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U.S., U.K. and Australia announce expanded cooperation on hypersonics

In the first test of its kind, the Pentagon on March 25, 2019, carried out the “salvo” intercept of an unarmed missile soaring over the Pacific, using two interceptor missiles launched from underground silos in California. (AP)

The United States, Britain and Australia on Tuesday announced expanded cooperation on the development of hypersonics and other military technologies in an affirmation of a trilateral security pact whose unstated aim is to provide a bulwark against China’s military ambitions in the IndoPacific.

The announcement comes in the midst of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a land war convulsing Europe and unnerving China, and which the leaders of the United States and its allies said in a statement represents a direct assault on the “international system that respects human rights, the rule of law, and the peaceful resolution of disputes free from coercion.”

In a statement, President Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said they were reaffirming their “commitment to [the partnership] and to a free and open IndoPacific.”

The three-way defense alliance, dubbed AUKUS after the initials of each country, was launched in September with a major announcement that the United States and Britain would help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines. Until then, Britain was the only nation with which the United States had shared its highly sensitive nuclear submarine technology. The capability will be provided at “the earliest possible date,” the White House said Tuesday.

US will share nuclear submarine technology with Australia as part of new alliance, a direct challenge to China

The establishment last year of regional partnerships such as AUKUS and the “Quad” — or the United States, India, Japan and Australia — has rattled the Chinese. They have criticized the system of alliances the United States is building, calling it “an Indo-Pacific version of NATO.”

“They are doomed to fail,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a news conference in March.

Traditionally, these U.S. allies and partners have sought to maintain a neutral and even cooperative relationship with China, a major trading partner of many of them. But the desire to remain neutral has been overcome by concerns about Beijing’s economic coercion and military aggression in the region.

China’s test of hypersonic vehicle is part of a program to rapidly expand strategic and nuclear systems

China shocked the U.S. defense establishment last year when it flew a nuclear-capable hypersonic vehicle around the earth. The vehicle fired a projectile as it flew over the South China Sea, the Financial Times reported.

Beijing denied it had tested hypersonic weapons. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said it was a “routine test” designed to test the reusability of spacecraft.

But U.S. officials were alarmed that China had advanced so far, so quickly and overcome the challenges of physics to fire a missile from a vehicle traveling at more than five times the speed of sound. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called it “very close” to “a Sputnik moment,” referring to the 1957 Soviet launch of a satellite that also shocked the U.S. defense establishment.

The United States has worked with Australia and with Britain on hypersonics technology for years, but given China’s aggressive push into the area, ramping up the collaboration is a good thing, said Mark J. Lewis, a former Pentagon director of defense research and technology.

The Australians in particular, he noted, have done advanced hypersonic research, flight-testing the first working “scramjet” engine — a hypersonic jet engine — and new types of wind tunnels.

“It’s extremely important that we work with friends, partners and allies,” said Lewis, the executive director of the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies Institute.

The announcement, however, did not include specific plans or timelines for the stepped-up collaboration.

The AUKUS leaders said they were also deepening cooperation on electronic warfare, cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum and undersea capabilities.

Beijing has invested deeply in electronic warfare, said Whitney McNamara, an associate vice president at Beacon Global Strategies, a consulting firm. It knows modern militaries rely heavily on the electromagnetic spectrum for communications and command and control of weapons systems, she said. So by being able to take out an adversary’s use of the spectrum, she said, “China believes it will prevent or win a war.”

China’s system of ground-based and anti-ship missiles act as a buffer that could prevent the intervention of the United States and its allies if Beijing attempted to move aggressively against one of its neighbors, such as Taiwan, she said. So if the United States and its allies and partners can degrade or suppress parts of these Chinese networks using electronic warfare — and without having to resort to “an escalatory kinetic [missile] strike,” they will have an advantage, she said.

Analysts say the emphasis in areas such as hypersonics, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity signals that AUKUS is committed to more immediate security projects than just developing nuclear submarines, which could take decades.

“It demonstrates in no uncertain terms that AUKUS is as much about advanced capabilities, as it is about submarines,” said Taylor Fravel, director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “In fact, cooperation in these advanced capabilities are going to be more important in the short to medium term.”

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