new East Coast submarine base will be have been kicked off into the very distant political future.  Something for other Australian governments to wrestle with politically, legally and economically.

The lovely bipartisan sentiment in Canberra and Washington about close allies and shared values will count for far less when hard choices have to be made between each nation’s direct security and spending priorities and the commitments and resources required to make AUKUS real. In real time. And, as we see with The Voice, ‘the vibe’ is not enough to sell hard political programs and choices.

In January 2025, just after AUKUS turns 3, we will have a newly-elected US President. Only one possibility is that this will be Joe Biden again.  Any other candidate will take office with fresh eyes about America’s own defence and about what value AUKUS brings to the US, at what costs and pains. They will be briefed about the state of US submarine production and maintenance, for example, and hear that the US Navy will have its lowest number of attack submarines – 46 instead of 66 – right when the AUKUS deal has them handing over at least two to the successor of ‘that fella downunder’.

The technology transfer arrangements for AUKUS also have a long way to run.  At the moment, the US Administration and the Congress have a will to make changes to enable AUKUS – not just the nuclear submarines but the bit that is meant to be providing real military benefit before the first AUKUS subs turn up: cooperation on practical weapons and systems in areas like drones, missiles, hypersonics, cyber and electronic warfare.

At some point, though, Congress and a future president’s Administration will ask hard questions about what Australia – and the UK – are putting into the AUKUS pot besides demands for America to change its policies and laws, train Australian sailors and technicians and hand over defence technology secrets and scarce working submarines.

The best answer will be to point to success delivered under the AUKUS partnership. Other than filing cabinets full of notes of officials’ working groups, most of the tangible evidence that’s achievable between now and January 2025 is in the non-nuclear subs side of AUKUS.

That could – and should be about getting incredibly effective, low cost Australian counter drone systems in use with the US Marines and Army, Australian armed and unarmed small underwater vessels working with UK and US Navy vessels. And getting Australian missile production facilities up and running that are able to supply not just the Australian military, but our AUKUS and other partners in times of crisis. This means getting industry to the table fast, even if it means pushing some officials out of the working groups.

Tangible delivery must also be demonstrated on the political heart of AUKUS – the tri-nation nuclear submarine enterprise. Here, all Australia can do before 2025 is show a will to take the big hard decisions early and get their implementation underway. 

This is about showing that a waste repository and a new East Coast base are more than distant thought bubbles that are too politically difficult for an Australian government to advance.  As things stand, that is the conclusion that a clear-eyed American president and their advisers could draw when they get down to the business of the Pentagon budget and US strategic priorities in January 2025.

Happy birthday, AUKUS.  Your parents are still very proud – but you have so much to do.

This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review