By Professor Alessio Patalano
Professor of War and Strategy in East Asia
Kings College, London
Since its announcement AUKUS has divided opinions. Critics of the agreement linking the UK and the US to Australia’s ambition to acquire nuclear-powered submarines have portrayed it as an alliance that could destabilise regional security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. The proliferation of nuclear powered submarines invites arms racing – the argument goes – and leaves the door open to the eventual additional step of arming future Australian boats with nuclear weapons.
Are the critics right in their concerns about AUKUS? This question can be answered only by understanding what AUKUS is, and what it is not, and why this agreement matters beyond its immediate technical provisions.
AUKUS is not a security alliance. It holds no provision to suggest such a notion, nor any of the steps undertaken so far are aimed at making it an alliance. AUKUS is a technology accelerator agreement for the purpose of national defence, no more, no less. It is designed to allow the three countries to work closely together to translate the promise of today’s maturing technologies such as quantum and artificial intelligence into tomorrow’s military edge.
Last year the three governments clarified that the implementation of AUKUS would be overseen by separate senior officials and joint steering group meetings to define the different lines of efforts. These areas would be developed through seventeen technical working groups. Nine of them focus on the submarine programme, whilst eight related to advance capabilities.
This is not an alliance building policy process, though the nature of the technologies in questions demands a commitment to sharing sensitive information.
This clarification leads to a second observation. AUKUS is not about achieving stability through a form of deterrence delivered by nuclear-armed submarines. In fact, the opposite is true. The themes in the working groups on advanced capabilities suggest that the main aim is to elevate the intelligence and deterrent value of conventional capabilities. In this regard, one of the most striking assumptions about AUKUS is the belief in technology as the key to unlock the full potential of conventional undersea capabilities through enhanced early warning and, if needed, unmatched targeting precision.
AUKUS reveals how leaders in the three capitals view the maritime domain as a central pillar to the stability of the Indo-Pacific, and the wider international order. This is why understanding what AUKUS is matters strategically. It matters because it sheds light on a worldview in which the sea is vital to international affairs and, as a consequence, technology that allows to better operate in, and from, this domain has critical value.
AUKUS’s worldview is one that stems from the recognition that the maritime foundations of international order stand vulnerable to state coercion. Safe and secure shipping lanes and intact underwater sea cables are the engine fuelling economic prosperity and political stability. This is true in the Indo-Pacific, as elsewhere. The recent experiences of the Russian blockade of the Black Sea and of China’s military manoeuvres across the Strait of Taiwan are a reminder of the risks of disruption to global prosperity at the hand of states willing to exploit the maritime order to exert political pressure.
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AUKUS is, therefore, a down payment to prevent one of the most critical components of the international order from being further destabilised. AUKUS is a statement about why such a specific technology agreement has wider strategic relevance. It does not destabilise regional security because no other piece in the regional architecture is designed to ensure that the sea remains open to business and unchallenged by revisionist states.
Yet, like any investment in future capabilities – the first submarines are planned to be delivered by 2040 – AUKUS is likely to change over time. The sensitive nature of the advanced capabilities explored in the collaboration, from submarines to hypersonic missiles, will invite greater proximity and strategic convergence among the partners. The recent news that Australians submariners will train on British boats implies the understanding of such a demand, and the willingness to pursue it.
This is the second reason why AUKUS matters strategically. In a context in which advanced technology will matter increasingly more to maintain a military edge, only trusted partners will be able to achieve the most from defence collaborations. In AUKUS’s case, renewed conversations about cooperation between Australia and France, and among Japan and AUKUS partners, indicate that AUKUS is not an exclusive club, but one with a membership defined by high standards of innovation and information security.
This does not mean that AUKUS will not face challenges along the way. Implementing the agreement will put national industrial capacity under pressure. Recent comments from senior American officials suggest that building the initial boats in the US would be problematic. On the other hand, until the propulsion system is chosen, the design and building of the boats remain an open question. When considered against the impact of technology on future changes in systems and sensors, the division of labour is likely to remain a major changing variable.
What is certain is that one year on AUKUS has started to chart a clear path as to what it is, and why it matters. AUUS is set on a path about a maritime informed worldview in which accelerating advanced technology cooperation might very well make the difference in how strategic advantages can be secured, and maritime stability can be maintained.
Prof. Patalano specialises in maritime strategy and doctrine, Japanese military history and strategy, East Asian Security, and Italian defence policy. In Japan, Prof. Patalano has been a visiting professor at Aoyama Gakuin University and at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS), both in Tokyo, and currently is Adjunct Fellow at the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University Japan and Visiting Professor at the Japan Maritime Command and Staff College (JMCSC). At Kings College, Prof. Patalano is the Director of the Asian Security and Warfare Research Group the leading UK forum for research and education on East Asia and the King’s Japan Programme. Prof. Patalano is also a senior fellow with the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and at Policy Exchange, he leading think tanks on defence and security matters in the UK.