The AUKUS Defence Pact: Through the Lens of Capability Assurance


Colin Basnett - Group Director of Strategic Engagement at QinetiQ

We live in an era marked by geopolitical complexities such as the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War, unprecedented climate-related events, unpredictable and increasingly protectionist trade policies, and ongoing pandemic-related economic distortions. Despite such issues increasing the financial distress of nations, most in the West remain acutely focused on the security threats posed by China, Russia and some non-State actors that have the potential to affect the full spectrum of operating environments. As a result, nations are increasingly recognising the importance of collaborative defence efforts to act as a meaningful deterrence, or in the worst-case scenario, provide the ability to safeguard their interests by overmatching an opponent’s warfighting capabilities. The AUKUS defence pact, a trilateral partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, is a prime example of such collaboration.

AUKUS flags

A New Dimension in Security Collaboration

The AUKUS defence pact, announced in September 2021, represents a significant development in international defence cooperation. Centred around technological advancement and strategic cooperation, the partnership reflects the participating nations' commitment to uphold regional stability and address evolving security threats.

It has two related lines of effort, otherwise known as ‘Pillar 1’ and ‘Pillar 2’. Pillar 1 consists of providing a conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarine enterprise, while upholding the highest non-proliferation standards, and Pillar 2 consists of providing joint advanced military capabilities to promote security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

At its core, the pact aims to bolster the sovereign capabilities of its member nations by leveraging cutting-edge Research and Development (R&D) through closer collaboration. However, for this objective to be realised at pace, it will be essential to adopt Test and Evaluation (T&E) practices fit for the digital age as early as possible in the system design cycle, preferably utilising mutually agreed principles of capability assurance to avoid duplication of effort and cost. In time, this could even lead to jointly funded and manned Centres of Excellence.

T&E: The Backbone of Sovereign Capabilities

Meaningful T&E is a crucial aspect of modern defence capability assurance. Through a systematic and rigorous process of assessing and validating the performance, reliability, safety, effectiveness and interoperability of systems in real-world scenarios - using a mixture of techniques that re-balances activity away from primarily live-only to a mix of synthetic-live practices - T&E allows nations to identify vulnerabilities, optimise performance, and ensure that the systems meet the intended objectives. In the context of the AUKUS defence pact, capability assurance will play a pivotal role in the following key aspects:

  • Risk Mitigation: Innovations in defence technology often involve inherent risks. Early T&E will identify such risks, thereby enabling risk mitigation to be undertaken, preventing costly setbacks and ensuring that capabilities are reliable and effective from the outset;

  • Performance Optimisation: Given the need to develop cutting-edge capabilities that outpace emerging threats, early T&E can provide valuable insights into refining and optimising the performance of such capabilities, enabling fine-tuning to be conducted to ensure optimal functionality and effectiveness. This, in turn, would lead to a reduction in the capability development life-cycle, and an acceptance of the system into service way ahead of traditional timelines;

  • Technology Integration and Interoperability: Through the early application of rigorous T&E processes, potential compatibility issues can be identified and addressed, ensuring that technologies work harmoniously together;

  • Knowledge Sharing: The AUKUS pact is intended to foster greater collaboration and knowledge sharing among the member nations. Provided the lessons learned from national or collective capability assurance efforts through T&E are shared, continuous improvement and innovation should perpetuate. Such collaboration will also safeguard national interests, as sufficient numbers of suitably qualified and experienced personnel would be generated to bolster national resilience and industrial sustainability, as well as being able to provide assurance of capability bought off-the-shelf from a partner nation.

As the complexities of the global security landscape continue to evolve, the AUKUS defence pact stands as a testament to the importance of collaboration and innovation in safeguarding the interests of nations and maintaining peace and stability.

Some two years after its inception, while much progress has been made, the AUKUS defence pact still needs to fully embrace the collaborative spirit needed to effectively address evolving security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. While it is understood that the main focus to date has been on securing the way ahead for the nuclear-powered submarine enterprise envisaged under AUKUS Pillar 1, the key to maintaining operational advantage in the near to medium term is to build upon this success and work quickly towards advancing the multitude of capabilities encompassed under the Pillar 2 umbrella.

Collaboration of this magnitude will require a significant change in national and, vitally, industrial behaviours. This is much easier said than done, but unless governments and industry demonstrate a greater willingness to engage more broadly (including with SMEs), based upon a foundation of trust and a broader ‘for the good of the enterprise’ approach, the AUKUS initiative will flounder. In short, time is of the essence, and the needs of the warfighter must not be hindered by self-interests.

Central to this endeavour should be the continued investment in defence-related R&D and the T&E capabilities needed to deliver future capability requirements at pace. Importantly, such investment will not only ensure the efficacy, reliability, safety and interoperability of capabilities, but will also enhance national security through defence industrial resilience and sustainability and, strengthen the AUKUS partnership’s deterrence posture and ability to defeat aggressors if needs be.