Contact Us

Building Up Undersea Warfare on AUKUS Pillar II

Building Up Undersea Warfare on AUKUS Pillar II

In testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in May 2023, Assistant Secretary of State Jessica Lewis stated that “[AUKUS] Pillar II may have arrived just in time,” referring to a generally accepted assessment that China is ahead of the United States and its allies in 19 of 23 technologies relevant to AUKUS Pillar II. While advancing the state of the art in all of Pillar II technologies is an important goal in addressing this gap, we can immediately shift the balance in those areas contributing to subsurface and seabed warfare (SSW) through existing and proven capabilities. Collectively, the AUKUS participants can address this technological imbalance and do so at pace by leveraging commercially available vehicles, sensors, and payloads to get relevant capability into SSW warfighters’ hands.

To achieve this very near-term solution, the United States needs a comprehensive approach to navigate opportunities, overcome challenges, and reshape existing legislative frameworks to implement Pillar II.

Quantity Has a Quality All Its Own

Rightfully, the main buzz around AUKUS centers on Pillar I and the pathway to an indigenous Australian nuclear submarine. The breadth and scope of that endeavor—rolling up 75 years of the nuclear submarine ecosystem from two sovereign nations to create a brand new one in a third independent nation—is epic and without true precedent. In the case of nuclear-powered submarines, quality establishes its own quantity.

Pillar II headlines and discussions have focused on the advancement of relevant undersea technologies to push the state of the art in SSW through collaboration and mutual development of new capabilities. Implementing undeveloped, or newly developed technology and fielding at scale in useful numbers for warfighters still takes years in the US, acquisition reforms and alternative contracting methods notwithstanding. Moving up the technology readiness level (TRL) ladder is risky, time phased, and expensive.

However, in the SSW fight, small, uncrewed, autonomous vehicles, perhaps even those that are expendable or attritable, carrying a variety of sensors, and seafloor networks serving a variety of functions are available right now. Sensor systems with limited range or function deployed in significant numbers—quantity—offer meaningful options for a theater commander—a desirable quality, to be sure.

The near-term solution is to rapidly and widely implement existing commercially available technologies regardless of AUKUS nation of origin. Closing the perceived technology gap, referenced above, that was ceded over years will take years to win back. The Replicator initiative tacitly acknowledges the challenge of regaining the technology edge through its approach to rapidly deploy legions of autonomous platforms within just a couple years.

Raising the Pillar, Lowering the Flag

Commercially available technology, in use by companies in conducting energy, communications, and ocean survey operations, and by ocean science and research institutes, is highly capable and available now to support SSW mission sets. Integrating sensors and payloads into existing vehicles for military rather than commercial operations is a low risk and quick way to address Pillar II goals. Facilitating this across national AUKUS boundaries, at least in the US, requires action from Congress, the Department of State (DoS), and the Department of Defense (DoD).

Three areas present hurdles:  legislative action; modification of export controls through International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR); and management of Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI).

Legislative Action

To date, only two bills referencing AUKUS have become law and both are National Defense Authorization Acts. Several bills are in early stages in either house of congress addressing various legislative changes or authorization. No DoS authorization act has been passed in recent years and none appropriating money for AUKUS activities. Without legislation or authorization, DoS cannot make changes to ITAR rules opening the door for accelerated movement of technical information and material within the AUKUS group. Stalled initiatives, such as the Senate’s Truncating Onerous Regulations for Partners and Enhancing Deterrence Operations (TORPEDO) Act of 2023 directly address the issues and should be enacted into law directly.

Adapting Export Controls

Long-standing exemptions for Canada covering technical data transfer and enumerated items on the US Munitions List (USML) allow the free flow of Pillar II technologies. DoS can adopt this same approach with our other most trusted partners. The same language and principles can be rapidly incorporated into our ITAR. “Pre-licensing” by carving out specified exemptions in the USML will quickly allow for seamless collaboration between government, research, and commercial entities under the AUKUS umbrella. Proposed legislation in both the House and the Senate leans into DoS to make these changes.

“Controlled AUKUS” Information Category

Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) evolved from several threads of unclassified but sensitive, often export controlled, technical and other information. Both the DoD and DoS acknowledge this is a significant hurdle. Overclassification was characterized in 2023 by the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs as “unbelievably ridiculous” and this extends to overly controlling CUI. Further, improper markings and categorization throw sand in the gears. CUI is codified in DoD instruction but application is inconsistent and confusing and stymies what should otherwise be a smooth authorization process. Others have already suggested creating a special category to pre-clear the transfer of information within AUKUS channels. Creation of such a handling caveat may be effective in both the UK and Australia as each have their own processes for determining what is and what is not sensitive and what can be readily shared. A trilateral handling caveat could cut across the unique systems in place without having to reconcile the rules of each country.


Pillar II is moving forward within the current AUKUS ecosystem but more is needed than can be accomplished without changing that system. The need to address SSW gaps is pressing in the near term and the call for purposeful, prompt action by Congress, State, and Defense is clear.

This article was written by Captain Christian Haugen, USN (Ret.). Chris served as a US Navy submarine officer for 25 years retiring in 2010. From that time he has served as a leader and business development lead at well known companies within the defense industry.