‘When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.’
— Edmund Burke, ‘Thoughts on the cause of present discontents’, 1770
The only surprising thing about AUKUS is that it has taken so long to be formalised. For more than a century, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States have worked together to protect shared values and improve the security and wellbeing of people around the world. We have been natural allies and we have stood together in the face of totalitarian coercion, oppression and force.
We must never forget that freedom and respect for the rights of the individual are not universally accepted as a global good. The intolerance and oppression of totalitarian power were not eliminated following the defeat of Nazi Germany, the collapse of the Soviet Union or the disintegration of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate.
The 2020 defence strategic update makes it clear that Australia’s strategic environment is changing as both military and grey-zone threats evolve at unprecedented rates. Democratic nations are witnessing the most consequential strategic realignment since World War II and are increasing their collaboration in response.
AUKUS has been described as ‘epoch-making’ and ‘the biggest strategic step Australia has taken in generations’. Given the headlines and commentary, however, it will come as a surprise to many that AUKUS is not predominantly about submarines.
Certainly, eight nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy will be a potent and effective deterrent that will contribute to the maintenance of security within the established global norms that have benefited all nations in the Indo-Pacific over past decades. But as one commentator has rightly pointed out, ‘the bigger picture is getting lost in a sea of naval analysis’.
The real value of this partnership lies in the joint development of capabilities and the deeper integration of defence-related science and technology, industrial bases and, importantly, supply chains.
This new trilateral security partnership will work towards making each partner more capable and more resilient. AUKUS complements, rather than competes with, regional partnerships such as the Quad and intelligence-sharing arrangements such as the Five Eyes.
Critics of the government have raised questions about what AUKUS will mean for Australia’s capacity to make sovereign decisions. They point to nuclear submarines to suggest that such technological dependence on the US will diminish Australia’s sovereign ability to act in its national interest.
Perhaps these critics are unaware of the facts, but more likely they have embraced historical amnesia for the sake of short-term political gain and are choosing to ignore the record of partnership between Australia, the US and the UK. An exemplar is air combat capability.
During World War II, Australia’s only locally designed and manufactured fighter, the Boomerang, was powered by a US-designed Pratt & Whitney engine. Royal Australian Air Force pilots stood a better chance of survival and victory in the Pacific theatre when flying the British Spitfire or the American P-40 Kittyhawk. The P-51 Mustang, which provided Australia’s air combat capability through until the Korean War, was a US design powered by the UK’s Rolls Royce Merlin engine. In today’s RAAF, the F-35 can hardly be considered to be Australian-designed or -controlled technology, nor can the F/A-18F Super Hornet, P-8A Poseidon and many others. The Loyal Wingman remotely piloted aircraft is as close as we get to Australian-owned air combat technology, but even then, Boeing, a US company, is the manufacturer.
Whether at the tactical, technical or strategic level, history shows that the government can and does make sovereign decisions in Australia’s national interests despite a high level of technological reliance on the US and UK.
During Operation Slipper and related deployments to the Middle East, Australia made its own decisions on rules of engagement even though Australian forces were operating alongside the US and other partners. Australia made the unilateral decision to enhance the capability of its US-made CH-47D helicopters prior to sending them to Afghanistan. After buying the US Navy’s F/A-18 Hornet, we chose to integrate the UK ASRAAM in preference to the standard US AIM-9 short-range air-to-air missile.
The history between the three parties in AUKUS validates this observation of independent action more broadly. In 1958, Britain acquired nuclear technology for its submarines from the Americans. Shortly thereafter, the US requested that Britain commit troops to the Vietnam War. However, UK Prime Minister Wilson refused, instead offering in-principle support for the war but not a military commitment. During that period, Australia operated French Mirage III fighters and British Oberon-class submarines but, unlike the UK, decided that the national interest was served by supporting South Vietnam. The UK and Australia have both remained committed and reliable allies of the United States, while maintaining sovereignty over the deployment and use of military capability.
To understand why AUKUS is so important, you only have to consider the lessons of Covid-19 around supply-chain resilience and the assessment of threat in the defence strategic update, which calls for Australia to be capable to shape our region, deter aggression and respond with military force if required.
The ability to deter aggression in our region will be enhanced by the agreement to provide the Australian Defence Force with a range of precision-guided missiles, particularly long-range strike weapons that can hold an adversary at risk. Maintaining regional security, however, requires the ability not just to deploy military force when required, but to sustain operations. This requires resilient supply chains, which will be enhanced by the decision to accelerate the manufacture of precision-guided missiles in Australia.
Returning to air combat for an example, AMRAAM is the key air-to-air missiles currently certified for use on aircraft operated by Australia, the US and other partners such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore. The US also has commitments to supply AMRAAM to partners in Europe and the Middle East. The capacity to replenish war stocks will therefore be limited in the event of a major or concurrent conflict, and an alternate manufacturing base will be key to ensuring resilient supply chains in any near-term conflict. AUKUS should underpin an agreement for Australia to develop the local capability in partnership with the AMRAAM manufacturer Raytheon to make and supply the missiles for our own and our allies’ use.
AUKUS does not make Australia captive to a foreign agenda. Instead, it opens doors to enhanced collaboration that will build collective capability and resilience, enhancing Australia’s ability to partner with like-minded nations to deter threats and contribute to stability and security in the Indo-Pacific.
As published by ASPI’s The Strategist on 22nd October 2021, available here.