Look Beyond Washington DC for Why AUKUS Matters
The fundamental groundwork to make AUKUS a success will require previously unimagined levels of political and financial investment in the locales where SSNs are designed, constructed, and maintained.
On Monday, U.S. president Joe Biden, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak, and Austrialian prime minister Anthony Albanese announced the pathway for AUKUS that will deliver nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. Canberra will purchase 3–5 Virginia class SSN submarines from the United States before buying eight newly-designed, UK- and Australian-built SSN-AUKUS subs. The deal outlines new docking, training, and rotation agreements that will provide the United States with a more robust strategic hub in the Indo-Pacific.
The three leaders have promised that the submarine projects (otherwise known as Pillar 1) will create jobs, educational opportunities, and investment for all three countries. While the announcement is welcome in its bold strategic vision, it remains scant on details and does not address the elephant in the room: the current weakness in the combined defense industrial capacity to produce so many boats in so little time with so few resources.
Recent discussions about a lack of industrial capacity to support the AUKUS submarine project highlight the continuing difficulties facing the trilateral technology security agreement. Leaders in Washington, Canberra, and London all express the will to make nuclear attack submarines a reality for the Australian Defence Force in order to deter China in the Indo-Pacific. But the “hard yakka”—hard work—of building submarines doesn’t happen in the national capitals. Regional, state, and local politics and markets—including debates about sourcing for raw materials, and development of skilled labor pools, requires attention. Public pressure is the force necessary to untangle the Byzantine knot of regulations frustrating the sharing of classified and otherwise sensitive know-how, and will make or break the program. While platitudes around “mateship” and the strength and history of the U.S.-Australia alliance sound comforting, the fundamental groundwork to make AUKUS a success will require previously unimagined levels of political and financial investment in the locales where SSNs are designed, constructed, and maintained.
Politics Begins at the Kitchen Table
As expressed by ASPI DC Director Mark Watson in the Australian Financial Review, “regardless of the strongly stated political and military support for AUKUS, members of Congress could begin to take a more ambivalent view [of that support] if it comes at the expense of US operational readiness,” even when the strategic logic is compelling. Moreover, if policymakers don’t provide incentives and benefits—jobs, educational opportunities, or tax breaks—to get rank-and-file voters onboard, the American, British, and Australian publics will be unlikely to make the necessary sacrifices and investments to see the deal through.
Failure to seek public support among key populations and to explain why AUKUS matters beyond the strategic area of the Indo-Pacific reveals a misunderstanding of what is required. For example, while U.S. Congressional committees and Oval Office staffers make key decisions on the future of nuclear submarines for Australia, American taxpayers will, at some point, demand evidence of a return on their investment.
Without that dividend, Australia’s requirement for a long-range submarine capability will remain unmet. And American interests in linking industrial bases and integrating defense supply chains to share the burden of countering China through “collective efforts over the next decade” will founder. U.S. officials, Australian and British diplomats, and supportive strategists and researchers must make these arguments now.
The “Hard Yakka” of Subnational Engagement
The term “subnational diplomacy” refers to the engagement of non-central governments in international relations and can include the foreign policy efforts of states and cities. We have seen negative publicity regarding subnational diplomacy in Australia in the case of the Victorian state government’s aborted agreement with China on a proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2019. But for countries such as Australia and the United States, these sorts of relations are commonplace and generally constructive. As Washington’s prime characteristics are partisanship and a short attention span, it is no wonder many promising, bipartisan projects falter when campaign seasons begin or when other pressing foreign or domestic issues distract policymakers from following through. A subnational campaign to drive home the importance of AUKUS could help overcome these perennial, structural problems.
For starters, entrenching the U.S.-Australia alliance and particular projects associated with AUKUS at a state level can ensure Australia sells the importance of its interests to America’s voters. Australia has proposed investing $2 billion, mostly in America’s shipyards to expand and expedite production of the Virginia-class submarines. Building submarines means creating an ecosystem for these states and local economies, which is not only about jobs but building interpersonal relationships and stronger communities as well. Australian policymakers will need to visit more than just Washington to discover the people who will be front-and-center for AUKUS and who will help Australia meet its needs. Sending delegations that include officials and industry representatives from Australian states and localities to boat-building cities in Connecticut and Virginia is a necessary next step.
Engaging on the ground means learning about and dealing with local politicians and community leaders. It also means dealing with labor unions, fabrication companies, and the manufacturers of components beyond the nuclear technology that garners so much attention among DC tongue-waggers. State governments hold the purse strings on building new and refurbishing old shipyards or creating tax conditions and tax breaks for AUKUS-related investments. Collaborating with state governments, county officials, and mayors will promote a smoother process of getting submarines quickly into the hands of Australian defense personnel. Moreover, robust subnational outreach opens the door to new investment opportunities for Australian companies in the United States and US companies to invest in Australia.
The demand for full-society cooperation and coordination is even more important for the second pillar of AUKUS. Pillar 2 promises advances and sharing in advanced weaponry and technologies—such as AI, cyber, quantum computing, and space—and for which states such as Arizona, Michigan, and Utah may play prominent roles. In these various fields, private sector actors often are the lead innovators—and the lead investors. Commercial players working in conjunction with state and local governments is the way to fast-track the development of dual-use technologies and avoid ponderous federal bureaucracies and partisan DC politics.
From the Politician to the Welder
Selling governors and mayors on the benefits of AUKUS investment—things they already want—coupled with a national security message is smart. Subnational engagement will pay dividends when the time comes for Australia to develop maintenance facilities for the new SSNs or to create new industrial hubs to support integrated AUKUS shipbuilding that combines the industrial bases of all three partners. Australia, too, will need workers, high-tech fabrication yards, and access to vital materials. Standard setting across shops and opportunities for cross-training workers—including apprenticeships connecting specialists in Groton and Newport News and experts in Barrow-in-Furness with trainees in Perth and Adelaide will be important.
The “all of country” approach needed to meet the strategic challenges facing the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia is an “integrated industrial base” that benefits all three societies. The AUKUS Optimal Pathway is a welcome step in the right direction. However, if the partners are serious about deterring China, then subnational engagement—from the politician to the welder—is an imperative.
Iain MacGillivray is an analyst at ASPI Washington DC. He is a researcher and foreign policy analyst with over thirteen years of experience in Australia and overseas. His research areas and expertise include Middle Eastern politics and security, detailed knowledge of geopolitics and international affairs in the Indo-Pacific, and the QUAD and AUKUS.
Greg Brown is Senior Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Washington, DC, and an Adjunct Professor at the Center for Australian, New Zealand, and Pacific Studies at Georgetown University.