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It’s Not About Submarines. It’s about Software

Important as AUKUS submarines are in the military balance, the new way of deterrence will be about the strength, speed, and resilience of software.

The Australia-United Kingdom-United States, or AUKUS, security partnership is about much more than submarines. It is a down payment on an even more momentous commitment by the United States and its allies to develop advanced technologies and scale up capabilities such as artificial intelligence and other critical areas in which the United States and allies now face strategic competitors such as China.  

President Joe Biden made this explicit last month when he announced the United States and the United Kingdom would help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines, saying it will help “expand our edge in military capabilities and critical technologies, such as cyber, artificial intelligence (AI), quantum technologies and undersea domains.”  

Nine days later at the White House, Biden hosted the leaders of the Quad countries—the United States, India, Japan, and Australia—in their first-ever in-person meeting: they discussed collaborating on cybersecurity and AI. Two weeks later, the US-EU Trade and Technology Council held its inaugural meeting in Pittsburgh with Secretary of State Antony Blinken leading the U.S. delegation. One top agenda item: AI systems “that respect universal human rights and shared democratic values.” 

Important as submarines are in the military balance, the new way of deterrence will be less about platforms like aircraft carriers, bombers, or submarines, and far more about the strength, speed, and resilience of software. 

The Chinese government is already anticipating this evolution from a platform-centric force to a data-centric force, investing heavily in AI and quantum computing to prepare for what Beijing calls “intelligentized warfare.” To this end China is using state-directed investment, unlimited access to data from its 1.4 billion population, and its Military Civil Fusion doctrine which compels the commercial sector to help develop military technology.

China has declared its intention to dominate the world in artificial intelligence by 2030. To counter them will require strong democracies to pool their efforts, both in AI research and in the collection of the largest possible data sets on which to train their AI. As the recent report by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, or NSCAI, points out, cooperation between the United States and its allies will be critical in the effort to shape the future of AI. 

One enormous advantage China has yet to replicate is the long-established Five Eyes intelligence alliance of the three AUKUS partners plus Canada and New Zealand.

Collaboration on technology is key. Built on the U.S.-UK intelligence-sharing that helped defeat Adolf Hitler in World War II and honed during the struggle to contain the USSR during the Cold War, the Five Eyes are now finding new purpose in the competition with authoritarian regimes over the future of democracy. Increasingly intelligence collection and analysis are conducted in the digital domain, using networked sensors and data processed by AI algorithms operating at machine speed. To be effective, all of the allies must be able to share data in real time.

Vigilance is required. Unharnessed, AI will increase the damage that cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns from authoritarian adversaries can do to the world’s relatively open democratic systems. Unprotected, intellectual property in AI will be transferred, bought, or stolen by adversaries. 

To be sure, the United States and its democratic allies must show the world that AI can be trusted to be a force for good, not repression. In must be demonstrated that their militaries comply with “Trusted AI” principles to guarantee that AI does not operate outside a human chain of command. As the NSCAI report says: “This new era of competition promises to change the world we live in and how we live within it. We can either shape the change to come or be swept along by it.”

The U.S.-UK alliance was founded on the Atlantic Charter signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in August 1941. In June, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson met Biden to sign an updated version of the original Atlantic Charter, reasserting the values of open, democratic societies with rights to self-determination, and adding in the need to protect technological IP and defend against cyber threats. The AUKUS submarine deal which was announced two months later was not simply about protecting maritime traffic. It came from an 80-year tradition of sharing technology to protect human freedoms.  

Nicole Camarillo is co-founder of Rebellion Defense alongside Chris Lynch. Previously, she was chief strategist for U.S. Army Cyber Command. Oliver Lewis is co-founder of Rebellion Defense alongside Chris Lynch. Previously, he was deputy director of the U.K. Government Digital Service. Camarillo and Lewis are based in their United States and United Kingdom headquarters, respectively.