Returning to AUKUS

Last month, I wrote a little about the UK’s supposed pivot to the Indo-Pacific, prompted by the recently released report on the subject issued by the Defence Select Committee. At the heart of this imperative is the AUKUS agreement between the UK, US and Australia to recapitalise submarine forces, especially through the indoctrination of the Australians into the secrets of nuclear propulsion. This significance is matched by the promises of the three countries to collaborate for defence purposes on technologies and capabilities relating to cyber security and offensive operations, artificial intelligence and autonomy, quantum technologies, hypersonics and electronic warfare, amongst other items on a strategic wish-list to Santa. How to commercialise, contract and procure such advanced items from across the world has been left in the “difficult, do later” pile. In the spirit of Christmas coming, pointing this out, as I did this week at a conference run by the New Statesman, can get you on the Naughty List.

But it is not a minor debating point for Christmas lunch. The three nations are looking to establish rotating submarine forces, operating out of HMAS Stirling, Western Australia, from 2027, supported by certain “Pillar Two” capabilities drawn from the above shopping list. From now to then is a woefully short procurement cycle with elections in between: I am not convinced that conventional procurement through national agencies such as the UK’s DE&S will deliver a quantum capability, for instance. What might be more helpful is an approach used by the UK’s Defence Solution Centre whereby a looser, more flexible capability acquisition framework is used to down-select and prioritise research and development activities. This starts with an understanding of the issues and risks associated with not developing the capability sought, through to an ever-maturing understanding of the schedule, component and cost risks incurred through the development cycle. This allows decision-makers – both governmental and commercial – to prioritise investments whilst looking for integration touch-points across all operating domains.

Using AUKUS, out of necessity, as a route to flexible and fast defence acquisition in the UK might offer a strategic effect in its own right, perhaps even more significant than the development of a next-generation submarine. The point though, I suppose, is academic, for the promise of AUKUS is not just a strategic refresh of capabilities through collaboration, but the delivery of new capabilities and transformed ways of working. Defence acquisition will not be excused from this reality.

John Louth

Professor John Louth is senior strategic adviser to Redstone Risk. He serves on a number of UK defence boards as either a non-executive director or strategic adviser and sits on the panel of advisers to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. His latest book on UK exports was published this year by Routledge. He is a collaborating professor with the University of South Australia in Adelaide.