The Biden administration disclosed new details this week on the implementation of a new weapons and technology cooperation agreement between Australia, Britain and the United States under the recently formed AUKUS alliance.
Disclosure of the weapons know-how sharing followed a virtual meeting this week between President Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
“The leaders reaffirmed their commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, and more broadly to an international system that respects human rights, the rule of law, and the peaceful resolution of disputes free from coercion — a commitment whose importance has only grown in response to Russia’s unprovoked, unjustified, and unlawful invasion of Ukraine,” the White House said in a fact sheet on the alliance progress.
The key element of the alliance launched in September 2021 is for the United States and Britain to help Australia build nuclear-powered but conventionally armed submarines “at the earliest possible date,” according to the fact sheet made public Tuesday.
Additionally, the three nations are working on high-technology weapons development with the goal of strengthening Australia’s armed forces in a region of the world faced with increasing Chinese aggression.
In recent years, China’s government has attempted to bully Australia into following its dictates through economic and diplomatic pressure.
The three states have created 17 different working groups that are moving ahead with weapons development.
Regarding the submarines, Australia’s will soon begin receiving nuclear submarine propulsion technology after an agreement was signed in February.
Nuclear infrastructure in Australia to support submarine construction is being developed along with plans for a submarine base on the east coast.
Four areas of “strong progress” made recently in advanced weapons capabilities include underwater drones the fact sheet described as “significant force multipliers” for naval forces. Trials for new underwater drones are set for 2023.
The Australians also are getting advanced quantum technology, artificial intelligence and autonomous warfare weaponry under the tripartite agreement.
AI and autonomy weapons will provide critical support for advanced military forces in future warfare. These specific capabilities will provide improved “speed and precision of decision-making processes to maintain a capability edge and defend against AI-enabled threats,” according to the White House.
The technology is focused on speeding up the use of drones and AI-powered weapons in conflicts.
Another area of cooperation will seek to boost Australian military cyber warfare capabilities.
“In light of the importance of the cyber domain to advanced capabilities, we are focusing our efforts on strengthening cyber capabilities, including protecting critical communications and operations systems,” the fact sheet says.
The three nations also will work together on building hypersonic missiles and defenses against the ultra-high speed weapons.
The alliance also will step up work on electronic warfare — the ability to shut down weapons and sensors using electronic means.
Australia, Britain and the United States are also working to expand and speed up information sharing of sensitive data, something that is key to developing advanced warfare capabilities without compromising the information to adversaries.
Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the three nations are exploiting the Ukraine crisis and using the pretext of keeping the peace in Asia to supply advanced weapons to Australia, including hypersonic missiles.
“AUKUS is an Anglo-Saxon clique, where the old thinking of Cold War mentality and bloc politics persists and the old trick of provoking military confrontation and adding fuel to the flame lingers,” Mr. Zhao said.
“Its ultimate goal is to build a NATO replica in the Asia-Pacific to serve the U.S. hegemony and self-interests through and through. Asia-Pacific countries will resolutely say no to it for sure.”
U.S. tests hypersonic missile
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced this week the second successful flight test of the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, or HAWC. But news reports said the Biden administration delayed revealing the test last month as part of the policy of seeking to avoid upsetting U.S. adversaries.
A U.S. defense official told Defense News the test announcement was delayed two weeks to avoid inflaming tensions with Russia in the midst of the invasion of Ukraine. Similarly, the administration also put off a flight test of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile last month in a bid to avoid upsetting Moscow.
Critics say such policies project weakness and only provoke adversaries.
DARPA announced the HAWC test in a brief statement Tuesday noting only that it was carried out “recently.” The missile was launched from a B-52 off the West Coast and was powered by a high-technology Aerojet Rocketdyne scramjet — a supersonic combustion ramjet used for ultra-high-speed flight.
DARPA said that, after ignition, the missile “quickly accelerated to and maintained cruise faster than Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound) for an extended period of time.” The missile flew at an altitude above 65,000 feet and traveled more than 300 nautical miles.
An earlier HAWC flight test in September used a different prototype from another defense contractor.
“This Lockheed Martin HAWC flight test successfully demonstrated a second design that will allow our warfighters to competitively select the right capabilities to dominate the battlefield,” said Andrew “Tippy” Knoedler, the missile program manager at DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “These achievements increase the level of technical maturity for transitioning HAWC to a service program of record.”
