AUKUS partners announce Pillar II plans: Artificial intelligence, cyber, Electronic warfare and hypersonics

The AUKUS nuclear submarine deal is making ripples across the Indo-Pacific. Image: US Embassy

In September 2021 the UK, Australia and the United States agreed a trilateral defence and security partnership to “help sustain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Known as AUKUS, the agreement reflects the UK’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific, first articulated in the Government’s 2021 Integrated Review of defence, foreign and security policy and reaffirmed in the 2023 refresh of the review.

A major part of the agreement is helping Australia acquire their first conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarine fleet. This is known as pillar 1 of AUKUS and is discussed in Commons Library paper AUKUS submarine (SSN-A) programme (CBP 9843).

Pillar 2 focuses on developing a range of advanced capabilities, to share technology and increase interoperability between their armed forces. The three countries say one of the aims of AUKUS is to “foster deeper integration of security and defense-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains”.

The Minister responsible for AUKUS Pillar 2 is the Minister for Defence Procurement, James Cartlidge. In June 2023 he said “good progress is being made” across all eight workstreams.

A closer look at the advanced capabilities

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III hosted the Honourable Richard Marles MP, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, Australia, and the Right Honourable Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Defence, United Kingdom, at the Defense Innovation Unit Headquarters in California today to discuss the AUKUS enhanced defense and security partnership.

For more than a century, the three nations have stood shoulder-to-shoulder, along with other allies and partners, to help sustain peace, stability and prosperity around the world.  The Secretaries and Deputy Prime Minister acknowledged that, in the face of an evolving security environment, AUKUS presents a generational opportunity to modernize and enhance longstanding partnerships and cooperation to address global security challenges and contribute to stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.  The Secretaries and Deputy Prime Minister reaffirmed that at the core of this partnership is the shared resolve to bolster security and stability and ensure that the Indo-Pacific remains a region free from coercion and aggression.

For Australia’s acquisition of conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines (Pillar I), AUKUS partners are collaborating to deliver this capability at the earliest possible date while upholding the highest nuclear non-proliferation standard.  For Advanced Capabilities (Pillar II), AUKUS partners are substantially deepening cooperation on a range of security and defense capabilities, making sure that each nation has the capabilities needed to defend against rapidly evolving threats.  Through these efforts, AUKUS contributes to integrated deterrence by pursuing layered and asymmetric capabilities that promote increased security and stability.

The Secretaries and Deputy Prime Minister reaffirmed the three nations’ commitment to maximize the strategic and technological advantage of AUKUS by combining national strengths and pooling resources to deliver game-changing capabilities.  They agreed that advancing AUKUS requires continued commitment to streamlining defense trade controls and information-sharing while minimizing policy and financial barriers across public and private sectors.  The Secretaries and Deputy Prime Minister directed their organizations to continue taking additional steps to promote efficient defense and industrial collaboration among the three nations.

The Secretaries and Deputy Prime Minister reaffirmed that all AUKUS collaboration is and will be undertaken in full compliance with the partners’ respective international legal obligations and commitments.  In pursuit of this shared vision, the Secretaries and Deputy Prime Minister endorsed the following announcements and initiatives across both Pillar I and Pillar II.

With the ‘optimal pathway’ for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines under Pillar I now clear, it is time for a renewed focus on the other half of the AUKUS agreement between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom: Pillar II advanced capabilities. This explainer provides an update on the eight areas that make up Pillar II of the agreement, and the progress made so far toward the funding and legislation necessary to unlock its potential.

With the ‘optimal pathway’ for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines under Pillar I now clear, it is time for a renewed focus on the other half of the AUKUS agreement between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom: Pillar II advanced capabilities. This explainer provides an update on the eight areas that make up Pillar II of the agreement, and the progress made so far toward the funding and legislation necessary to unlock its potential.

First announced in September 2021, Pillar II began with four areas of technological capability: cyber capabilities (now advanced cyber), artificial intelligence (now artificial intelligence and autonomy), quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities. In April 2022, this list expanded to include a further four areas: hypersonic and counter-hypersonic capabilities, electronic warfare, innovation, and information sharing.

