The UK and its Aukus allies push on towards hypersonic weapons and AI technology

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After a flurry of publicity and controversy at its launch following secret negotiations, relatively little has been heard about the Aukus defence treaty between the UK, US and Australia – which is supposed to transform the geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.

China attacked the agreement under which the US and Britain is due to supply nuclear powered submarines to Australia as a dangerous provocation. The French, who had a deal in place to supply Australia with diesel-powered submarines, accused its Western allies of dishonesty and subterfuge.

Recriminations have continued since then with questions asked about whether Washington and London would be capable of providing the submarines under specifications and within timeframe. The French have sought to exploit the doubts expressed to revive its proposed deal with Canberra. Emmanuel Macron declared last month: “Australia will be confronted with what we said at the time they made their decision, Aukus will not deliver.”

Aukus, however, appears to be going ahead without fanfare and expanding into areas beyond submarines – its “second pillars” – with the possibility of other states, notably Japan, joining in the future.

The first Aukus defence ministers conference in Washington this week, with the US’s Lloyd Austin; UK’s Ben Wallace and Australia’s Richard Marles attending, will give an update on the warships but also focus on developing advanced capabilities such as hypersonic armaments, undersea capabilities and Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology. Announcements are also expected on cooperation with private enterprise especially in the field of AI.

This is highly relevant to military arenas emerging internationally. The blowing up of parts of the Nord Stream gas pipelines – which bring Russian gas to western Europe – last September was an example of how energy supplies have been weaponised in the Ukraine war. The Kremlin has accused the UK of carrying out the sabotage without providing evidence to back up the charge. In turn, Admiral Tony Radakin, the head of UK’s armed forces warned that Russian submarine activity is threatening undersea cables, “the world’s real information system” and damaging them would be considered “an act of war”.

Hypersonic missiles travel at five times the speed of sound, are extremely difficult to track, can only by tackled by counter- hypersonic systems, and can destroy a target as sizeable as an aircraft carrier even without a warhead. Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, announced the deployment of Kinzhai hypersonic missile system in Ukraine and US officials have subsequently charted their use in combat in the country.

This week, the Russian defence ministry stated that is has deployed coastal defence missile systems on a northern Kuril isles, part of a chain near the Kamchatka Peninsula it disputes possession of with Japan. Officials in Tokyo believe this may be followed by the placing of the Avangard hypersonic system in the peninsula.

China recently fired the Dongfeng-17 mobile hypersonic system in military exercises in Taiwan, during another round of sabre-rattling including threats to retake the island by force. Last year Beijing successfully tested a nuclear capable hypersonic missile which circumnavigated the world. US officials were reported saying at the time “we have no idea how they did this”.

At present only China, US, Russia and India have developed fully functional hypersonic weapons including glide vehicles, rail guns, ballistic and cruise missiles with independent programming and sustained combustions.

Japan is said to be remodelling surface-to-air missile systems to intercept hypersonic attacks – with plans to deploy by the end of the decade.

Tokyo will need American help in doing this. The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has said agreement has been drawn up research and development on hypersonic weapons, as well as AI and quantum computing. A number of Western analysts and think tanks say it makes sense to invite Japan to work with Aukus on these issues.

The production timelines for the eight nuclear-powered submarines to be sent to Australia remains unclear with American shipyards also having to cope with the US Navy’s call to increase its own fleet from 55 to 60, despite the Aukus powers insisting that they would be delivered as quickly as possible.

But work being done by Aukus on issues like hypersonic and AI capabilities, say its military planners, reflect the multifaceted threats being faced as the world goes through a particularly dangerous and turbulent time.

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