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Unravelling the AUKUS Security Pact with Dr Zeno Leoni and Dr Sarah Tzinieris

The School of Security Studies has launched AUKUS in Context, an online professional development course on the AUKUS agreement, a security partnership between the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. To find out more about the course and why AUKUS matters, we spoke to Dr Zeno Leoni and Dr Sarah Tzinieris.

Please can you briefly explain what AUKUS is?

Sarah: Sure, AUKUS is a security and defence partnership between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom. It was launched in September 2021 and comprises two “pillars”. The first pillar is focused on delivering conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines. The second pillar is concerned with what are being termed “Advanced Capabilities”; these include advanced cyber, artificial intelligence and autonomy, quantum technologies, undersea capabilities, hypersonic and counter-hypersonic capabilities, among other military-relevant technologies.

Together, these pillars will strengthen defence capabilities, accelerate military technology and deepen naval interoperability of the three partners, the sharing of common equipment that will allow forces, units or systems to operate together. There are also knock-on impacts in terms of expanding the countries’ military industrial bases and generating economies of scale through the technological collaboration.

It’s a really ambitious and complex project. Why do you think it’s necessary?

Sarah: Well, inevitably, there are differing motivations for each AUKUS partner. But they all share the view that Beijing’s apparent territorial ambitions in the Indo-Pacific, especially vis-à-vis Taiwan, and the recent acceleration of Chinese military capabilities present a threat to regional and, indeed, to global security.

The alignment of these countries in the Indo-Pacific is also a potent symbol. AUKUS is a way of signalling the endurance of the rules-led international order – or, put another way, the US-led liberal international order. And this sends an assertive message that the West, but particularly the US and its Anglophone allies, is prepared to counter China’s growing assertiveness.

It's also highly symbolic in terms of demonstrating the commitment of the three partners to interoperability between their navies. For Australia in particular, the commitment runs really deep. Canberra is effectively allowing its future submarines functionality to be fully dependent on both the industrial capacity and the support structures of two other sovereign states. This can be understood as an act of military integration.

The submarines project represents the most tangible and visible aspect of AUKUS so progress here is really critical for the success of the broader partnership. Despite the current good will between the three partners, I don’t think the challenges to the shipbuilding project should be underestimated. – Dr Sarah Tzinieris

How will the deal increase Washington’s geopolitical influence?

Zeno: At its heart, AUKUS is a manifestation of recent US Grand Strategy. The erosion of US global influence has encouraged Washington to revise the liberal order by updating alliances with those countries where it has greatest leverage – especially when it comes to containing China. While AUKUS is a minilateral deal between long-standing allies, it also allows the US to lock Australia into a relationship of interoperability, and to ensure that Canberra will support Washington in the long term.

Why are the US, Australia and the UK working together in the Indo-Pacific specifically, given other global security crises such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Zeno: Compared to Eastern Europe, the Indo-Pacific is a highly strategic region economically and it will host about two-thirds of the global middle class by 2050. If during the Cold War the Gulf was the centre of gravity of world politics, this role is nowadays shared with the Indo-Pacific, and, more precisely, with the South China Sea.

This is pivotal to the smooth running of global trade. Given the complex geography of the South China Sea – and the fact that goods need to travel through the narrow Malacca Strait – as well as China’s territorial claims to atolls and islands, there are concerns that Beijing might one day be able to control the spigot of the global economy.

What was the latest announcement on AUKUS about?

Sarah: So, the latest announcement on AUKUS came after an 18-month consultation period on submarines development. During this time, working groups examined the optimal pathway for Australia to acquire a new fleet of conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines that will eventually replace its diesel electric-powered Collins-class vessels. When the leaders of the US, Australia and the UK gathered in San Diego on 23 March, they unveiled the key details.

Under the deal, Australia will receive three US Virginia-class submarines in the early 2030s – with the option to purchase two more if deemed necessary. In parallel, an entirely new attack craft is being constructed, a model called SSN-AUKUS. These submarines will be constructed in both British and Australian domestic shipyards. They will be built to a British design, powered by a Rolls-Royce pressurised water reactor, but will consist of technology from all three countries. So it really does represent a uniquely integrated defence collaboration.

The deal also envisages Australian military and civilian personnel to be embedded at American and British submarine bases, starting this year, to learn how to operate the nuclear-powered submarines. Another interesting aspect is what has been described as an AUKUS “submarine force posture”. This concerns the arrangement for up to four US Virginia-class submarines and one UK Astute-class submarine to make rotational deployments to the HMAS Stirling naval base in Western Australia, starting in 2027.


What does China think about AUKUS?

Zeno: China sees AUKUS as one of several pillars of the US pivot to Asia – which in China they call “Indo-Pacific Strategy” (IPS). From this viewpoint, AUKUS co-exists with other regional grouping such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and the Quadrilateral security dialogue (Quad).

More broadly, AUKUS fits into what China sees as “encirclement” and “Cold War mentality”. However, what is interesting with China is that you never know if statements are released for the sake of it or if it is something that Beijing is really worried about. Indeed, one might argue that the delivery of AUKUS’ submarines is too far down the line for China to feel threatened by it.

And what do other countries in the Indo-Pacific region think about AUKUS?

Zeno: As a much larger region, Asia has a greater breadth of perspectives in comparison to Europe. In Asia, we find US treaty allies and US partners, but also neutral countries and partners of China. The presence of ASEAN, a multilateral institution whose constitution opposes hegemonism, contributes very significantly to this variety of views.

