AUKUS Faces Mounting Challenges. Australia Must Address Them.

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AUKUS Faces Mounting Challenges. Australia Must Address Them.

Canberra needs to win public support and maintain political unity, while making strategic calculations that factor in a realizable Plan B.

AUKUS Faces Mounting Challenges. Australia Must Address Them.

From left: Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, U.S. President Joe Biden, and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announce the AUKUS deal in San Diego, California, U.S., Mar. 13, 2023.

Credit: Official White House photo

The trilateral agreement linking Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States under the banner of AUKUS faces three primary challenges: political unity, public messaging, and strategic choices. 

The A$368 billion, multi-decade defense initiative is fundamental if Australia is to meet the demands of its strategic environment, which is essentially maritime. In principle, the AUKUS defense agreement’s big-ticket item is delivering an Australian nuclear-powered submarine capability.

Outlined in the “optimal pathway” announced in March 2023, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) would receive between three and five conventionally armed Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines from the U.S., with the first arriving in 2032 and the next two in 2035 and 2037, with the option of purchasing an additional two if the new class of British-built AUKUS SSNs are late. The Virginias would be a mix of new and secondhand boats that would run alongside the yet-to-be-designed AUKUS SSNs from the U.K. contractor BAE, which is facing significant problems delivering the U.K.’s Astute-class SSNs and Australia’s Hunter-class frigates, both of which have been beset by cost and time overruns. 

Despite the promises of AUKUS, the priority for American and British shipbuilders is their own submarine service, not Australia’s, and this is a risk that must be considered to forestall a gaping operational capability. Moreover, the RAN’s lifetime extension to its existing fleet of six Collins-class submarines to bridge the capability gap will not be underway until 2026. This is a highly complex undertaking that is likely to experience delays, potentially reducing the number of deployable submarines.

To ensure success, meaning the delivery of a critical defense capability, Australia needs to preserve political unity, win the support of the Australian taxpayer by explaining why AUKUS matters, and make strategic calculations that must factor in a realizable Plan B if AUKUS does not deliver according to the optimal pathway.

Let’s begin with the first challenge: cross-party political unity in Australia. Australian politics can be brutal, and party infighting has seen many prime ministers unseated by their deputies. While there is plenty that divides the Labor and Liberal parties, the incumbent Labor government under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese stuck with his Liberal predecessor Scott Morrison’s agreement for Australia to acquire conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarines. Despite this bipartisan policy alignment, some former prominent Australian politicians are unconvinced and are openly attacking AUKUS. 

The most vocal critics, former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating and his Liberal counterpart Malcolm Turnbull, have found common ground in critiquing Australia’s nuclear-submarine agreement. Keating has labeled AUKUS “the worst deal in all history” on the grounds that Canberra could buy 40-50 conventional submarines for the same financial outlay. Turnbull has criticized the lack of a viable fallback plan if the promised boats are not delivered on the promised timeline. Both former prime ministers have also argued separately that the AUKUS legislation passed by the U.S. Congress in December 2023 contains tripwires, as the law requires U.S. presidents to certify that the sale of the Virginias will not undercut the U.S. Navy’s operational requirements.    

Australia has limited to no leverage over U.S. presidents, but it does over its own polity and public. Getting the policy message right is essential to sustain AUKUS’ multi-decade endeavor. This does not mean tough questions should not be asked, given the massive bill that taxpayers are footing and the implications for Australia as it undertakes a strategic shift in its future defense capability.  The whole-of-nation effort required for AUKUS is a heavy lift. What is required then is a government-led dialogue that is honest with the Australian public and lays out the argument for AUKUS, while acknowledging the tradeoffs with other national priorities such as in healthcare, education, or housing. 

In essence, the Albanese government needs to make its case to the public about why AUKUS matters to them – now and into the future. This argument must go beyond those laid out in the Defense Strategic Review (DSR) and the recent National Defense Strategy (NDS). For instance, to win public support the government has to articulate what the threat to Australia is and why it needs to be addressed. This must be done in a way that transcends abstract arguments such as protecting sea lines of communications, which is critical but does nothing to identify the source of the threat: China.

Canberra needs to articulate that we need to prepare for a potential conflict with significant geopolitical consequences. The NDS is arguably the official document that most openly discusses China’s use of coercive tactics and the necessity for Australia of maintaining a region free from coercion. But the discussion about the threat China poses to Australia remains light, which is understandable. No government, including the U.S., wants to label China as an enemy lest it become an overt foe. 

Still, the increasing pace of strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific necessitates that Australian lawmakers foster an open dialogue with the public to cultivate a shared understanding of the strategic imperatives driving policy decisions, including the government’s justification for AUKUS. Such clarity is essential for galvanizing public support for sustained investment in AUKUS. Failure to address these concerns risks eroding public trust over time and compromising Australia’s ability to traverse an increasingly fraught geopolitical landscape.

The Australian government has made a strategic choice to prepare for a potential conflict with China. The DSR and NDS recommend that the Australian government adopt a strategy of denial to prevent hostile forces from accessing Australia’s air and sea approaches through the development of anti-access/area denial capabilities. So, how does AUKUS generate deterrent effects, real or perceived? 

