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Even joining US forces in shared military exercises – a cornerstone of Pentagon strategy to deter Beijing and demonstrate that combined forces are greater than the sum of their parts – requires Australia to submit retransfer or re-export requests to the State Department before it can fly and sail alongside US forces, let alone carry out exercises together.
“It’s bureaucracy and different bureaucracies and multiple ones,” said Stacie Pettyjohn, a senior fellow and defence programme director at the Centre for a New American Security.
“It’s just a deeply entrenched way of operating. If Aukus fails, there is a good chance that the United States can no longer defend the liberal international order, and that it can be overtaken by challengers.”
A case in point is the US-made Tomahawk missile. In 2021, Australia asked for up to 220 of the subsonic, all-weather cruise missiles that have a range of 600 miles. The deal, expected to cost up to US$895 million, including maintenance and logistical support, took two years to win US approval and still faces hurdles, including certification and the missiles’ availability.
“Presumably somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon, 900 people were being asked if it’s a good idea,” said Townshend, who advises Australia’s defence department. “And the frustrating thing about that is, the answer is nearly always yes, particularly from those who wear uniforms that are consulted. But the time it takes to go through the process is crippling.”
No country has a monopoly on military bureaucracy, but experts say the Pentagon is in a league of its own, a product of its size and history. For decades, spanning the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the US military was a research and development powerhouse.
This saw it build a system of legal and regulatory walls, safeguards and a mentality that viewed anything foreign as deeply suspicious in its bid to protect the crown jewels.
Over time, however, the world changed around the US defence establishment. The momentum on military-related R&D, innovation and creative thinking increasingly shifted to the private sector.
It’s just a bureaucratic process that’s divorced from time and urgency
The line between military and commercial technologies blurred – as seen by the use of civilian drone, satellite and social media technology in the Ukraine war.
The US has also lost its hallowed perch as other countries rivalled it in capability and innovation. In 1960, US military-related R&D accounted for 36 per cent of total global R&D. By 2019, that had slipped to 3 per cent, according to the Congressional Research Service.
A key provision of US export control policy is the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (Itar).
“Through a process you can term Itar contamination or Itar taint, whatever US person touches that technology, it has to go back to the State Department for a ‘Mother, may I?’”, said William Greenwalt, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
“It creates a tremendous incentive for our partners, and particularly in the commercial marketplace, to never deal with the Department of Defence and the US government.
“It’s just a bureaucratic process that’s divorced from time and urgency.”
As outlined in March, the three partners will engage in unprecedented intelligence, hardware and technology sharing. The US and Britain will rotate submarines through Australia – the USS Asheville visited Perth last month – and sell Australia three US Virginia-class nuclear-powered subs with an option to buy two more.
The partners then plan to build a new class of submarines dubbed the SSN Aukus in British shipyards using a British design and US technology. Vessels will be delivered to the British fleet in the late 2030s and Australia in the early 2040s. The cost for Canberra is an estimated US$180 billion to US$245 billion over 32 years.
The phased arrangement is meant to thread several needles, including Australia’s pending security shortfall, backlogged US shipyards well behind on America’s own submarine construction and the time needed to train Australian crews and build port facilities.
It also recognises the Indo-Pacific’s critical role in Western defence thinking and acknowledges that the intelligence-sharing group known as the Five Eyes – the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – was not moving fast enough nor fully in sync on a robust China policy, requiring a pared-down core.
China, for its part, is believed to have some 10 nuclear-powered submarines, several dated and noisy, with plans to build a dozen more. It is also mounting sensors on the ocean floor, improving its anti-submarine technology and looking at expanded overseas basing, potentially including the Pakistan port city of Gwadar.
Beijing is also active in the public-approval battle, arguing for a nuclear-free Southeast Asia and accusing Aukus of violating non-proliferation safeguards and fuelling a “Cold War mentality”.
The Aukus submarines are nuclear-powered but will not carry nuclear weapons, the partners said, nor will Australia enrich uranium or reprocess used fuel. Instead, they will receive sealed nuclear power units from the US and Britain that will not require refuelling during their lifetime.
The US export control regime has come under criticism for its inflexibility and inability to distinguish effectively between close allies, weak allies and adversaries.
The issue has become increasingly important as Washington builds higher walls around key technologies aimed at slowing China’s military build-up – advanced semiconductors, chip-making equipment and artificial intelligence – even as it amplifies alliances with shared data security systems, integrated industries and common geopolitical policies.
Congress is also a factor, experts said. Lawmakers see a tough anti-China line as a key to re-election, so committees beyond foreign affairs and armed services have piled on, at times without great knowledge, experience or understanding of US-China relations. Some 250 China-related bills are now before Congress, according to the US-China Business Council.
The US has long touted its multilateral defence partnerships to demonstrate global support for its policies and underscore that it is not working alone.
“But a lot of that has been for political show and less for the capability that they bring,” Pettyjohn said. “Here we actually need combined capabilities. And we need to be able to do it together before a balloon goes up and some sort of crisis or war breaks out.
“Because we’re not going to be able to recoup and cobble together when you face an adversary as capable as China.”
Long before Aukus, the need for faster acquisitions and decision-making was widely acknowledged in statements, reports and reform blueprints. Now some regard Aukus as the best catalyst for systemic change, given its high profile, ambition and White House backing.
“You are a testament to the strong and deep support for this partnership,” US President Joe Biden told his British and Australian counterparts at the alliance’s formal launch in San Diego last month.
Ideally, though, it should not take a president’s clout to reform a sclerotic system, analysts said.
“You have bureaucracies carrying out standard operating procedure in an environment where traditionally there’s been no penalty for saying no and risk for saying yes,” said Thomas Mahnken, president of the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a former Pentagon official. “This is a prominent opportunity to reset the incentive structures.”
Added Sameer Lalwani, a senior expert with the United States Institute of Peace: “Aukus is the canary in the coal mine. If it won’t work for Aukus, there’s no chance for India. If Aukus figures it out, then there’s a template.”
The ambitions of the elite Aukus club – and promised access to leading-edge quantum technologies, cyber tools, undersea tactics, hypersonic and counter-hypersonic know-how, electronic warfare and integrated industrial sectors – has attracted other close allies, including Japan, India and Canada. “Will AUKUS ever become CAUKUS?” asked a headline in Canada’s Financial Post newspaper.
It has also led to speculation that Aukus could be the start of a Nato-style collective alliance in Asia.
But given the mammoth, long-term challenge of integrating American, Australian and British personnel, mindsets and systems, expanding the alliance any time soon could prove counterproductive.
“If it can’t work between Britain, Australia and the United States, it can’t work, period,” Townshend said. “Until we have proof of concept, and this thing is working amongst the three-headed hydra, the time is not right.”