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AUKUS and Cyber Capabilities: Alignment of Concepts, Definitions, Capabilities, Norms and Doctrine

As strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific intensifies, it challenges previously held assumptions about how to establish and maintain security in the region and between global powers. The challenge to the status quo being posed by China and Russia is increasingly being countered by partnerships and small groupings of like-minded states. Among these groupings, the most recent to form is the AUKUS collaboration.  

The September 2021 announcement of the AUKUS relationship between the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia was focused on the deal made between these governments to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia. Since that announcement, it has been made clear that these governments see great potential for the sharing of a broader range of technology and capabilities. A further joint statement from the three leaders made in April 2022 explicitly articulated the intention for collaboration in the fields of artificial intelligence, hypersonics, underwater technologies, and cyber capabilities. Little detail of how the relationship will lead to this greater collaboration has yet been made public. 

In the area of cyber capabilities, for warfighting and other national security purposes, there is huge potential for the partners to benefit from collaboration and cooperation. China and Russia continue to express their commitment to growing their cyber power as a strategy to combat the United States’ global dominance through traditional military power. There is a need, therefore, for a focused effort by like-minded states to prevent the development of that capability and to develop counter-capabilities. Rapid innovation and research and development is needed to stay ahead in the competition for dominance in cyberspace. AUKUS provides an avenue to achieve this. 

By pooling resources, including human capital, research facilities and institutions, as well as finance and expenditure, economies of scale can be derived and duplication of effort can be minimised in the development of new cyber technologies. Each AUKUS partner has different strengths and areas of focus for their work on weapons technology and cyber capabilities; sharing access to information and technologies between AUKUS members will allow a greater focus on these areas of strength and will avoid dilution of limited research investment and resources.  

The number one imperative outlined in the Command Vision for U.S. Cyber Command 2018 is to develop cyber capabilities more quickly and effectively than America’s adversaries. There is a need to not only innovate but also operationalise the technology to keep ahead of the strategic competition. The United Kingdom shares this vision. The Ministry for Defence Joint Doctrine Note 1/18 on Cyber and Electromagnetic Activities states that there is need to regain the initiative from China and Russia through quickly developing technology and capabilities in cyberspace. Australia’s 2020 Force Structure Plan for the Australian Defence Force also outlines the need for improved cyber capabilities, particularly offensive capabilities.  

Developing credible offensive cyber capabilities is essential to providing an effective deterrent to authoritarian states trying to impose themselves on the region and broader international community. Both Russia and China have demonstrated their intent to utilise cyber capabilities to destabilise the liberal democratic world order. To respond to this challenge, states that seek to maintain and restabilise the status quo in the international system need to be able to work together, not just in a broad diplomatic sense but also in terms of presenting a united military and cyber counterthreat. 

The greater the level of interoperability between the militaries of each of the AUKUS partners, with their own strengths in different technologies and weapons platforms, the more credible and formidable the cyber threat that adversaries will face. The deterrence value of this interoperability is a crucial force multiplier in the face of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership. 

Interoperability also allows for the burden and cost of defending the region to be more evenly distributed among alliance partners for the benefit of all. This is one of the key drivers for sharing information and technology between the partners.  

Collaboration is also needed to develop norms for the use of new cyber weapons and the regulatory regimes around their use. This will build the credibility of the threat and deterrence posed by the AUKUS partners’ cyber capabilities. In the past, allies have misinterpreted their partners’ willingness to use certain weapons technology (particularly nuclear) and this has led to the undermining of deterrence and coercion activities. Lessons need to be learned from history. A clear understanding between the AUKUS partners needs to be developed to ensure misinterpretations or premature or unrealistic threats are not made. 

If the militaries are to develop a much deeper collaboration in cyberspace, as well as more generally, there needs to be a united front presented about when and how different offensive cyber capabilities will be used in order to deter adversarial actions. Signalling is key to coercion and deterrence, and without this clear understanding of the parameters for use of the technology, effective deterrence strategy is unlikely to succeed.  

There is a public perception that offensive cyber operations are unethical or at least divergent from currently developing norms in cyberspace and long-established norms of more generalised behaviour by Western states in conflict; however, there is also a case to be made that modern warfare is conducted using activities short of war based on coercion, deterrence, espionage, and political influence. Without the ability to counter these types of activities through offensive cyber operations, states will be at a severe disadvantage as this disruption to international politics and warfighting occurs.  