The speed and maneuverability of the hypersonic cruise missile allow it to evade missile defenses and conduct rapid strikes. DARPA said the HAWC technology will be used for both Air Force and Navy missiles.
The U.S. military is lagging behind both China and Russia in hypersonic missiles. China has deployed the DF-17 hypersonic missile, and Russian forces used a hypersonic missile in a recent strike against Ukraine.
The U.S. lag in hypersonic weapons surfaced during a heated exchange in Congress Tuesday between Rep. Matt Gaetz, Florida Republican, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
During a House Armed Services Committee budget oversight hearing, Mr. Gaetz confronted Mr. Austin with a list of challenges faced by the Pentagon, including falling behind China and Russia in the hypersonic weapons development race.
“What do you mean, ‘We’re behind in hypersonics’?” Mr. Austin said. “How do you make that assessment?”
Mr. Gaetz replied: “I make that assessment because China is building hypersonic weapons systems, and we are still developing them. I make that assessment because Russia actually used one.”
The congressman then said Pentagon officials had briefed the committee that “we are behind and that China is winning” the hypersonic arms race.
Mr. Austin then said Mr. Gaetz appeared to be “embarrassed by your country, by your military.”
“Oh, no, no, I’m embarrassed by your leadership,” Mr. Gaetz said. “I am not embarrassed for my country. I wish we were not losing to China.”
Changes to bioweapons pact sought
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday hailed the 50th anniversary of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, known as the BWC, but said the agreement needs to be strengthened as a result of the pandemic.
Mr. Blinken noted that the convention banning bioweapons has grown in importance following the COVID-19 pandemic, including its work highlighting the danger of laboratory leaks of pathogens.
“We face not only an increased threat of naturally occurring diseases, but also the potential for laboratory accidents and the intentional misuse of life sciences and biotechnology,” Mr. Blinken said.
The comment was an indirect reference to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is said by U.S. intelligence to be one of two possible sources for the SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused the pandemic. The State Department in January 2021 released intelligence linking the WIV to biological weapons research by the People’s Liberation Army.
“The weaponization of biological agents and toxins violates the BTWC and is unacceptable, and the use of biological weapons — in the words of the convention — ‘would be repugnant to the conscience of mankind,’” Mr. Blinken said.
The question for many observers is whether the United States will use the upcoming BWC review conference to press China into cooperating with international efforts to find the still-undetermined origin of the pandemic. Mr. Blinken has said the United States does not plan to hold China accountable for the devastating viral disease that spread from either at the Wuhan institute or through a wild animal market in Wuhan.
The comment has raised concerns that the Biden administration is not interested in pressing Beijing about its culpability for an outbreak that has killed more than 6 million people worldwide.
China’s government continues to refuse to cooperate with international investigators seeking the origin of the pandemic, failing to provide early samples of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and refusing to disclose work on bat coronaviruses like SARS-CoV-2 at the WIV.
Chinese researchers at the institute have stated in scientific papers that they were conducting so-called “gain-of-function” studies on viruses to make them more transmissible to humans, in a search for more effective vaccines.
Mr. Blinken said the United States plans to use the upcoming BWC review conference, set for August, to strengthen the convention with new mechanisms.
“Specifically, we believe the review conference should take near-term, concrete action to strengthen the convention and benefit state parties in such areas as increasing resources for international assistance and cooperation and establishing a mechanism to review advances in science and technology,” he said.
The conference also should set up a new expert group that would study ways to strengthen implementation of the BWC, increase transparency and enhance compliance.
China signed the BWC in 1984 but so far has refused to disclose previous biological warfare work, according to the State Department reports. Beijing operates more than 40 military research institutes for the People’s Liberation Army where suspected biological weapons work is being done.
A senior State Department official in the Trump administration told The Washington Times that China’s secret biological weapons work includes germ weapons designed to attack specific ethnic groups with pathogens. “We are looking at potential biological experiments on ethnic minorities,” the official said in May 2020.
During a United Nations conference in 2011, a Chinese official made a formal submission revealing that Beijing had concerns about the development of population-specific bioweapons capable of attacking ethnic groups.