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.