Having offensive capabilities does not mean states will be free to use these weapons or tactics in an unrestricted way. It will be important to (quickly) develop the doctrine, norms, and regulations to govern their use. These two goals can and should be pursued together, and AUKUS has the potential to develop both the technology and negotiated agreements for its use more quickly.  

Norm development will also lead to greater support from non-AUKUS member states for the use of these weapons to defend the status quo. It is also a bridge between the development of new technologies and weapons and their ability to be used by armed forces. As confidence is built around how and when different capabilities can and will be used, and the legal and norm structure guiding those decisions, more states are likely to support these new developments and the armed services will be more confident in using them.  

All the partners would gain from a well-functioning collaboration on cyber technology, but among the many challenges is the need to develop a common understanding of the concepts of cyber warfare and information warfare and how they work together. Currently, the three partners use the terms quite differently in different settings. Without addressing this issue and creating a commonly understood definition of these concepts, progress cannot be made toward the ultimate goal of interoperability. Bringing together the research communities, militaries, and government officials from the three states with the aim of resolving these definitional issues will be crucial to AUKUS achieving its potential. 

Along with the differences in priorities for the use of cyber technologies and offensive capabilities, doctrine also needs to be considered. The development of effective and aligned warfighting doctrine to guide cyber activities relies on mutually recognised definitions and shared priorities remaining the focus of each state’s military. This doctrine will also help guide technological research priorities. 

It is important that the defence directions of each state do not hijack the agenda and pull partners in different directions. Conservation of effort to achieve the highest level of innovation should be the focus, not infighting over budget allocations and inter-service rivalries. There is a danger that without a clearly established and understood framework for the structure of interaction between the three AUKUS members, rivalries and political motives within the governments and services of the individual states could detract from the overall goal of collaboration.  

This is not to suggest that each state needs to have exactly the same structure guiding which officials are responsible for elements of the AUKUS collaboration. There is, however, a need to ensure that all three states are on the same page when it comes to the priorities of and commitment to the AUKUS mission. The structure needs to remove, or at least restrict to the greatest extent possible, the ability for motives other than achieving the states’ shared aims.  

A level of realism is also needed, as states will have their own interests aside from those shared with their AUKUS partners. A balance must be stuck between the requirement for sovereign cyber capabilities and control and the need to collaborate to serve shared interests.  

One of the goals outlined in Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update is to develop greater self-reliance and a more capable defence industry so that there is sovereign control over essential technologies. A key purpose of this objective is to prevent the disruption of supply chains for essential goods spanning across borders. The AUKUS partners should note that each state will have a similar imperative and that this need not negate the effectiveness of sharing technologies and capabilities. With the right approach and attitude, the seemingly disparate interests of maintaining sovereign strength and sharing capabilities can be achieved together. 

Connected to the united front idea is the need to ensure that members of other diplomatic groupings in the Indo-Pacific, such as Five Eyes, are not alienated by AUKUS. The original announcement of the submarine deal between AUKUS members led to the alienation and provocation of France. Some states within the Indo-Pacific region are also unconvinced of the utility of AUKUS,  and others are worried about the provocation of conflict that may result from an AUKUS-inspired arms race. This concern may deepen and suspicion may grow with the sharing of technologies that are less likely to be trumpeted by the leaders at press conferences, such as offensive cyber capabilities.  

The nature and purpose of AUKUS also needs buy-in from other like-minded states and allies. AUKUS could play an incredibly useful, complementary role to the myriad other relationships that exist between regional players, but the fact that this is the intention of the collaboration needs to be made clear, and quality diplomacy is needed to ensure this remains the case. Solidarity between those states seeking to thwart the revisionist powers is key to both deterring would-be adversarial states and preventing adversaries from exploiting points of division between the partners for their own interests.  

As can be seen in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when this collaboration and commitment to shared interests and goals is maintained with a tight focus, the challenges posed by adversarial states can be negated. Given the right tools, attention, and investment, AUKUS has the potential to be an avenue to present a formidable, united front. 

To take the greatest advantage of these pooled resources and efforts, however, a deep level of communication and collaboration is needed. Genuine exchanges of ideas, tools, and talent is needed. The best and brightest in the militaries, governments, and academia of each of the AUKUS partners need to come together to respond to the joint challenges these countries face. In relation to cyber capabilities, this would help the AUKUS partners achieve great things.  


About the Author

Sally Burt

Dr. Sally Burt is Lecturer in Cyber Security at UNSW, Canberra. She has a PhD from the Australian National University and is a specialist in US foreign policy, Sino-US relations, Cyber Strategy and Information Warfare. Sally has published books, journal articles, reports, and has presented internationally to conferences and summits.

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