The new Anglo-American security alliance to help Australia build a nuclear submarine will be the template for more such narrowly focused pacts with countries in the crucial Indo-Pacific region, the United Kingdom’s top military officer said Tuesday.
It was Australia’s desire for a nuclear-powered sub that prompted the creation of the AUKUS (Australia-United Kingdom-US) alliance, which President Biden announced last month. Washington and London will provide the Australian navy with the nuclear-powered ‘know-how’ to eventually build their own fleet of submarines in a move widely seen as an attempt to constrain China’s rising power in the region.
“This was all about the tilt to the Indo-Pacific. With these relatively ad hoc groups, you’re able to focus on your mutual interests in order to make progress,” Gen. Nick Carter, the outgoing British Chief of the Defense Staff, said Tuesday during a virtual discussion hosted by the Center for a New American Security think tank.
While the submarine deal might have gotten most of the attention, Gen. Carter said the AUKUS alliance also has other provisions, such as sharing technologies, that are meant to counter an increasingly assertive Beijing.
Like many of his contemporaries, Gen. Carter grew up during the Cold War and spent much of his career waging unconventional wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Now governments are being forced to contend with traditional nation-state adversaries such as China and Russia, which he called ‘assertive, authoritarian rivals.’
“Our rivals tend to see the global strategic context as a global struggle,” he said. “They’re trying to achieve their objectives short of bringing on a hot war.”
Mirroring the Pentagon’s efforts to pivot its focus to Asia, the U.K. recognizes the importance of the Indo-Pacific region and plans to stage two warships there on a permanent basis, along with rotating other vessels such as the new HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group.
“It’s episodic. It’s not going to happen every year,” Gen. Carter said of the HMS Queen Elizabeth deployment. “We need to be realistic about what we can do.”
While U.S. officials call China the nation’s “pacing challenge,” Gen. Carter said Russia and the challenge it poses along the Eurasian landmass remain Britain’s most acute security threat. The British are one of the few NATO allies able to mount multi-domain warfare: in the air, on land and sea, along with the space and cyber operations, he said.
“The NATO alliance is evolving,” Gen. Carter said. “It needs to be modernized to be able to deal with the threats Russia is providing.”
In Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. and its partners enjoyed complete air dominance. But that won’t be the case in a war against peer and near-peer rivals who will contest each domain. Speed will be a crucial part of any fight, Gen. Carter said.
“The side that is quickest is going to win,” he said.
Gen. Carter, who will be replaced by Admiral Tony Radakin, the professional head of the Royal Navy, known as the First Sea Lord, led British forces during their own withdrawal from Afghanistan this summer. The missteps that led to the rushed U.S. and allied pullout began at the very start, he said.
“One has to look at the whole 20-year campaign and see how the political objectives evolved,” Gen. Carter said. “Getting after [al Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden morphed into objectives more about nation-building.”
The Afghan government and military — trained and equipped by the U.S. and allies — just wasn’t up to the task, he said.
“It was very fragile. I don’t think even the Taliban predicted how fragile it actually was,” Gen. Carter said.