AUKUS isn't just about submarines. We'll also be working with the UK and US to develop much of the technology that will form the high ground of future warfare.
It's part of a race with China, which is going hammer and tongs on the same stuff. If we win the race, we improve the chances of keeping peace.
The technology will improve the ability of our defence forces to find things, risk fewer lives in combat, avoid catastrophic hacking attacks (and maybe make some of our own) and do much more.
Some of it isn't easy to understand; it mostly involves collecting and handling information. But the effects are concrete and important.
AUKUS was announced on September 16 as a "security partnership". It's an agreement for working together on research and development. It's not an alliance; the three partners were already allies.
They listed five fields in which they'd collaborate: submarine nuclear propulsion, other undersea knowhow, cyber warfare, quantum technology and artificial intelligence.
This is just the starter pack; more co-operation will be added later. In fact, we've been working with our partners on some of this stuff for many years.
Quantum technology is a fairly new branch of engineering that takes a huge step beyond the electronics we use for such purposes as computing and communications.
It will help armed forces in the task of finding things, which is every bit as important as being able to shoot at them. The side that has the best sensors should have the best knowledge of what's happening on the battlefield - what's where and what's moving and how fast in which direction. If you're blind, you lose.
Quantum sensors will be much more sensitive than those we're using now, detecting things at longer range, or detecting things that currently can't be seen at all, such as underground bunkers.
Related technology can be used to make much faster computers. These would have plenty of civil applications, but for armed forces their promise is to crack some enemy encryption-perhaps revealing what a commander is telling subordinates to do. If you know what they'll do before they do it, you can attack first or get out of their way.
And quantum communications would be the answer to such powerful code-breaking capacity. They would be impossible to intercept and decrypt, though they could be disrupted.
Australia has, in fact, been a leader in quantum technology, but now major powers are piling into the field, so we have company at the front of the pack.
Cyber warfare is basically hacking, but with much greater consequences than taking control of a civilian company's computer system and holding it to ransom. Militaries and intelligence agencies use it to steal secrets, prepare to take down another country's critical computer and communications systems in case of war, and defend against suffering such attacks.
In a war, one side might, for example, try to disable the other's electricity distribution network with a cyber attack, while also incapacitating, say, the logistics system for delivering fuel and weapons to bases.
Having crept into computer systems before the war, a country may know all about the limitations of some of its enemy's weapons, and therefore how to deal with them.
China gets a lot of bad press for its intrusions into other countries' computer systems. But those other countries, including Australia, are up to much the same business.
The real meaning in reports about China doing this stuff is not that such activity is outrageous, but that China thereby confirms which countries it regards as enemies.
The three AUKUS partners have already been collaborating in cyber warfare, which to a large extent is an outgrowth of their intimate relationship in the Five Eyes intelligence group (the other two eyes being Canada and New Zealand). So the new agreement means they'll be doing more of this and presumably sharing more cyber secrets with each other.
Artificial intelligence can be understood as machines doing tasks that formerly required people, such as identifying things in a picture (say, "that shape is a rocket launcher") or making decisions based on complex circumstances ("in this weather, I should fly low, move to five-kilometre range and use weapon XYZ to attack that rocket launcher, then go south at full speed").
So AI promises to get people out of combat danger, though there's no immediate prospect of wars being fought entirely by machines without crews.
If AI can make a decision, it can do so instantly, whereas people need time for thinking. That means the AI-enabled side might make its moves first and thereby win.
AI can also save labour away from the battlefield - in logistics, for example. Australia's armed forces, like many others, are perennially short of people.
The most prominent Australian military AI program is the Airpower Teaming System, a fast drone under development here by Boeing with help from BAE Systems.
Attracting interest from the US Air Force, it's supposed to be highly autonomous. That should at least mean that, when people tell it what to do, it will independently work out how to do it.
The other item in the AUKUS list is undersea technology beyond nuclear propulsion.
This must include details of British and US designs that we'll need if we go ahead with our plan to build nuclear submarines in this country - information such as how to make sure noise from inside the boat doesn't go into the water and then get picked up by enemy sonars.
Our partners have a reputation for standing head and shoulders above the rest of the world in this area. They're the champs. Our getting access to their knowhow is remarkable.
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