The US, UK and Australia have unveiled a decades-long project to supply Canberra with nuclear-powered submarines, entering a historic partnership that binds the allies more tightly as they counter China in the Indo-Pacific.
US president Joe Biden and his counterparts, Australia’s prime minister Anthony Albanese and UK PM Rishi Sunak, gathered in San Diego, California, on Monday to announce the parameters of the submarine programme.
The move follows 18 months of talks since the allies signed the landmark trilateral Aukus security pact in September 2021, laying out co-operation on some of America’s most secret military technologies.
Under the three-stage plan, Australia and Britain will co-build a new submarine — dubbed the “SSN Aukus” — based on a modified version of a next-generation boat the UK was already in the process of designing.
Sunak said he was “hugely pleased” that Aukus would use “pioneering British design expertise” to “protect our people and allies for generations to come”.
The three leaders travelled to the Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, the home port for several American submarines, to hold the official Aukus launch aboard the USS Missouri, a Virginia-class submarine.
The UK and Australia each plan to build at least eight of the multibillion-dollar submarines. The first Australian boats will not enter service until the early 2040s, with the full fleets being built over the following two decades.
While the current plan is for the UK to build eight submarines, some UK defence chiefs have signalled that Britain would be open to expanding its fleet of submarines to as many as 19 in the future.
US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said America’s willingness to share its “crown jewels” — nuclear propulsion technology — with Australia as part of the pact underscored the importance Biden places on allies.
“If Ronald Reagan’s formula was ‘peace through strength’, Joe Biden’s formula is ‘peace through American and allied strength’,” Sullivan told reporters before the announcement.
“President Biden has talked often and feels very strongly about . . . connecting our allies in the Atlantic with our allies in the Pacific,” he added. “That is Aukus at its heart.”
Australia wants to replace its fleet of diesel-powered Collins-class submarines with nuclear-powered boats, which are stealthier and can travel further. The submarines will carry non-nuclear conventional weapons.
The US and UK will help Australia bridge the gap that will emerge as the Collins-class submarines start to retire in the 2030s.
US officials said the first phase would involve the US Navy deploying four Virginia-class submarines to Perth, Australia, starting in 2027. The UK will send an Astute-class submarine a couple of years later. Sullivan said the USS Asheville, a Los Angeles-class submarine, was already in Perth for training.
“This period of training up Australian sailors and technicians and engineers will begin now as we move towards . . . getting the Australians their first nuclear-powered, conventionally armed submarine,” said Sullivan.
Three Australian sailors were already training at US nuclear schools with two more training in Britain, according to one US official. Once Australia has developed a cadre of sailors, the US will sell Canberra between three and five Virginia-class submarines through a combination of new and refurbished boats. The first procurement is expected to take place in 2032.
Australia will also invest in the US and UK’s defence industrial base, an unprecedented move aimed at boosting manufacturing capacity at strained shipyards. “To the extent that Aukus places additional requirements on that industrial base, the Australians are picking up the bill,” said Sullivan.
Aukus, which includes a second pillar that involves co-operation in areas ranging from hypersonic weapons and quantum computing to electronic warfare, will bolster allied co-operation and boost deterrence against China.
Charles Edel, an Australia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank, said the “animating” push behind Aukus was China’s rapidly expanding military power and increasingly aggressive use of force. He added that the security pact was “a harbinger of where American and allied strategy is heading”.
“It’s a public declaration that the US, Australia and the UK are aligning their strategies more closely in order to ensure that they are sufficiently armed and able to push back against acts of aggression in the future,” he said.
But according to US officials, Washington has widely consulted with allies and partners on Aukus — and has kept China abreast of plans.
One senior US official rejected suggestions the US wanted to “contain” China, saying Aukus was an effort to “defend and secure” the Indo-Pacific, particularly after a series of “provocative steps” under Chinese president Xi Jinping.
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