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What is AUKUS?

In September 2021 the UK, Australia and the United States agreed a trilateral defence and security partnership to “help sustain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.” 

Known as AUKUS, the agreement reflects the UK’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific, first articulated in the Government’s 2021 Integrated Review of defence, foreign and security policy and reaffirmed in the 2023 refresh of the review.

A major part of the agreement is helping Australia acquire their first conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarine fleet. This is known as pillar 1 of AUKUS and is discussed in Commons Library paper AUKUS submarine (SSN-A) programme (CBP 9843). 

Pillar 2 focuses on developing a range of advanced capabilities, to share technology and increase interoperability between their armed forces. The three countries say one of the aims of AUKUS is to “foster deeper integration of security and defense-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains”.

The Minister responsible for AUKUS Pillar 2 is the Minister for Defence Procurement, James Cartlidge. In June 2023 he said “good progress is being made” across all eight workstreams.

A closer look at the advanced capabilities

Within pillar 2 are several workstreams covering areas such as artificial intelligence, hypersonic missiles and quantum technologies. 

Cyber capabilities

This workstream focuses on strengthening cyber capabilities, including protecting critical communications and operations systems.

Artificial Intelligence and autonomy

The Government says this workstream will provide “critical enablers for future force capabilities”. Early work is focused on “accelerating adoption, and improving the resilience of, autonomous and AI-enabled systems in contested environments.”

The UK hosted the first AUKUS AI and autonomy trial in April 2023. 

A Lords Select Committee, AI in weapons systems, is considering the use of artificial intelligence in weapon systems.

Quantum technologies

The AUKUS Quantum Arrangement (AQuA) will “accelerate investments to deliver generation-after-next quantum capabilities.” The initial focus will be on quantum technologies for positioning, navigation, and timing.

In a July 2023 command paper, the Ministry of Defence said it intends to be “amongst the first militaries to see, and harness, [quantum computing’s] potential in the battlespace.”

A 2017 POSTnote explains what quantum technologies are.

Undersea capabilities

The AUKUS Undersea Robotics Autonomous Systems (AURAS) project focuses on autonomous underwater vehicles. 

The Royal Navy is separately working with France to develop a maritime mine counter measures (MMCM) capability which involves unmanned systems operating remotely.

Hypersonic and counter-hypersonic capabilities

The three countries intend to accelerate development of advanced hypersonic and counter-hypersonic capabilities.

A POSTnote looks at hypersonic missile technologies, efforts to develop them, potential applications, and the possible challenges they may represent for missile defence and global stability.

Electronic warfare capabilities

The Government says that in an increasingly contested electromagnetic spectrum, this workstream will share “understanding of tools, techniques, and technology to enable our forces to operate in contested and downgraded environments.”

Innovation and information sharing

These two workstreams will look at how they can integrate commercial technologies and learn from each other’s defence innovation enterprises, and expand ways to share sensitive information.

Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability programme

In December 2023 AUKUS leaders announced work on developing a deep space advanced radar capability which will “provide 24-hour continuous, all weather global coverage to detect, track and identify objects in deep space and increase space domain awareness.”

The first radar site will be in Western Australia and will be operational in 2026, with two radar sites in the US and UK “in service by the end of the decade.” The Defence Secretary has identified Cawdor Barracks in South-West Wales as the preferred host site in the UK, subject to planning permission.

Export controls and regulations

An early concern about the AUKUS partnership was the extent to which existing US export control laws and regulations might hamper effective technological and industrial cooperation between AUKUS partners. Since AUKUS was first announced, the US has taken several regulatory and legislative measures to ease the export and transfer of technology and information between them, including passing the National Defence Authorisation Act in December 2023.

The UK and the Indo-Pacific

In March 2021 the Government set out its plan to “tilt” its foreign, defence and security policy towards the Indo-Pacific. The Government explained in its integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy that the region is “critical to our economy, our security and our global ambition to support open societies” and in the future will be “the crucible for many of the most pressing global challenges”. The Government said it intends to become the “European partner with the broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific.”

In March 2023 the Government refreshed the integrated review to reflect Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and other developments. It reaffirmed the commitment to the Indo-Pacific, warning that tensions in the region are increasing and “conflict there could have global consequences greater than the conflict in Ukraine.” The Government said it plans to develop a new network of Atlantic-Pacific partnerships, of which AUKUS is one. Further analysis is available in Commons Library paper The Integrated Review Refresh 2023: What has changed since 2021? CBP 9750.

In July 2023 the Ministry of Defence published its refreshed defence command paper, reflecting the defence aspects of the integrated review update. The MOD articulates the need to shift from a platform-centric to technology-centric mindset. Harnessing new and emerging technologies is central to this shift, and the MOD identifies AUKUS pillar 2 projects as capabilities that will “help us to maintain our technological and military edge in an increasingly contested and unstable strategic environment.”

There is broad political support for AUKUS pillar 2 activities. The Shadow Defence Secretary, John Healey, has explicitly said “there will be no change in Britain’s commitment to AUKUS” if Labour wins the next UK general election.

Expanding AUKUS partners?

The Foreign Affairs and Defence Select Committees have both suggested expanding AUKUS pillar 2 activities to other countries, notably Canada, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. While Government Ministers said they are open to future partnerships, the three AUKUS countries “collectively agree that we are not yet in a position to consider expanding to additional partners.”

This paper discusses some of the capabilities in more detail, as well as discussing the impact of US export regulatory controls and how AUKUS is described in national defence strategies.

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