The White House has expressed optimism that the US, UK and Australia will clear the main obstacle to their landmark security deal, allowing technology transfers that will enable Canberra to obtain nuclear-powered submarines.
Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, said there had been progress in easing some technology export restrictions that the US partners have long been concerned could slow, or even possibly derail, the so-called Victims security pact.
Asked by the Financial Times on Tuesday about the technology transfer constraints, Sullivan said he was “feeling very good about the pathway on Aukus”, the most confident statement from Washington on overcoming the regulatory barriers that have complicated the deal.
Sullivan told a small group of reporters that Aukus had “challenged some of the historic assumptions about what the United States could or wouldn’t be prepared to do in a different era”.
The groundbreaking Aukus pact was unveiled in 2021 as a trilateral alliance to counter Chinese military power through the delivery of nuclear-powered submarines and the development of technology ranging from quantum computing to hypersonic weapons.
Australian deputy prime minister Richard Marles told the FT on Tuesday that the partners were “close to an announcement” following an 18-month planning phase to determine how and where to build the boats and what US technology and information would be required.
But the planning has been complicated by longstanding US curbs on technology and information sharing, which apply to Australia and the UK even though the countries are members of the Washington-led Five Eyes intelligence sharing network that also includes Canada and New Zealand.
Two crucial decisions will be the choice of submarine design and where the submarines will be built, given concerns that America’s shipyards do not have the capacity to take on more work.
Despite the optimism in some quarters, there are worries in Australia that US restrictions — known as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations — could seriously limit co-operation not just on submarines but also in areas such as artificial intelligence and undersea warfare that are part of the Aukus agreement.
The White House declined to provide details about the progress that has been made towards reducing the obstacles.
Speaking in London, Marles said the goal was to create a “more seamless defence industrial space between all three countries” but acknowledged there was “a long way to go in terms of creating that”.
Becca Wasser, a defence expert at the CNAS think-tank, said there was a push to make progress on the tech transfer issue but cautioned that wholesale reform of Itar would be hard.
“Limited exemptions for Australia and the UK may be the best the White House can do, but that requires Congress to get on board,” said Wasser. “While Jake Sullivan’s optimism is a positive indication about where things may be going, it is unlikely to happen tomorrow so London and Canberra might want to hold their horses — or at least their submarines.”
The cost and speed at which Australia can obtain nuclear-powered submarines has been one of the defining challenges for the Labor government, which inherited the pact from the previous government led by Scott Morrison. Marles this week again ruled out a conventional non-nuclear submarine design being used as a stop-gap measure.
Marles, who also serves as defence minister, said the Aukus talks have been a “deeply co-operative process” over what was “fundamentally a technology-sharing relationship”. He added that the pact had changed the “character of our relationships with the UK and the US, and perhaps the relationship between the UK and the US as well”.
“This is a big deal,” Marles stressed.