Without a doubt, the United States and its allies have entered into a period of intense strategic rivalry with China. This competition is unfolding as the capacity limitations of the U.S. defense-industrial base have been exposed by both the war in Ukraine and the lengthy delay in weapons deliveries to Taiwan. Fortunately, the Australia-United Kingdom-United States security agreement, or AUKUS, announced in September 2021 has the potential to help remedy these industrial limitations and strengthen allied defense in the Indo-Pacific region.
In order for AUKUS to be successful, the United States must both change its approach to regulating defense trade with its closest allies and force the bureaucracy to adopt a more competitive mindset to manage the risks of technology transfer.
AUKUS has two parts, or pillars. The first focuses on Australia’s acquisition of conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines, while the second promotes deeper integration and cooperation in fielding advanced defense capabilities. Australia’s potential acquisition of those submarines has generated considerable attention, but achieving an operationally viable submarine capability will take a decade or more. This long timeline does not lessen the importance of the first pillar, but highlights the need to move with urgency to simultaneously implement the second pillar.
The second pillar offers the possibility of accelerating the research, development and fielding of advanced defense capabilities in the near term. It can help ensure the allies stay ahead of emerging threats with its focus on jointly developing and fielding cutting-edge defense technologies like hypersonic missiles, advanced undersea capabilities and quantum technologies.
Just as important, substantially streamlined cooperation across our collective defense-industrial bases will help offset China’s overwhelming manufacturing advantage.
But to exploit the opportunity created by the second pillar, fundamental reform of U.S. export control laws and technology release processes is needed. Specifically, modernization of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations and Foreign Military Sales processes are necessary to maintain an advantage over China.
AUKUS presents an optimal test of our ability to do this. Creating a seamless defense trade partnership with two of our closest allies should be a simple process, given our already deep intelligence-sharing relationship and the frequency with which we coordinate and integrate our military operations. We have no closer allies.
However, two years after the AUKUS agreement, we have little to show for it — largely due to the Biden administration’s overly risk-averse approach to the implementation of the second pillar. We currently rely on a risk management approach to export licensing and technology release dating to the end of the Cold War — an era when our commanding geopolitical position gave us the luxury of adopting a zero-risk approach to these decisions.
That era is over. Today, China’s manufacturing capabilities and rapid military modernization are eroding America’s dominance in advanced technologies. To offset this, we must leverage the technology contributions and industrial bases of our closest allies. Protecting our most advanced technologies remains a national security imperative, but we should aim restrictive regulations at countries with a demonstrated record of a failure provide protection, not at our closest allies.
Rather than acknowledging our closest allies have legal, regulatory and technology control regimes comparable to those of the United States, some policymakers are cherry-picking flaws in those systems in an effort to preserve the existing approach to licensing and technology controls. Demands that our closest partners undertake extensive changes to their legal and regulatory systems suggest extraterritorial overreach and demonstrate an inability to characterize risk accurately.
Our approach to managing risk should account for the immense benefits of collaboration under AUKUS, including U.S. access to highly capable and relevant systems developed by our allies. In today’s geopolitical environment, the greater risk to our own national security is continuing to treat our technology as too precious to share.
AUKUS is not our first attempt to foster deeper defense cooperation with our two closest allies. In 2010, the Senate approved defense trade treaties with the United Kingdom and Australia. In the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, the United States incorporated the United Kingdom and Australia into our national technology-industrial base. However, both the treaties and NTIB changes have yielded little in the way of increased industrial cooperation.
The Biden administration has argued that this is the “decisive decade” in the strategic competition with China. I agree. But an incremental approach to implementing AUKUS places us at a grave disadvantage by preventing us from maximizing the benefit of our alliances in competing with China.
Were AUKUS to come up short, as the defense trade treaties and NTIB have, our closest allies would lose faith in our reliability as a partner. Alternatively, were AUKUS to succeed, it could incentivize other key allies to strengthen their industrial practices to allow for similar cooperation.
It is not enough to say that allies are our comparative advantage in the competition against authoritarian regimes. Sharing the burden of competition with allies, a fundamental feature of the United States’ successful Cold War strategy, requires that we enable greater defense-industrial cooperation now.
Earlier this year, I introduced the Torpedo Act (S 1471), which would do just that. This bill details what the United States needs to do to implement the second pillar successfully. Encouragingly, the core regulatory changes contemplated by the Torpedo Act recently passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a bipartisan basis, demonstrating Congress’ will to align the ambitious rhetoric of AUKUS with needed reforms to our export control and technology release policies. Failure to do so would render our rhetoric hollow and signal that we are fundamentally unserious about competing with China.
Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, is the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.