Three more considerations for AUKUS

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Saying AUKUS is big and ambitious is an understatement. It’s as AEI’s Bill Greenwalt has called it, “a generational opportunity.” Spanning nuclear-powered submarines to advanced capabilities in eight technology areas as varied as undersea capabilities and quantum technologies, AUKUS is one large endeavor. Indeed, there’s been plenty of commentary on actions that the three nations can take to make this “too big to fail” endeavor from failing. But amid the details of reform, it’s important to remember that in order to get AUKUS’ big and ambitious items right, we need to get the smaller items right, too, including military-to-military and industry-to-industry communications.

The three nations have been fighting alongside each other for decades, dating back to the 1940s. Yet today, we still experience difficulties at the most tactical level to communicate with each other. We live in an era where any individual in the world can go on their mobile device, type a message, have it translated into any language and send it nearly instantly to a recipient anywhere in the world. And yet when it comes to our military command and control, we have not yet solved this form of communication, boding ill for military-to-military collaboration within AUKUS.

This is an all the more pressing problem to fix because in warfighting today, as is the case in our daily lives, the connected Internet of Things is driving the revolution in productivity and effectiveness. If AUKUS does nothing other than seamlessly knit together existing weapon systems across the three nations, it will be a huge success.

The other issue is at the same time simpler and yet much more complex: Our industrial partners cannot easily talk to each other. Putting up the most formidable walls between the industrial bases of all three AUKUS nations is the United States’ rules codified in the International Traffic in Arms Regulations regime, or ITAR, which threatens to derail defense collaboration. Australia is now making its own attempt to reform its defense export controls, but that effort looks to be a replication of all the bad parts of ITAR, as Bill Greenwalt has also noted.

Reform in this area is extremely important because U.S. and Australian engineers cannot easily share information, thereby destroying the fruits to be gained from cooperation.

So besides current reform efforts included in the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act, what’s there to do to ensure that defense cooperation, both on the industrial and military levels, can actually happen within AUKUS?

First, AUKUS’ participating defense industries should be treated the same. In other words, a company working on a hypersonic project in the U.K., Australia or the U.S. should have the same opportunity to supply the AUKUS nations with that technology as they would in their home country. That will help drive competition between the countries’ industries in a non-protectionist manner, and hopefully lower costs and barriers to access for the technology areas covered by AUKUS’ second pillar.

Second, as part of that push to lower the barriers between industries, Congress should consider enshrining a “Buy AUKUS” provision in future legislation. That would move beyond harmful “Buy America” provisions, which favor the purchase of American-made and -sourced defense articles over those from foreign countries, and focus on buying defense articles from within the AUKUS partnership. That could in turn help revitalize the defense-industrial bases of all three nations and enable second sourcing and “friendshoring” of our defense supply chains.

Third, AUKUS will simply not work, and industry collaboration won’t work either, absent sustained funding from Congress. We need sustained funding for a whole host of AUKUS projects, especially for those undertaken by our submarine-industrial base or for attempts to make our current weapons interoperable.

As Mackenzie Eaglen has rightly argued: “The President and Congress must go beyond one-off supplemental measures and provide our Navy with robust and stable budgetary investments for the critical years to come.” How much money to appropriate is up to Congress, but it should surely go beyond the $3.4 billion requested by the administration in its October 2023 supplemental request and likely track the figure put out in the yet-to-be-publicly-released Pentagon study on the submarine-industrial base.

Absent sustained funding, industry simply will not invest in producing the 100,000 new hires (and facilities) that the Navy estimates the submarine-industrial base needs over the next decade.

In the end, though, there’s a near-endless list of policy prescriptions to help make AUKUS a success — and there’s more that should be added to the list. Without focusing on the smaller and solvable items first, AUKUS and its promise of submarines and emerging technologies may just fizzle out.

Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. John Ferrari is a senior nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute think tank. Ferrari previously served as a director of program analysis and evaluation for the Army. Charles Rahr is a research assistant at AEI.

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