A P-8A Poseidon from the “Pelicans” of Patrol Squadron (VP) 45 flies by the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Caitlin Flynn)

WASHINGTON — Before the end of the year, the AUKUS nations will field a new “trilateral algorithm” allowing them to share information from P-8 sonobuoys between each other, the first piece of tangible AUKUS Pillar II technology to hit the field.

It might seem small, but that capability is exactly the kind of synergizing, forward-moving tech that the trilateral agreement between the United States, Untied Kingdom and Australia is after, according to Michael Horowitz, the Pentagon’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Development and Emerging Capabilities.

Horowitz’s office quietly began managing the day-to-day of the Pentagon’s AUKUS efforts last October, a decision he told Breaking Defense was “deliberate” to ensure that the AUKUS effort is “institutionalized” within DoD.

“All of the things that we want to do in AUKUS, there are places in the department where there’s resident expertise,” he said, naming the undersecretaries of research & engineering and acquisition & sustainment, as well as the Defense Innovation Unit. “It’s our job in policy to coordinate that expertise, to ensure that each of the DoD components in [the] organization is postured to work with its counterparts in Australia and the UK to excel.”

Even though the AUKUS agreement is fully toddler-aged, it is still getting off the ground in many respects, especially with Pillar II, which originally took a backseat as the three nations figured out how Pillar I’s nuclear-powered submarine agreement was going to work. While some developments in the Pillar II space are classified, Horowitz was quick to point to several ongoing initiatives that are showing early returns.

The first to go out to the field will be the P-8 effort. All three AUKUS nations operate the Boeing-made maritime surveillance aircraft; the US operates 120, Australia 12, and the United Kingdom nine. A key part of the P-8 is its collection of sonobuoys, which are dropped into the water to hunt down submarines. With the new algorithm, “we can access and process sonobuoy data from each other’s sonobuoys,” Horowitz said.

Even among Five Eyes partners, sonobuoy information is highly sensitive, as sharing that data not only makes clear what each country has the ability to gather and where those buoys are deployed, but because it clearly reveals what and where each country is tracking. Automating that process shows a high level of trust, but also reflects the reality that if one of the AUKUS nations is sub hunting, it would clearly benefit from looping in the other P-8 fleets.

“That was a trilateral algorithm that we’ve worked on together that’s transitioning into the P-8 program,” Horowitz said. “Given the centrality that we think software will play in current and future success in warfare, that AUKUS is already delivering software based capabilities through Pillar II is a tangible illustration of what we can accomplish in a way that we think will be impactful for the Indo-Pacific.”

Other examples Horowitz pointed to included demonstrating technologies to launch and recover undersea vehicles from torpedo tubes and the development of AI and autonomous technologies, some of which have already undergone field testing.

Intriguingly, Horowitz was excited about “real progress in the creation of quantum technologies for alternative precision navigation and timing, quantum clocks that could go into our own next-generation submarines as well as SSN AUKUS.” The need for ALT-PNT is growing with fears over communications being jammed, and quantum has been seen for years as a way around those concerns, even as the technology always feels it is a few years away.

“I would say we are making real progress, trilaterally, and quantum is an example of a place where we think AUKUS can succeed by leveraging the combined expertise of all three countries — precisely because the timelines and development of specific quantum capabilities, people sometimes raise questions about them,” he said. “That’s a good example of a place where we think leveraging the expertise from all three countries can make a difference.” (Australia, for example, is home to one of the world’s top quantum scientists and has invested in such research.)

More broadly, Horowitz predicted that there will be technologies that emerge from the “deep defense industrial base collaboration, which, at a fundamental level, means that “the most important things that we do in Pillar II of AUKUS haven’t been invented yet,” he said.

“This is genuinely a revolution in our ability to effectively collaborate. And that reflects our belief that this is the degree of integration that is necessary to succeed in building a stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” he said.

ITAR Concerns And New Partners

However, the Pentagon is just one stakeholder among many, including the State Department, which is in charge of managing the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) requirements that many have pointed to as a roadblock to AUKUS achieving its potential.

Those concerns popped up once again last month, when State did not meet a deadline to certify that the UK and Australia has having “comparable” arms control rules, which under Congressional law would have allowed ITAR rules to be loosened between the three nations. (State officials have said they’re confident the green light will come before a new deadline at the end of summer.)

The ITAR issue is only likely to get more complicated if, as expected, other nations join up as Pillar II participants. In April, the AUKUS defense secretaries released a statement that they were “considering cooperation with Japan on AUKUS Pillar II advanced capability” projects, and New Zealand’s defense minister told Breaking Defense in March that she has had conversations with her Australian counterpart potential Pillar II plays.

Horowitz deferred questions about ITAR to State, and did the same for any questions regarding how Japan or New Zealand could take part in Pillar II. However, he acknowledged that there are a host of logistical questions still to be worked out about of capabilities: What happens if one nation decides it doesn’t want to move forward with a Pillar II project? Who owns the data and development rights on co-developed technologies? And how does industry from each country play in?

“We’re working through some of those modalities right now. Our national armaments directors are meeting and trying to understand what, exactly, a model for deeper collaboration actually looks like, as we have more and more projects that mature throughout the development stage,” he said.

“As AUKUS projects proceed over time, there might be some national variation in how we choose to follow through with them. But that’s only natural. The point is that we’re developing these capabilities together. And given the alignment between all of our national defense strategies, we’re all interested in similar capabilities. That doesn’t necessarily mean the fielding of those capabilities will be the exact same, on the exact same timeline, for every country, but they’re all things that we’re doing together,” he said.

“It’s also one of the reasons why we’re engaging so heavily with industry. We hosted the first AUKUS Industry Forum in early April, and part of the reason for that was to get industry feedback, from their perspective, on what are the best modalities for us to be able to work together and effectively collaborate,” he added.