AUKUS, Much More than Submarines

During his now-famous visit to the United States in September 2001, John Howard attended a ceremony at the United States Navy Yard in Washington DC to honour the 50th anniversary of the signing of the ANZUS Treaty. Symbolically, then-president George W. Bush passed over to Howard the bell from the Baltimore-class cruiser USS Canberra. Howard, in turn, remarked fondly of the bond that existed between the US and Australia and the importance of the ANZUS Treaty. For Howard,

…our two nations and our two societies have demonstrated to the world that values based on freedom and individual liberty in the end win acceptance. But they only win acceptance if behind the commitment is a determination on the part of nations who believe in those values to defend them, if necessary fight for them, and always be ready to repel those who would seek to take those freedoms away.

The bond between our two nations was further strengthened by the terrorist atrocities that took place the following day, September 11.

The bonds between Australia and her long-time trading partner, the United Kingdom, are also strong and deep. A relationship underpinned by shared heritage and values, our two countries are closely aligned and actively co-operate across a wide range of foreign policy, defence, security, intelligence, trade and economic issues. As members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, a stable, secure and prosperous lndo-Pacific region is equally front of mind for our British friends.

Two decades after 9-11, and marking the 70th anniversary of ANZUS, then-prime minister Scott Morrison announced alongside then-UK prime minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden (in a virtual press conference) the creation of an enhanced trilateral security partnership – AUKUS. As the three leaders agreed: ‘For more than 70 years, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have worked together, along with other important allies and partners, to protect our shared values and promote security and prosperity. With the formation of AUKUS, we recommit ourselves to this vision.’

Much was made of the ‘historic’ and ‘landmark’ announcement at the time, and the nuclear-powered submarines that Australia would gain from it. Former Treasurer and Australian Ambassador to the United States, Joe Hockey, spoke of AUKUS as being a ‘game changer’ for Australia’s military security and seeing it as ‘ANZUS 2.0’. Kim Beazley, former Australian Defence Minister and Ambassador to the United States, regarded it ‘as the starting of a new phase in the Alliance.’ Anthony Albanese, then-Opposition leader (and given a day’s notice) offered Labor’s conditional endorsement. Later, as prime minister, he regarded AUKUS as ‘important’. Biden was said to be hesitant, describing as ‘clumsy’ the blind-siding of the French government over the cancellation of the French contract for building Australia’s next-generation submarines ahead of the AUKUS announcement. Despite his reticence, Biden’s recently released National Security Strategy emphasises the need for ‘integration with allies and partners through investments in interoperability and joint capability development, cooperative posture planning, and coordinated diplomatic and economic approaches’. With the mid-term election results seeming to vindicate Biden’s agenda, the President can now reengage with AUKUS.

AUKUS is about more than submarines. The partnership seeks to deepen diplomatic, security, and defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region by promoting deeper information- and technology-sharing as well as a deeper integration of security and defence-related science and technology. For the shared vision of a deepening cooperation on a range of emerging security and defence capabilities, and enhancing joint capability and interoperability, much work is needed.

According to Peter Jennings, former executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), AUKUS planning is moving at a ‘lightning pace’. Jennings contends that agreements have been struck for exchanging information on the US’s highly secret nuclear-propulsion technology and on training Australian personnel. This is most welcome. The question remains, however, whether Australia (and Defence) can meet its obligations given the many obstacles we face, namely a workforce challenge and an anti-nuclear sentiment in the community.

While there will always be some academics unable or even unwilling to support initiatives involving the US military, AUKUS presents a unique opportunity for research leaders in cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, and quantum technologies to shine. Impact research at its best. UNSW Sydney is ranked number one in Australia for quantum technologies. Closer to home, UNSW Canberra is leading research into cyber capabilities and information operations.

Across the lake, Brian Schmidt, Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University is adding his voice by arguing that Australia ‘must pull its own weight and develop sovereign capability to operate and maintain the fleet’ requiring ‘the integration of military, industry, government and academia to create an entirely new sector of the economy.’ Schmidt is spot on. He is also right in urging the Government to remove barriers preventing universities from being more dynamic in meeting national capability priorities. We cannot miss this opportunity.

