Australia to host nuclear submarines within five years under AUKUS deal

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the Lionfish restaurant ahead of their meeting in San Diego. © Alex Ellinghausen

Australia will begin regularly hosting American nuclear-powered submarines within five years as it begins a mammoth two-decade-long endeavour to establish a domestic industry capable of rolling out a new fleet of cutting-edge boats.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will on Tuesday morning announce long-awaited details of a historic defence agreement that will define Australian security policy for decades and help the US counter strategic threats from China.

Albanese described the AUKUS plan as an “investment in our capability” when meeting Sunak in San Diego on Monday afternoon (AEDT) ahead of the formal announcement that will take place against a backdrop of a Virginia-class submarine at the US naval base in San Diego.

“For Australia, this is the equivalent of a moonshot in terms of the resourcing and effort required,” Australia’s ambassador to the US, Arthur Sinodinos, said ahead of the leaders’ formal announcement.

“This is more than just the capability pact. It’s about the three countries working more deeply together across their industrial bases and across science and technology, how they share information and how they can all be stronger together.”

Before Tuesday’s announcement, Chinese President Xi Jinping told the National People’s Congress his country must turn its military into a “Great Wall of Steel” to safeguard its sovereignty and security.

“The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has entered an irreversible historical process,” Xi said.

The US will commit billions of dollars to the AUKUS project including big investments in American shipyards to ensure Australia has an interim fleet of Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines while the future fleet is under construction.

The agreement will set out plans for a steady increase in the number and timing of visits to Australian ports by US and British submarines, with a focus on sending Virginia-class vessels to Fleet Base West in Perth from 2027.

Australian sailors will be embedded in US and British training and operations on nuclear-powered submarines, while Australian workers will begin work in US shipyards to gain the skills needed to develop and serve on the future fleet.

Under the next phase of the AUKUS pact, first announced by then-prime minister Scott Morrison in September 2021, Australia will commit to buying three existing Virginia-class submarines to begin service in the 2030s, with the option to buy another two.

But it will take at least two decades for Australia to build an industry capable of developing its first home-grown nuclear-powered submarine.

President Biden is expected to outline the steps needed, including investment, to demonstrate the US commitment to the AUKUS alliance.

However, the plan will require a huge Australian investment to develop the shipbuilding and supporting industries, especially in Adelaide, to ensure the Virginia-class submarines can be replaced by the future submarines to be developed with the UK.

That submarine, to be known as the SSN AUKUS, will initially be developed and built in Britain, with the first of the locally made submarines expected to begin service in the 2040s.

The timing of the first Australian-made submarines is in line with the original AUKUS plan under the Morrison government, which said the vessels would go into service in the 2040s.

Defence Minister Richard Marles provided clues about the complex task in Washington last month when he met US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, a retired four-star general.

In a briefing to journalists at the time, Marles described the alliance as a “three-way ecosystem” that would benefit all countries, but he warned building an AUKUS-ready nuclear workforce was “one of the real challenges that we face” and said Australia would need to do “a lot more” to achieve the goal.

The AUKUS pact is intended to help Australia secure nuclear-powered submarines as part of a wider push to counter China’s military might, but will also eventually result in the three nations co-operating in other areas, such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and cyber warfare.

Albanese has described AUKUS as the “single biggest leap” in Australia’s defence capabilities, but concerns remain about Australia’s reliance on the US and the maze of export controls that could slow the transfer of the nuclear-propulsion or other technology.

AUKUS also comes at a critical juncture in geopolitics, with China on the rise and seeking to make economic and military advances across the Indo-Pacific.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd said Chinese President Xi Jinping had “attacked” the US by name in recent weeks in a way no paramount leader had done since the 1990s.

Rudd, who will soon take up the post of Australian ambassador to the US, told CNN the Chinese foreign minister, Qin Gang, had gone a step further by saying the US posture on Taiwan would “inevitably” lead to conflict if it continued.

“I think we’re living in dangerous times, my friend, really dangerous times, and I think it’s time for all hands to the pump,” Rudd said.

Opposition defence spokesman Andrew Hastie vowed to help the government find the budget savings required to help pay for the submarines, saying AUKUS would require “a level of bipartisanship which we probably haven’t seen in a generation”.

Hastie said the Coalition would hold the government accountable for any flaws in the implementation of AUKUS but added it was “really important that we don’t make these submarines a political football” because the task would continue across multiple generations.

“And it’s important that we make clear that we’re going to work with the government bipartisanly in making sure that we can deliver those submarines,” he said.

Hastie said the opposition was especially supportive of several details that have leaked out ahead of the official announcement, including the purchase of up to five Virginia-class submarines from the US, the development of an industrial base in South Australia and a greater presence of the US Navy in Australia.

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