Gordon Campbell on the perils of joining AUKUS Pillar Two

2c642acf6e3deed85ef8The lure for New Zealand to join the AUKUS military alliance is that membership of only its “second pillar” will still (supposedly) give us access to state of the art military technologies. As top US official Kurt Campbell said during his visit to Wellington a year ago:

We’ve been gratified by how many countries want to join with us to work with cutting-edge technologies like in the cyber arena, hypersonics, you can go down a long list and it’s great to hear that New Zealand is interested.”

Just imagine. Free access to the latest advances in hypersonics, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies… The whole Star Wars range of new military hardware and software. Some of our best and brightest officers might even get selected for the C2 Advanced Warrior Course. All we have to do is sign our AUKUS Loyalty Card, and we will then become eligible for all kinds of special deals and discounts down at the Pentagon supermarket.

Besides the obvious objection – make peace, not war – there are several things wrong with this naïve scenario.

1: We already belong to the Five Eyes security alliance. Why doesn’t that give us access to cutting edge AI advances, and emerging digital technologies?

2: If these really were cutting edge technologies that offer potential spinoff benefits to AI firms in our private sector…. it stands to reason that Congress would be unlikely to give that IP away for free, to New Zealand. The 1976 US Arms Export Control Act poses a significant barrier to us gaining access to truly top-line secret technologies. Also, there’s the little matter of what they call “vendor locking.” The leading US defence contractors (General Dynamics, Lockheed, Raytheon etc) that create these advances do so for profit, and they would be likely to object to the dissemination of their IP to all and sundry.

3: Yet for argument’s sake, let’s take the AUKUS cheerleaders at their word. Let’s assume we would be able to access the leading operationally best practice level of stuff. If so, there would almost certainly be a related cost in civil liberties. We would come under intense pressure from our AUKUS allies to (a) enact stronger safeguards against security breaches, and (b) to impose stiffer penalties against whistleblowers. This is part of the AUKUS conundrum: How can the alliance possibly lower the security barriers between its members, while simultaneously erecting higher security fences against non-members?

This isn’t a hypothetical problem. Here’s a concrete example. You’d think that Japan would be an obvious candidate for Pillar One membership of an AUKUS alliance against China. So why isn’t Japan already on board, and why isn’t the whole thing being called JAUKUS? Because, reportedly, Japan doesn’t take its security obligations seriously enough. Perhaps with WWII lessons in mind, modern Japan still seems to want to retain checks on military adventurism.

Therefore, Japan does not penalise whistle blowers on military/security matters as severely as the US, or Australia, or the UK. It also doesn’t define espionage as broadly as they now do. The how and why of Japan’s foot-dragging on its AUKUS membership pre-conditions can be found here. Canada is also having to be dragged to the AUKUS party.

Pillow Talk on Pillar Two

The best short introduction I’ve seen to the technologies involved in AUKUS Pillar Two (and to its implementation strategies) has been published by the American think tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. The CSIS authors identify some worrisome (to everyone else) trends in military capability – such as electromagnetic battle management, cognitive electronic weaponry (EW) and the AUKUS Undersea Robotics Autonomous Systems project. (That’s right. Self-managing military robots, operating underwater.) These and other developments are being tested and readied for deployment in modern battlefield contexts where the weapons systems are – increasingly – being integrated and controlled by Artificial Intelligence. (Thank goodness Skynet is on our side, right?)

The CSIS article makes it clear that AUKUS Pillar Two is still a work in progress. Some barriers to its successful implementation that I’ve mentioned above – including America’s arms export legislation—will need to be amended. As the CSIS authors suggest, one potential solution to the inherent information (and technology) sharing problem is that pre-vetted AUKUS members could be given automatic access to all of the relevant technology – instead of that access being managed via a cumbersome item by item, case by case review process signed off ultimately, by the US President.

