By David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The head of Britain’s Royal Navy joined Australia on Tuesday in questioning U.S. bureaucratic hurdles facing the three-country AUKUS project to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.
Admiral Sir Ben Key, Britain’s First Sea Lord, said U.S. regulations should not be used to maintain a competitive edge at a time when Western powers find themselves in “as contested an environment as we have been in for many decades, in terms … of the global order.”
“We have to be very careful as to what it is that you want your rules environment to achieve,” he told Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, referring to International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) governing U.S. technology transfer, something the AUKUS project requires.
“If your rules environment is to prevent your adversaries from getting it and seeing what it is, that’s probably realistic,” Key said. “If your rules environment is to allow you a competitive edge in a different way, then I would question whether that’s really enabling what matters to us all, which is to try and ensure a security framework.”
Key cited as a cautionary tale a 1996 critique of bureaucratic obstacles to the effective exercise of British naval power that developed between the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and the Battle of Jutland in 1916.
“The analysis in ‘The Rules of the Game’ is very clear: that one of the reasons that we were not as successful in the Battle of Jutland as many thought we should have been, is because we’d become hide-bound by rules,” he said.
“What the author postulates is that in long periods of peace, the regulators predominate, and in war, rat-catchers predominate,” he said, referring to people unafraid to bend rules to achieve the desired outcome.
In the current environment of global uncertainty, Key said, “we want rat-catchers to start predominating, and the regulators to be taking a back step … we just need to be really careful that we’ve got that balance right.”
The Biden administration has said it is working with the Congress to ease rules on technology sharing with Britain and Australia, but progress so far has been limited, with analysts pointing to resistance within the State Department.
Key’s comment came after Australia’s Washington ambassador Kevin Rudd was quoted in Australian media last week criticizing “ridiculous” U.S. bureaucracy holding back faster progress on AUKUS, which brings together the U.S. and Britain with Australia amid shared concern about China’s growing might.
“We don’t have any time to wait. The times are urgent,” the Australian Financial Review quoted Rudd as saying.
Rudd spoke ahead of a visit to Washington next week by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at which AUKUS will be high on the agenda.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)