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AUKUS Pillar 2 critical pathways: a road map to enabling international collaboration

By George Henneke and Roland Stephens

The AUKUS trilateral partnership presents Australia with an unprecedented opportunity to achieve national-security goals that have eluded it for decades. It could offer access to cutting-edge technologies. It can further integrate Australian, US and UK military forces, allowing more unified action to maintain deterrence against national and transnational actors who threaten the global rules-based order. Perhaps most importantly, AUKUS—in particular its Pillar.2 objectives—is an opportunity for Australia to pursue the long-sought industrial capacity necessary to defend its borders and its interests across a range of probable conflict scenarios.

A vision for Pillar 2 success

AUKUS partner nations implement operational and regulatory frameworks to co-produce, co-field and continuously enhance world-leading national defence capabilities in critical technology areas. Governments will provide leadership and resources to drive effective multinational collaboration among government, industry and academic contributors, leveraging competitive advantages from across the alliance to deliver collective capability.

Whatever the rhetoric, however, the benefits are far from assured. While the effort has had successes, including cooperative artificial intelligence (AI) / autonomy trials and landmark legislation, most of the hard work remains. Strategies and principles are only the beginning. Success or failure will hinge on the translation of those strategies and principles into the regulations, standards and organisational realignments necessary to operationalise the vision. The challenges are significant—from skills and supply to budgets, leadership and bipartisanship. But the benefits from this three-nation enterprise are worth the hard work to sustain political will and financial investment and to combine aspirational ambition with suitable risk tolerance to overcome obstacles.

Past debate has contributed valuable insight into problems that can threaten the full realisation of the AUKUS arrangement including for example, problems like outdated and dysfunctional export-control regulations, struggles with integrating complicated classified information systems and differing regulations and frameworks among the AUKUS partners. Yet, when it comes to fixing those problems, regulators and industry participants often talk past one another. Governments claim that mechanisms are in place to facilitate cooperation. Businesses counter that waiting six months or more for necessary approvals is an unreasonable impediment to innovation. Both sides have a point. So far, reform efforts have been unable to break the logjam.

In this study, ASPI takes a different approach. Rather than wade once more into the morass of trade regulations to identify obstacles and recommend fixes, we interviewed the regulators and businesses that implement and operate under those regulations. Our data collection involved engaging more than 170 organisations as well as key individuals. Our intent here is to provide an operational perspective on practical barriers to cooperation as envisaged under AUKUS—particularly under Pillar 2—and offer the Australian Government detailed and actionable recommendations that we believe would help AUKUS Pillar 2 succeed.

A constant challenge has been policymakers’ lack of understanding of the daily challenges faced by businesses striving to keep Australia, the US and the UK at the forefront of defence innovation. Similarly, myths abound among industry participants about the degree of restrictions imposed by regulations such as the US’s International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). Officials make the claim that all necessary exemptions exist for AUKUS partners to cooperate, and that only minor adjustments are required to turbocharge transnational innovation. Businesses reply that narrowly tailored exemptions buried in mountains of rules are useful only for the lawyers required to make sense of them. This report aims to bridge that gap.

AUKUS is a generational opportunity for Australia. Its focus on critical Pillar 2 technologies has the potential to bring Australian champions to the world stage and lift the nation’s defence industry up to the state of the art in a range of modern capabilities. Done right, that can help to realise the robust industrial capacity that Australia needs.