One can only imagine the qualifying criteria that the US, the UK and Australia would impose on the member countries of Pillar Two in return for anything like carte blanche access.

On the AUKUS beat

But all of that aside, the CSIS authors enthuse, look at the big picture:

In the short term, AUKUS could improve inter-operability among its partners in realms such as electronic warfare(EW) and command and control (C2.) In the longer term, AUKUS could catalyse the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies among the partners and into defence and security applications– but only if these countries act now, to harmonise their approaches, and consult experts.

Act now. Follow the advice of our “experts” and win yourself access to an AI-controlled military kitset that – among other things – could also deliver “security applications” for use by the authorities against their domestic populations. But hurry, hurry. This AUKUS offer is available for a limited time only, and is being restricted to a select clientele that – what luck! – happens to include New Zealand.

Oh, and there’s this as well:

Above all, the success of AUKUS Pillar Two will depend on turning the strong political ties between the [participating] nations into a new collective mindset…in the strategic competition with China.

I love that term “a new collective mindset.” Can’t wait for the mind-meld whereby New Zealanders will cast aside the mental shackles of their foreign policy independence and dissolve their consciousness into the AUKUS “collective mindset.”. Once so liberated, we can happily join in support of a nuclear propelled, nuclear armed, forward projection force aimed at our main trading partner. Also, it seems that these AUKUS forces plan on being increasingly reliant on semi-autonomous AI command, control and delivery systems. What could possibly go wrong? Maybe something like this.

At the end of the day, our centre-right government would surely have a crippling case of FOMO if – because of, say, peace movement protests – New Zealand had to turn down its invitation to join the AUKUS party. Of course though, the Luxon administration won’t turn down its invitation. When our AUKUS partners tell us to jump, Defence Minister Judith Collins will probably only ask– how high? Yet the entry price to the party will be steep. History says so.

Meaning: Even setting aside the US arms export control barriers, Washington, London and Canberra have every historical reason to feel misgivings about New Zealand. Not entirely because of ANZUS, either. We’ve long been seen as the ‘soft on China” member of Five Eyes.

Moreover… In the 1990s, New Zealand was the weak security link that somehow let the existence and operations of the Echelon global surveillance system be exposed by peace researcher Nicky Hager in his book Secret Power. That sort of thing is what our AUKUS partners will be pushing us to avoid. They will be seeking assurances that our government would pursue, prosecute and deter by all means available the future likes of Hager and his informants.

That raises another key point. Our government says that all of its spending is to be driven by solid cost/benefit analysis. So… The public needs to be told what will be the net economic benefits, if any, of joining AUKLUS. As a small trading nation, we have good reason to be concerned that AUKUS is being targeted at the main market for our exports. That being the case, let’s do the fabled line-by -line analysis. What percentage discount does the NZDF stand to receive from AUKUS membership, for what it wants to put in its Pentagon shopping cart?

Even more to the point, how much discretion would New Zealand actually have when it comes to picking and choosing the spending commitments that are to go hand in hand with Pillar Two membership? In all likelihood, we will be told in no uncertain terms what we have to buy in order to be an inter-operable partner in these sophisticated defence and security systems that need to be seamless, if they are to be functional at all.

To be effective among allies, EW systems technology has to operate on an advanced (and very expensive) level. Someone needs to tell that to Finance Minister Nicola Willis. We can always be cheapskates and buy second hand ferries, but second hand EW systems really aren’t an option this time.

