Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico

Why does AUKUS matter? An assessment one year on.

Professor Alessio Patalano

Professor of War and Strategy in East Asia

03 October 2022

Since its announcement a year ago, AUKUS has divided opinions. Critics of the agreement linking the UK and the US to Australia’s ambition to acquire nuclear-powered submarines have portrayed it as an alliance that could destabilise regional security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. The proliferation of nuclear powered submarines invites arms racing – the argument goes – and leaves the door open to the eventual additional step of arming future Australian boats with nuclear weapons.

One year on, are the critics right in their concerns about AUKUS? This question can be answered only by understanding what AUKUS is, and what it is not, and why this agreement matters beyond its immediate technical provisions.


AUKUS is not a security alliance. It holds no provision to suggest such a notion, nor any of the steps undertaken so far are aimed at making it an alliance. AUKUS is a technology accelerator agreement for the purpose of national defence, no more, no less. It is designed to allow the three countries to work closely together to translate the promise of today’s maturing technologies such as quantum and artificial intelligence into tomorrow’s military edge.


Last April the three governments clarified that the implementation of AUKUS would be overseen by separate senior officials and joint steering group meetings to define the different lines of efforts. These areas would be developed through seventeen technical working groups. Nine of them focus on the submarine programme, whilst eight related to advance capabilities. This is not an alliance building policy process, though the sensitive nature of the technologies in questions demands a commitment to sharing sensitive information.


This clarification leads to a second observation. AUKUS is not about achieving stability through a form of deterrence delivered by nuclear-armed submarines. In fact, the opposite is true. The themes in the working groups on advanced capabilities suggest that the main aim is to elevate the intelligence and deterrent value of conventional capabilities. In this regard, one of the most striking assumptions about AUKUS is the belief in technology as the key to unlock the full potential of conventional undersea capabilities through enhanced early warning and, if needed, unmatched targeting precision.


AUKUS reveals how leaders in the three capitals view the maritime domain as a central pillar to the stability of the Indo-Pacific, and the wider international order. This is why understanding what AUKUS is matters strategically. It matters because it sheds light on a worldview in which the sea is vital to international affairs and, as a consequence, technology that allows to better operate in, and from, this domain has critical value.


AUKUS’s worldview is one that stems from the recognition that the maritime foundations of international order stand vulnerable to state coercion. Safe and secure shipping lanes and intact underwater sea cables are the engine fuelling economic prosperity and political stability. This is true in the Indo-Pacific, as elsewhere. The recent experiences of the Russian blockade of the Black Sea and of China’s military manoeuvres across the Strait of Taiwan are a reminder of the risks of disruption to global prosperity at the hand of states willing to exploit the maritime order to exert political pressure.


AUKUS is, therefore, a down payment to prevent one of the most critical components of the international order from being further destabilised. AUKUS is a statement about why such a specific technology agreement has wider strategic relevance. It does not destabilises regional security because no other piece in the regional architecture is designed to ensure that the sea remains open to business and unchallenged by revisionist states.


Yet, like any investment in future capabilities – the first submarines are planned to be delivered by 2040 – AUKUS is likely to change over time. The sensitive nature of the advanced capabilities explored in the collaboration, from submarines to hypersonic missiles, will invite greater proximity and strategic convergence among the partners. The recent news that Australians submariners will train on British boats implies the understanding of such a demand, and the willingness to pursue it.


This is the second reason why AUKUS matters strategically. In a context in which advanced technology will matter increasingly more to maintain a military edge, only trusted partners will be able to achieve the most from defence collaborations. In AUKUS’s case, renewed conversations about cooperation between Australia and France, and among Japan and AUKUS partners, indicate that AUKUS is not an exclusive club, but one with a membership defined by high standards of innovation and information security.


This does not mean that AUKUS will not face challenges along the way. Implementing the agreement will put national industrial capacity under pressure. Recent comments from senior American officials suggest that building the initial boats in the US would be problematic. On the other hand, until the propulsion system is chosen, the design and building of the boats remain an open question. When considered against the impact of technology on future changes in systems and sensors, the division of labour is likely to remain a major changing variable.


What is certain is that one year on AUKUS has started to chart a clear path as to what it is, and why it matters. AUUS is set on a path about a maritime informed worldview in which accelerating advanced technology cooperation might very well make the difference in how strategic advantages can be secured, and maritime stability can be maintained.


An earlier version of this essay was published in the Nikkei Asia Review

In this story

Alessio Patalano

Alessio Patalano

Professor of War & Strategy in East Asia

Latest news