A reasonable argument goes something like this: First, Australian Virginia SSNs would enable U.S. SSNs to concentrate on the South China Sea and other areas of strategic importance, while the RAN’s Virginias could patrol or block key chokepoints in the second island chain to deny the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy freedom of maneuver. 

Second, AUKUS would allow more American and British SSNs to operate continuously as Australian ports can offer critical maintenance, meaning these boats do not have to sail back to their home ports for servicing needs. In mid-March, for instance, HMAS Stirling hosted the USS Annapolis, a Los Angeles-class attack SSN, in Perth, Western Australia.

Third, Australia’s ports also mean that American and British SSNs can operate closer to the theater of strategic threats and arguably be more survivable, as Australia provides strategic depth. Finally, AUKUS translates to more significant investment in critical allied industrial shipbuilding capacity, amplifying the overall direction of the allied capability to project power, develop skilled labor, and improve their strategic competitiveness.

The arguments above are credible and demonstrate a shift in Canberra’s approach to strategy as one that is problem-solving oriented. Going forward, a fundamental challenge will be aligning a problem-solving approach versus an ends and means approach to strategy. A problem-solving approach must contend with the fact that problems change, because change is constant. Similarly, strategies couched in defining overarching end states inadvertently produce ambiguity and fail to align goals with budgets and capabilities. It would be a distraction to contest which approach is preferable, as both have costs and benefits. Hence, it is imperative not to see these approaches in binary terms but rather to apply the best of what they have to offer.

The following shortcomings would require advocates of either approach to work together. First, the lengthy time horizon for Australia to receive SSNs – 2032 for the first submarine and the 2040s for the AUKUS class – means that Australia’s capabilities will remain limited, whereas the strategic environment will continue to change, making it harder to maintain the status quo. 

Second, when delivered, the small fleet of eight SSNs is likely to be insufficient to enact the strategy of denial envisioned by the DSR and NDS. Hence, to augment the denial strategy, the Australian government’s Enhanced Lethality Surface Combatant Fleet review has recommended doubling Australia’s surface combatant fleet from 11 to 26 vessels. When fully implemented, this approach would allow Australia to operate its largest surface fleet since World War II, with more firepower to meet the challenges highlighted in the DSR.

But this revamp will take at least a decade and the reality is that not all surface or subsurface boats will be available for operational deployment at one time. In basic terms, these capabilities are necessary, but blocking Australia’s northern approaches through the Indonesian archipelago requires significantly more firepower than the future force structure has to offer. More ships would be better, but that is not feasible given resource constraints, limited industrial capacity, and the lack of crews. 

So, what can be done? The Integrated Investment Program (IIP) reflects the Australian government’s problem-solving approach, as it lays out the specific capabilities the government will invest in order to operationalize the NDS. In line with the NDS, the IIP will evolve the Australian Defense Force’s force structure over three-time horizons, including measures that will be taken now to contribute to deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. This includes the deployment of large fleets of uncrewed surface and subsurface vessels to generate persistent situational awareness, augmented multidomain ISR detection to enhance deterrence, and the creation of a deeper indigenous magazine depth to remain engaged in a high-intensity conflict. 

Another aspect that will evolve is the role of land forces in enhancing deterrence. After all, warfare is not restricted to any single domain, and an integrated force must optimize all five domains to be credible and relevant for deterrence. As such, the land domain remains critical for building resilience, meaning the capacity to absorb lethal shocks, rebuild, and recover, as leveraging land power networks offers decision-makers more options. Options include long-range strike capabilities to keep at-risk adversaries farther away from Australian shores, and the reconstitution of maritime and human intelligence networks and capabilities as part of a multidomain ISR suite, in order to make it more challenging for Chinese land and maritime forces to gain a foothold in strategic passages that would favor their operations.

Some other areas could involve running information operations where China has embedded or entered foreign institutions, building logistics networks and supply chains to ensure critical supplies are available, and advancing data sharing across allies to enable their militaries to communicate faster, more efficiently, and with fewer restrictions to enhance interoperability and realize multidomain fusion.   

Australia and its Western partners have a different conception of time than the Chinese leadership, which has a long-term horizon and arguably the political will to persevere against counter currents. Recognizing the Chinese Communist Party’s long game and its hybrid approach to strategy thus requires Canberra and its allies to apply a pragmatic problem-solving approach in parallel with an ends and means approach to strategy, because no single approach is fit for purpose. Western democracies have pressure-release valves through elections and other means, but their shorter-term thinking detracts from the political will to stay the course in strategic competition.

Although the NDS recognizes that many of the capabilities will require a whole-of-government and whole-of-nation effort, the cost in terms of time means that it will be harder for Australia to advance its strategic interests and implement its strategy of denial. This reality necessitates that Australia conducts a methodical and objective analysis of its strengths and weaknesses in order to identify what behaviors from China it seeks to deter and how it seeks to achieve these deterrent effects across all domains. It would be unwise to assume the Australian public will remain agnostic about the cost outlay for AUKUS and not seek a concerted explanation of why it matters to Australia’s security and why this course of action is the best way forward.