Leadership is essential for AUKUS to succeed. As Jennings cautions, ‘if AUKUS breaks, ANZUS breaks’, bringing with it serious questions of the US-Australia relationship. We need champions for AUKUS, from all walks of life. Australian business leaders must be willing to actively promote the benefits of jobs and prosperity resulting from AUKUS. Australia’s universities must also play their part. We cannot expect Joe Hockey and Brian Schmidt to be the only people in Australia spruiking this partnership.

I wrote earlier this year that Richard Marles, Australia’s 58th Defence Minister, has entered a position where ministers, on average, have only 683 days to make a difference. His first 175 days have been impressive. He has had much on his plate since June, with the pace unrelenting: high-level AUSMIN talks next month, the Houston-Smith strategic review, and this week initiating a probe into former ADF personnel sharing state secrets, to list a few challenges. Marles is all too aware the Defence ‘graveyard’ is littered with the careers of former ministers. This should not deter him in fighting for our rightful seat at the AUKUS table. Australia has always been and remains a valuable and reliable ally. The next 100 days will perhaps be the most important in Marles’ career. Australia’s national security future is depending on him.

Andrew Blyth is manager of the John Howard Prime Ministerial Library at the Museum of Australian Democracy and a doctoral student in public leadership. He is a Fulbright Scholar in Australian-US Alliance Studies

3 thoughts on “AUKUS, Much More than Submarines

  • Daffy says:

    Let’s hope Marles can fix defence procurement so that we get value rather than comedy from the defense dollar. Then, clean up the pagan madness of soldiers in high heels (or was it the cops that did that, or the fire brigade…memory fails).

  • Dallas Beaufort says:

    Australia cannot continue to be just a mine for raw materials,

  • BalancedObservation says:

    AUKUS was the best thing the Morrison government did on the defence front, even if it only came in what you might describe relatively as the last five minutes of nine years of Coalition government. Labor’s Richard Marles’ initial approach is re-assuring too.
    The description of AUKUS in this article is impressive. There’s more to it than simply acquiring nuclear powered submarines – which is what one usually reads about it in the media along with criticism of how the negotiations with France were handled.
    As described in this article it’s about the future and how our defence systems and industry can be integrated with our alliance partners. It could hopefully turn out to be the development of a viable long term defence industry and strategy for Australia. And there could also be significant short term improvement in the interoperability of defence systems with our alliance partners.
    However we have immediate needs. We need better defence systems of our own now.
    Currently we don’t have the capability to defend ourselves from our most likely potential aggressor. If we were attacked by that potential aggressor we would be overwhelmingly reliant on the direct military intervention of our defence allies for our survival as a free independent country.
    Ukraine should be acting as a critical warning to us now. A warning we should be heeding. It showed that a potential nuclear armed invader of a smaller country can effectively stop direct militarily involvement of the West to help by invoking the nuclear threat. Ukraine has set a new powerful precedent that would be dangerous to ignore.
    Ukkraine has shown that to guarantee our continued existence as a free independent country we need a credible nuclear deterrent. We also need the lastest attack and defensive missile systems which are powerful and deadly enough to deter attack or thwart it until help from our alliance partners can arrive. As a prosperous country we can afford what we need for our vital defence. Why aren’t we acting? Surely we’ve had enough warnings.
    You’d have to be very naive to think the potential threat to us is not real. We have the resources to acquire what we need to guarantee our security. Why aren’t we using them so that our existence as a free independent country is guaranteed?
    Our potential aggressor is a completely totalitarian regime who we’ve seen can change its mind abruptly. It doesn’t need to convince a democratic electorate to go to war with anyone. Ukraine’s invader arguably has more restraints on how it can act.
    As a prosperous country we have the resources to get what we need to guarantee our security. Why aren’t we using them to do just that? AUKUS is good but it isn’t enough and it won’t happen early enough.

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