Media outlets have mischaracterised the AUKUS deal and focused too much on the challenges of helping Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines while ignoring the significant technology exchange between the U.S., UK, and Australia, according to defence experts at a recent Hudson Institute panel discussion.
Australian Senator Andrew Hastie joined the Institute’s Asia-Pacific Security Chair Patrick Cronin, a former submariner and expert Bryan Clark, as well as moderator Peter Rough.
Cronin took aim at Australian media for focusing too much on issues like capability gaps, money wastage, “alienating options” for dealing with China, and suggesting AUKUS would result in Australia becoming an “adjunct to the U.S. Navy.”
“While there is some validity to these points … it completely misses the fact that America is taking a big gamble on Australia. We’re not talking about just any technology transfer … we’re talking not just about nuclear propulsion, but about technology writ large,” he said.
“Are we going to get ahead of it? Are we going to harness it? At the university level, or governments and militaries? Or are we not going to do that, we’re going to cede that ground?”
AUKUS Just Formalising Existing Relationship
Meanwhile, Clark said AUKUS simply institutionalised several decades-long arrangements between Australia, the UK, and the U.S., particularly in the “area of undersea warfare.”
“Sometimes it misses the fact that this is something that’s been going on for a while now, and we’ve actually taken it and codified it in a way that’s going to allow us to get a lot more benefit for the next decade.”
In fact, Senator Hastie said he had been telling young Australians to be ready to be involved in AUKUS over the “next 20 years.”
AUKUS was formed between Australia’s Scott Morrison, the UK’s Boris Johnson, and U.S. President Joe Biden.
In Australia, AUKUS has been subject to partisan media scrutiny—due to it being a centre-right Liberal Party project—which has seen extensive coverage of the difficulties and lengthy timelines around the country’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines.
Formed in September 2021, AUKUS was created to counteract rising aggression from Beijing in the Indo-Pacific region—although the three country’s leaders did not express this directly.
While the centrepiece of AUKUS has been the transfer of top-secret nuclear propulsion technology to Australia, the trilateral pact encompasses cooperation across a range of other fields including quantum technology, artificial intelligence, undersea capabilities (including underwater drones), hypersonic weapons, and cyber.
Work Underway Amid US-China Competition
Clark said defence personnel were pushing hard to develop undersea technologies because it is a “perceived weakness” of the People’s Liberation Army—Navy.
Further, he said Australia would be critical as part of the United States’ Prompt Global Strike program that will allow its military to hit targets anywhere in the world within one hour.
“That would potentially be something that could be put in Australia, or co-developed with Australia, that would enable us to have a counter-strike capability from Australia. One of the challenges I think Australia has today is the inability to threaten China with a retaliatory response for China’s coercive behaviour,” he said.
“I’d say unmanned technologies are another big area of cooperation. There’s already efforts underway to sell large, undersea vehicles that are unmanned to Australia … there’s the Loyal Wingman [drone] program underway right now with the Australian Air Force.