As it stands, AUKUS partners have announced that experimentation and demonstrations in four of the eight areas (undersea capabilities, quantum technologies, hypersonics and autonomous systems) will occur before 2025, with a trial of AI and autonomous systems having already taken place in the United Kingdom in early 2023. The timelines for these trials and experimentation suggest that material progress on Pillar II will occur ahead of the sale of the US Virginia-class submarines to Australia and the construction of the first SSN-AUKUS, both of which are expected some time next decade. However, to ensure Pillar II can reach its potential in this timeframe, increased and sustained public engagement will be necessary to leverage and foster the requisite industry and research and development (R&D) partnerships.

Pillar I—Conventionally Armed, Nuclear-Powered Submarines

The Secretaries and Deputy Prime Minister reviewed the exceptional progress that has been made since the March 2023 announcement of the Optimal Pathway for Australia to acquire conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines.  They discussed the strategic significance of this endeavor and the deterrence effect it is already delivering.  They reaffirmed their commitment to delivering each phase, to include establishing Submarine Rotational Force-West (SRF-West) in Australia as early as 2027, selling U.S. Virginia-class submarines to Australia from the early 2030s, and delivering SSN-AUKUS to the Royal Navy in the late 2030s and the first Australian-built SSN-AUKUS to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in the early 2040s.

Pillar II—Advanced Capabilities

Pillar II is accelerating and deepening the development and delivery of advanced military capabilities.  The strategic alignment of our national defense strategies, anchored by our shared values, is facilitating unprecedented collaboration in advanced technologies.  In addition to work focused on dedicated AUKUS capabilities, AUKUS is providing a vehicle to break down barriers and improve cooperation in other areas.  While many AUKUS-related advanced capability activities remain classified, the Secretaries and Deputy Prime Minister shared the following commitments:

Advanced cyber

Added in September 2021 to strengthen cyber capabilities, including protecting critical communications and operations systems. There have been no public announcements of progress on advanced cyber since, despite some related projects underway (see Funding section).

Artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomy

Emphasised in initial and subsequent joint AUKUS statements to “maintain a capability edge and defend against AI-enabled threats” by “accelerating adoption, and improving the resilience of, autonomous and AI-enabled systems.” In April 2023, AUKUS partners conducted a demonstration trial of AI and Autonomy in the United Kingdom — the first publicly announced, practical demonstration of progress in a Pillar II technological area. This saw two ‘world firsts’ — “the live retraining of models in flight and the interchange of AI models between AUKUS nations” as part of “a collaborative swarm to detect and track military targets…in real time.” In May 2023, the US Department of Defense also requested US$5 million funding for a cloud-based AUKUS AI Hub to support data transfers and “trilateral collaboration within a shared modelling and simulation environment.”

Electronic warfare

This capability was added in April 2022 to focus on improving shared “tools, techniques, and technology to enable our forces to operate in contested and degraded environments.” To date, no other announcements have been made public.

Hypersonics and counter-hypersonics

Highlighted as an advanced capability priority area across the lifetime of AUKUS Pillar II (April 2022, December 2022 and March 2023), including plans for demonstrations in 2023–24 and beyond. This builds on a history of existing US — Australia bilateral collaboration. For example, in 2020 the partners signed an agreement to develop and test hypersonic cruise missile prototypes.

Quantum technologies

Announced at the AUKUS launch, with positioning, navigation and timing listed as the immediate focus in 2022 under the AUKUS Quantum Arrangement (AQuA). Emerging quantum technologies are to be integrated into trials and experimentation in the following three years (by early 2025). However, no clear deliverables have been made public as of mid-2023 about AQuA or broader trilateral quantum technology collaboration.

Undersea capabilities

Announced at the AUKUS launch, with an early 2022 statement emphasising “advanced trilateral maritime undersea intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities” and noting that initial trials and experimentation of the AUKUS Undersea Robotics Autonomous Systems (AURAS) project were planned for 2023 — but nothing further has been publicly announced.

Together, these activities enhance the AUKUS partners’ capabilities, collective security, and deterrence amid an evolving strategic and security environment.  The AUKUS partners remain committed to deepening trilateral collaboration, enhancing information and technology sharing, and integrating our defense industrial bases to further strengthen joint capabilities and increase resiliency across the three nations.  The initiatives and accomplishments announced today advance these objectives and set the conditions for continued partnership and progress towards a bold and innovative future for AUKUS.

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