The United States and Britain will deploy nuclear-powered attack submarines to Australia as part of the mini-alliance known as AUKUS, and Australia will buy up to five of the Navy’s frontline Virginia-class nuclear submarines in the coming years, the Biden administration disclosed on Monday.
With China’s growing clout in the region looming as a backdrop, the three-phase submarine acquisition program eventually also calls for producing a new British-Australian nuclear-powered attack submarine incorporating advanced U.S. submarine features by 2040, said officials who briefed reporters on the program.
President Biden traveled to California to meet with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at a U.S. naval base in San Diego, marking a major step forward in a deal that could shape the political and military dynamic of the region for a decade or more.
“Our plan elevates all three nations’ industrial capacity to produce and sustain interoperable, nuclear-powered submarines for decades to come, expands our individual and collective undersea presence in the Indo-Pacific, and contributes to global security and stability,” the three leaders said in a joint statement. “We believe in a world that protects freedom and respects human rights, the rule of law, the independence of sovereign states, and the rules-based international order.”
AUKUS — short for Australia, United Kingdom and United States — was announced in 2021 and called for Australia to develop nuclear-powered submarines to replace its less-stealthy diesel submarines. The accord has proved controversial from the start, drawing criticism not only from Beijing but from Paris, which lost out on a previously signed major submarine contract with Australia when the AUKUS deal was struck in secrecy in September 2021.
Submarines are viewed by the Pentagon as strategic asymmetric capabilities because American submarine warfare technology is considered the world’s most advanced.
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The submarine program is part of a multinational effort led by the United States to bolster deterrence against an increasingly aggressive China, which has had increasingly testy relations with Australia in recent years.
China has built up disputed islands in the South China Sea, near Australia, and equipped the islands with military runways, anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles and electronic warfare gear.
A senior administration official who briefed reporters ahead of the meeting said the three-way cooperation deal between the English-speaking powers is a response to China’s military and a series of troubling military actions in the South China Sea and near Taiwan, and conducting joint exercises with Russian military forces in the Pacific.
“What we’ve seen is a series of provocative steps that China has undertaken under the leadership of [President] Xi Jinping over the last five to 10 years,” the official said, rejecting suggestions from China that the United States is seeking to contain Beijing’s development.
“This is an attempt to defend and secure the operating system of the Indo Pacific. I think it is responsible and clear,” the official added.
The administration’s next budget request, announced Monday, includes a boost of $4.6 billion for the U.S. submarine industrial base. Three officials said during a briefing that the submarine cooperation has been under discussion between Washington, London and Canberra for the past two years.
The first phase of the program — deploying attack submarines to Australia — is underway and will speed up in the next several years.
The USS Asheville, a Los Angeles-class attack submarine, currently is in Sydney harbor, and will hold training exercises with the Australian navy. The Australians also will begin building infrastructure to support nuclear submarines during the first phase.
By 2027, a new force of U.S. and British submarines will be set up in Australia and called Submarine Rotational Force West.
The second phase begins in the early 2030s, with the Australian navy buying three U.S. Virginia-class submarines with an option to buy two additional boats.
The U.S. submarines will provide a stopgap measure for Australia’s Collins-class diesel-electric submarines that will be retired in the 2030s.
“This means that Australia will have a potent nuclear-powered submarine force in the 2030s much earlier than many had expected,” said a second senior official.
The third phase of the program begins in the late 2030s when a new state-of-the-art nuclear-powered submarine will be built. That SSN-AUKUS submarine will be designed and developed jointly by Australia and Britain and will incorporate cutting-edge Virginia-class submarine technology.
The first British-built submarine of the class will be delivered to Australia in the late 2030s. Australia will then produce its first domestically built nuclear submarine in the 2040s.
“This is going to require significant improvements in industrial bases in all three countries,” a second administration official predicted.
China has complained to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the accord will increase the risk of nuclear arms proliferation.
The officials said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi has been closely consulted on the nuclear submarine cooperation. Mr. Grossi “has complimented us publicly on our approach in our transparency,” the first official said.
“AUKUS will adhere to the highest nonproliferation standards,” the official said.
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell said the submarine plan is good news as the U.S. and China jockey for advantage in the region.
“Getting U.S. and U.K. nuclear submarines operating out of Australia sooner than later is important and demonstrates the interoperability between our nations as they take a stand against [Chinese] aggression,” said Capt. Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence director.
Capt. Fanell said, however, that the long lead times for the submarine program “is not on the side of freedom, given the strategic timeline Xi Jinping has set the PLA on course to achieve.”
The announcement in San Diego “should cause each nation to reassess its national security priorities vis-a-vis its own domestic spending priorities with a plan to reorder and rearrange spending on ship and submarine building at the top of the list,” he added.