AUKUS sets Australia on a new strategic path in the Indo-Pacific
The 2020 Defence Strategic Update signalled the government’s intent “to deliver deterrent effects against a broad range of threats, including preventing coercive or grey-zone activities from escalating to conventional conflict.” It was also clear in its view that while “only the nuclear and conventional capabilities of the US can offer effective deterrence against the possibility of nuclear threats against Australia”, Australia needed to take greater responsibility and gain a self-reliant ability to deliver deterrent effects.
This intent has been brought into sharp focus by the recent announcements of AUKUS, a new tripartite agreement between Australia, the UK and the US designed to counter threats in the Indo-Pacific. Clearly the launch of AUKUS was intended to make an impression with the announcement of the introduction of nuclear submarines to Australia.
Senior officials in the White House described the agreement in background briefings as “a fundamental decision – fundamental – that binds decisively Australia to the United States and Great Britain for generations”. The UK’s national security adviser, Stephen Lovegrove, similarly described the agreement as “perhaps the most significant capability collaboration in the world anywhere in the past six decades.”
AUKUS provides the potential for enhanced cooperation on advanced and complex technology and increased levels of deterrence across the Indo-Pacific. It reinforces the importance placed on overt cooperation by Australia, the UK and the US in countering the range of increasingly complex threats to stability across the region.
And while prime minister Scott Morrison was quick to point out that “Australia is not seeking to establish nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability” and was “fully in line with our non-proliferation obligations”, the collective view of all three national leaders was clear – the most modern of capabilities are needed to defend the Indo-Pacific, and closer cooperation and greater levels of integration and interoperability are needed between like-minded democracies to sustain peace and stability.
New Zealand’s non-nuclear stance aside, the exclusion of traditional Five Eyes partners, Canada and New Zealand, does indicate that AUKUS intends to deliver far more than the sharing of strategically significant levels of intelligence already does, and is very much about the introduction of advanced operational capability into the region to deliver a strategic effect. The French, regretful and clearly chastened by this dramatic change in direction, must be left wondering what part they must play in strategic calculations in the Indo-Pacific. The exclusionary nature of the agreement has not been lost on China.
The international response to the announcement should leave no doubt that AUKUS is a significant step change in the strategic calculus for the region. And a none too subtle change either.
By itself, the introduction of new advanced strategic platforms such as submarines, with leading-edge interoperability, stealth, reach and persistence, and potentially much greater lethality, is a game changer in delivering strategically significant levels of deterrence to the ADF. To do so in such close cooperation with the US and the UK, much more significant. To confidently label AUKUS a “forever” agreement, even more so.
This makes sense in terms of delivering credible deterrence built on a range of offensive capabilities that can shape, deter and respond. It also materially and politically increases the cost of attacks on Australia or its national interests and provides additional response options should deterrence fail. Sustaining a range of credible strategic response options beyond a first strike provides the off-ramps critical to preventing further escalation. Submarines will not do this alone.
Denying benefit through other capabilities such as integrated air and missile defence, imposing costs through rapid, precise and damaging long-range strike, and building survivability and resilience across the ADF and the national support base to encourage restraint, can powerfully influence an adversary’s perception of the likelihood that their aggression or coercion will elicit an extremely costly response.
AUKUS is unequivocal in this regard, seeking to “strengthen the ability of each to support our security and defense interests … We will promote deeper information and technology sharing. We will foster deeper integration of security and defense-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains. And in particular, we will significantly deepen cooperation on a range of security and defense capabilities.”
Success will depend on how Australia integrates response options with strategies such as US extended deterrence, or collective security actions by allies and partners. And while credible capability options give Australia and its allies the strategic capacity to both impose costs and deny benefits, and encourage restraint in the minds of adversaries, it’s important the deterrence action used doesn’t destroy the rational options available to reduce tension and return to an acceptable status quo.
Success is not solely a function of costs outweighing benefits. Our adversaries will weigh the perceived benefits and costs of their intended action in the context of the perceived consequences of restraint or inaction. The cost of inaction may be greater than that of action. To quote former British diplomat Tom Fletcher, at the completion of his term as British ambassador to Lebanon, “The driving quest of diplomacy is for imperfect ways to help people not kill each other.” Credible deterrence depends on striking a continuous balance between the hard edge of lethal capability and the need to provide rational political options to all parties.
Strategy seeks a favourable continuation of events on the terms of its author and is expressed as a plan of continuing advantage. The advantage AUKUS seeks is clear and is reinforced by the impactful nature of its first initiative. It is said great nations play hardball to defend their sphere of influence. Australia has sided with two long-standing and traditional security partners, both of whom have shown a great capacity to play hardball when needed, and in doing so, has set itself on a new strategic path in the Indo-Pacific.
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