Aukus allies unveiled plans to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines

The US, UK and Australia unveiled a decades-old project to equip Canberra with nuclear-powered submarines, entering into a historic partnership that will bind the allies closer together as they confront China in the Indo-Pacific.

US President Joe Biden, Australia’s Anthony Albanese and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak met Monday in San Diego, California to unveil the parameters of the submarine program, with the USS Missouri Virginia-class submarine in the background.

“For more than a century, our three nations have stood side by side. . . to help maintain peace, stability and prosperity around the world, including in the Indo-Pacific region,” the three leaders said in a joint statement. “The actions announced today will help advance these mutually beneficial objectives for decades to come.”

Speaking at Naval Base Point Loma alongside his Australian and British counterparts, Biden said: “Aukus has one overriding goal: enhancing stability in the Indo-Pacific amid rapidly changing global dynamics.”

According to Albanese, the security agreement marks a “new chapter” in the relationship between the three allies. “Aucks. . . It represents the largest investment in Australia’s defense capability in our history, strengthening Australia’s national security and stability in our region.”

According to Sun, the growing assertiveness of countries ranging from China and North Korea to Iran, as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, all threaten to create “a world defined by danger, disorder and division.”

“For the first time, this means three submarine fleets are working together in the Atlantic and Pacific,” Sunak added.

The announcement followed 18 months of negotiations since the allies signed the trilateral Aukus Security Treaty in September 2021, which set out cooperation on the US’s most closely guarded military technologies.

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The three-phase plan will see Australia and Britain jointly build a new submarine – called SSN Aukus – based on a modified version of a new-generation vessel already being designed in the UK.

The United Kingdom and Australia plan to build at least eight of the multibillion-dollar submarines. The first Australian ships will not enter service until the early 2040s, the entire fleet will be built in the next two decades.

The three-stage Aukus plan

Phase 1

  • The United States and the United Kingdom train Australian sailors and engineers to operate nuclear-powered submarines.

  • The United States will deploy four Virginia-class ships to HMAS Stirling, a naval port near Perth, over four years starting in 2027. Britain deploys an Astute class submarine a few years later.

  • The submarines will be deployed in what the three allies call the “Western Submarine Rotational Force”.

  • Australia begins construction of submarine shipyard infrastructure and maintenance facilities in Adelaide. It is also investing in the US and UK shipbuilding industries to help the countries overcome production constraints.

Phase 2

  • The United States will sell three to five Virginia-class submarines to Australia from 2032.

  • The submarines will be manned by Australian sailors trained to operate nuclear-powered ships, but may include American and British ‘horsemen’.

Phase 3

  • Australia and the United Kingdom will begin construction of the SSN Aukus, which will be a modified version of the next-generation SSN(R) submarine already planned in Great Britain. The first ships are not expected to enter service for two decades. The US provides the fuel for the reactors, but Australia takes care of the nuclear waste, including spent fuel.

  • The two countries will jointly build the submarines, but in the first years Britain may share in the production, while Australia builds up its production facilities. However, according to a US official, the majority of the Australian ships will be manufactured in Australia.

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Some British defense chiefs have indicated that Britain would be open to expanding its submarine fleet 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 underscores the importance of Biden’s allies.

“If Ronald Reagan’s formula was ‘peace through strength,’ Joe Biden is ‘peace through American and allied strength,'” Sullivan said.

“President Biden has talked about it often and feels very strongly about it. . . to connect our allies in the Atlantic with our allies in the Pacific,” he added. “This is Aukus in his heart.”

Australia wants to replace its diesel-powered Collins-class submarines with nuclear-powered boats that are stealthier and can travel farther. The submarines will carry non-nuclear conventional weapons.

The US and UK will help Australia bridge the gap that will emerge when Collins-class submarines begin to be retired in the 2030s.

In the first phase, the US Navy will deploy four Virginia-class submarines to Perth, Australia, starting in 2027, according to US officials. The UK would send an Astute class submarine a few years later. According to Sullivan, the USS Asheville, a Los Angeles-class submarine, was already in Perth.

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Once Australia develops a navy, the US will sell Canberra three to five Virginia-class submarines, a combination of new and refurbished vessels. The goal of the first acquisition is 2032.

Australia is also investing in the defense industrial base of the US and UK, an unprecedented move to boost production capacity at strained shipyards. “If Aukus makes additional demands on the industrial base, Australians will pick up the bill,” Sullivan said.

Aukus, which includes a second pillar involving cooperation in areas ranging from hypersonic weapons to quantum computing, will strengthen allied cooperation and enhance deterrence against China.

According to Charles Edel, an expert on Australia at the CSIS think tank, the “revival” behind Aukus is China’s rapidly expanding military power and increasingly aggressive use of force. He added that the security pact is “a harbinger of where American and allied strategy is headed.”

China warned on Tuesday that Aukus would start an arms race and undermine the international treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons by shipping what it says is “weapons-grade” highly enriched uranium to a non-nuclear-weapon state.

“For their own geopolitical self-interest, the three countries have continued down the wrong and dangerous path, completely ignoring the concerns of the international community,” said a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman.

A senior U.S. official dismissed suggestions that the U.S. wants to “contain” China, saying Aukus is an effort to “protect and secure” the Indo-Pacific, particularly under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ” after his provocative actions”.

Additional reporting from Joe Leahy in Beijing

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