Within ASEAN there were three types of initial reactions to AUKUS: Malaysia and Indonesia were concerned with the risks of nuclear proliferation; Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Brunei and Myanmar maintained a low profile about it; while Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore endorsed the initiative. Beyond South East Asia, countries like Japan and South Korea have signalled an interest in partnering with AUKUS, although there are lively debates inside these countries and not everyone agrees with it.

When will the submarines be ready?

Sarah: Over the coming decades, both the Royal Australian Navy and the UK’s Royal Navy will acquire this new breed of submarines – the SSN-AUKUS class. The first submarine will be constructed at the UK’s Barrow-in Furness shipyard and could be operational as early as the late 2030s. In parallel, Australia’s Osborne Naval Shipyard will start taking over many aspects of production, with plans to build eight submarines in total. It is hoped that Australia’s first boat will hit the water by the early 2040s. After that, delivery is planned for approximately every three years, meaning the final boat will be ready by the mid-2060s.

As you can see, we’re talking huge timescales here. In fact, AUKUS has been described as an “intergenerational” pact, and this raises important questions about whether interests and politics between the three countries will remain aligned over such a long period.


Through the Security & Defence PLuS partnership, we’ve been able to bring onboard some of the greatest minds to speak across the breadth of AUKUS topics. And this cross-continent collaboration is what makes this course really unique.– Dr Sarah Tzinieris

Do you envisage any challenges to this plan?

Sarah: The submarines project represents the most tangible and visible aspect of AUKUS so progress here is really critical for the success of the broader partnership. Despite the current good will between the three partners, I don’t think the challenges to the shipbuilding project should be underestimated. Any project of this magnitude is risky, most obviously in terms of cost and delivery overruns. And working across three continents, in different time zones, with different working cultures only increases the complexities.

The most obvious challenge will be building up an adequate industrial base and sufficient human resources to execute the shipbuilding project efficiently. There are actually very few shipyards in the three countries capable of building the vessels, and even fewer that can deliver the nuclear-propulsion technology. However, both British and American submarine shipyards are already facing capacity constraints that pre-date AUKUS. A related issue is disruption to the labour market, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which is impacting submarines production lines, especially in the US. And lastly, the complexities of maintaining and servicing the new fleet present long-term challenges.

What are the plans for the Advanced Capabilities side of things?

Zeno: There is less information known about the Advanced Capabilities, under Pillar II, due to the need to maintain confidentiality. Still, these may be available a lot sooner than Australia’s new submarines are delivered – and could be just as consequential in terms of boosting military capabilities.

The motivation for developing these technologies is to maintain a leading edge against a technologically advanced adversary in the Indo-Pacific, namely China. However, there will likely be challenges in terms of each country’s willingness to open up access to its sensitive and critical technologies without stifling collaboration across the AUKUS partnership.

In particular, China – but also Russia – is winning the race for hypersonic missiles. Therefore, one important aspect of Pillar II is to enable AUKUS members to catch up with this, but potentially also to develop capabilities to counter Chinese and Russian hypersonic missiles.

What are the other challenge to the success of AUKUS?

Zeno: From a geopolitical perspective, a major challenge for AUKUS concerns political legitimacy. First, for AUKUS to provide security to Asia, most regional powers will have to accept it, and ASEAN’s emphasis on anti-hegemonism might be a problem in this regard. Second, AUKUS – as the US has stated – is just a “one-off” deal for Australia, and it is unlikely that other countries will be granted entry or access to the know-how on sensitive technologies. Yet, if AUKUS does not expand, it might remain a lame duck. 

What do the public think about AUKUS in the three countries?

Sarah: Like most such long-term military industrial projects, public awareness has not been particularly high. However, with the price tag for the submarines expected to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars, there is understandably greater interest in Australia. There have also been more opinion polls conducted in Australia about AUKUS so it’s clearer what the mood music is there. A Guardian Essential poll released in March showed a slight majority support for AUKUS, though backing has gone down since its launch in 2021. Notably, only around one quarter of those polled agreed that the submarines were worth the cost.

To some extent, overall support for AUKUS will be correlated with how the public feels about the threat from China. And this may evolve over time – depending on how Beijing and the three AUKUS governments conduct their affairs.

Tell us about King’s new professional development course, AUKUS in Context

Sarah: We’re very excited at King’s to be working with our Security and Defence PLuS partners at the University of New South Wales and Arizona State University on this continuing professional development course. The course will provide an in-depth overview of all aspects of the AUKUS partnership, including the joint development of the nuclear-powered submarines and the Advanced Capabilities.

In addition, there will be sessions on the perspectives of the three partner governments as well as that of China. And the geopolitical implications will be discussed, including the emerging domain of irregular warfare. The course will culminate on the last day in an interactive wargaming exercise which will help develop the participants’ tactical, operational and strategic knowledge of the Indo-Pacific.

Through the Security & Defence PLuS partnership, we’ve been able to bring onboard some of the greatest minds to speak across the breadth of AUKUS topics. And this cross-continent collaboration is what makes this course really unique.

AUKUS in Context

‘AUKUS in Context: Security and Strategy Implications for the Indo-Pacific and Globally’, will be running over four days, from 15-18 May in the US and the UK; and from 16-19 May in Australia. If you are interested in taking part, please use the weblink to sign up:

Got questions? Please email


Dr Zeno Leoni is a Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London and an Affiliate to the Lau China Institute.

Dr Sarah Tzinieris is a Research Fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.

In this story

Zeno Leoni

Zeno Leoni

Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department

Sarah Tzinieris

Sarah Tzinieris

Research Fellow

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