Weaponising the whenua

What other cameo performances might the AUKUS production team be hoping to see from us ? Here’s a small example of a context where we might conceivably be asked to help out:

AUKUS partners should be more fully integrated in the air domain as the U.S. Air Force implements its Agile Combat Employment (ACE) concept, which is meant to provide force survivability and operational C2 in a contested environment… Australia especially is a willing partner in this endeavour, but officials there have expressed some concern that ACE as it stands may not meet Australian needs for aircraft parking and maintenance equipment. In short, there may not be enough space available on Australian airfields for both U.S. and Australian aircraft…

That being a known shortfall, perhaps New Zealand will be offering to ramp up some of our military airfields (e.g. Ohakea) and make some parking space and maintenance crews available to the ACE project. This would be entirely consistent with the recent citing of Rocket Lab as another possible asset that New Zealand might bring to the AUKUS table. On one level, this is a joke. Rocket Lab is headquartered these days in Long Beach, California and is a New Zealand firm only in the sense that Russell Crowe is a New Zealand actor, and Ben Stokes is a Kiwi cricketer.

In recent years, Rocket Lab has won major US defence contracts. Reportedly, it has built and operated satellites for a space-based missile defence programme run by the Space Development Agency (SDA) developed by Michael Griffin, back when he was Under-Secretary for Defense Research and Development, while Donald Trump was in the White House. These days, Griffin is a Rocket Lab board member. Meaning: The company is already well locked into the Pentagon’s orbit. AUKUS would provide it with only an extra market opportunity.

There have been protests by tangata whenua that Rocket Lab has been using its launch pad at Mahia to expand US military capacities. If this country is to be joining AUKUS Pillar Two and is already citing Rocket Lab as part of our potential contribution, then those recent concerns – that the whenua is being used (a) in the weaponising of space, and (b) in the targeting of China, will be back to the fore again, on steroids.

Footnote One: To prove our loyalty sufficient to win access to the outer chambers of the AUKUS War Room, we may well be asked to expand our espionage laws, and to raise the penalties on any Kiwi equivalent of Edward Snowden. The Australians have already done so. In 2018, Australia updated its espionage laws and increased the imprisonment range for espionage offences to between 10 years and life. At the same time, Australia created 27 new offences (!) in the security/espionage realm.

Full details of these draconian Australian moves are discussed in this article. As author Sara Kendall says in her intro: “The broad nature of conduct criminalised by some of the offences raises concerns over criminalisation of conduct that may have an innocent explanation. Further concerns arise over the number and overlapping nature of the new offences.” As Kendall indicates, the ambit of suspect activities include research collaborations between local academics and overseas researchers from countries that have been placed on a suspect, or enemies list.

Ditto goes for the United Kingdom, which in 2023 passed

a much tougher espionage law, called the National Security Act. The US of course reserves its legal right to execute those convicted of espionage, and did so during the last Cold War.

So… If we are joining the AUKUS party as a plus-one brought along by Australia, it is very likely we will come under pressure to follow Australia’s lead. That’s why our public debate about the wisdom of joining AUKUS Pillar Two has to consider the impact on our civil liberties, including – to take just one example – what constraints might be imposed with respect to the foreign academics with whom our own academics would be allowed in future, to conduct joint research.

Footnote Two: Some more obvious points. If we do join AUKUS Pillar Two, it would be interesting to test in court whether us becoming an active accomplice of a nuclear forward projection strike force was compatible with our anti-nuclear legislation.

It would seem relevant to such a case that any future maritime accidents involving Australia’s nuclear subs – or any future weather borne nuclear contamination originating from wherever Australia eventually bases the nuclear waste dump for its spent fuel – would have a serious impact on this country.

By signing up to AUKUS we would (a) violate the spirit, and even perhaps the letter of our anti-nuclear laws and (b) by being an alliance member, we would reduce our ability to claim compensation for any nuclear accidents that AUKUS brought in its wake. Ironically, we may well be more at risk from AUKUS accidents and intentions, than from any threat posed by China.

Time passage

Want to feel old? Can it really be 20 years since Arcade Fire released the Funeral album? Here’s a clip from 2005, just as they were turning into the pop juggernaut that made them Canada’s (better) equivalent of U2. The clip features David Bowie performing with Win Butler, Regine Chassagne and the rest of the band on one of the breakout tracks from Funeral:

And three years later from the Big Day Out, here’s a live version of another Funeral standout: