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AUKUS celebrates anniversary — What lies ahead?

AUKUS celebrates anniversary — What lies ahead?

Exploring what lies ahead for the trilateral technology sharing arrangement, a year since its inception.

Exploring what lies ahead for the trilateral technology sharing arrangement, a year since its inception.

It has now been a year since former prime minister Scott Morrison announced a new trilateral defence agreement with the United Kingdom and the United States (AUKUS) alongside former British prime minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden.

The deal’s flagship promise was a joint commitment to support Australia’s procurement of nuclear-powered submarines, signalling an end to Naval group’s former $90 billion Attack Class contract.  


Other commitments include cooperation on:

  • Undersea capabilities such as the AUKUS Undersea Robotics Autonomous Systems Project;
  • Quantum technologies including the AUKUS Quantum Arrangement (AQuA);
  • Artificial intelligence and autonomy aimed at enhancing AI decision-making processes and to defend against other AI threats;
  • Advanced cyber capabilities, including enhanced protection of communications and operating systems;
  • Electronic warfare;
  • Innovation, including learning from each country’s defence innovation enterprises; and
  • Information sharing.

AUKUS has since evolved to include the joint development of advanced hypersonic and counter hypersonic capabilities.

However, these bold commitments have come under intense scrutiny, particularly amid concerns over the delivery timeline for the Royal Australian Navy’s future submarines.

The Commonwealth government is yet to select a preferred design, with the Nuclear Submarine Taskforce scheduled to hand down recommendations in March.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles is exploring pathways for early delivery, but previously conceded that it would be “extremely unlikely” for a boat to hit the water before 2030, even in the event of an off-the-shelf purchase from the US or UK.

So, given the long wait, what could the strategic environment look like upon final operational capability (FOC).

According to Dr Peter Lee — research fellow, foreign policy and defence program, at the United States Studies Centre — there will be “more surprises in store” before FOC, likely to be achieved in the 2050s.

“The security challenges posed by an increasingly hostile China may underpin the logic behind Australia’s turn to nuclear-powered submarines, but the actual environment in which these vessels will operate is harder to guess, and indeed imponderable in many respects,” he writes in a piece first published by The Australian Financial Review.

Dr Lee notes Australia is likely to undergo a significant transformation in the coming decades, with its increasingly “culturally and demographically diverse” population likely to grow to 30–40 million.

Citing late Australian scholar Coral Bell, he adds Australia would also be “living with giants”, pointing to the emergence of the likes of Indonesia and Vietnam.

“Great power rivalries will be more complex in this multipolar regional order,” Dr Lee observes.

Dr Lee goes on to reflect on the inevitable evolution of technology and civilisation more broadly.

“There will be humans on the moon and probably Mars, and they won’t just be American, marking the start of interplanetary strategic competition,” he continues.

“Many Cold War-era ‘legacy’ systems like surface ships, combat aircraft, and armoured vehicles will have either been made redundant or reimagined to work alongside artificial intelligence and unmanned systems.”

Accordingly, Dr Lee writes, any AUKUS deliverables, particularly the future fleet of RAN SSNs, should take into account changes in the strategic landscape.

“As Australia’s new Chief of Navy, Mark Hammond, has noted, submarines have demonstrated remarkable longevity throughout the technological revolution in military affairs,” he continues.

“Undersea warfare remains a critical strength for the United States and its allies, both in the Indo-Pacific and globally.

“But the region’s current pace of naval shipbuilding and capability modernisation means that Australia’s eight submarines will have their work cut out in the contested, and congested, Indo-Pacific maritime theatre of the 2050s.”

As such, Dr Lee calls for careful consideration of Australia’s next steps, given the level of resources required to execute AUKUS commitments.

“In the next 12 months, the Australian government’s diplomatic stakes in the AUKUS partnership will soon require a major commitment of dollars to make it count,” he observes.

“It will be a staggering amount given the unprecedented and national scale of this endeavour.

“Any major defence procurement is a demanding task akin to hitting a distant moving target in a hazy sunset.”

He concludes: “But to paraphrase the 1986 Dibb Review, the threatening trends are now evident, military capacities are being built, and political tensions are rising. Australia needs to hit the bullseye.”

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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