Australia is expected to announce it will buy as many as five US Virginia class nuclear-powered submarines in the 2030s as part of a landmark Pacific security pact with the United States and the United Kingdom, according to four US officials.
Under the so-called AUKUS agreement, at least one US submarine will visit Australian ports in the coming years and, by the late 2030s, a new class of submarines will be being built with UK designs and US technology, one of the officials told the Reuters news agency.
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Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is due to meet US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in San Diego on Monday to reveal AUKUS’s next steps.
The Pacific security pact first announced in September 2021 and which is also expected to include collaboration on hypersonic missiles, artificial intelligence and cyber warfare. is seen as an attempt to counter China’s growing might and assertive positioning in the region, and has drawn condemnation from Beijing.
Two of the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that after the annual port visits, the US would deploy some submarines in Western Australia by about 2027.
In the early 2030s, Australia would buy three Virginia-class submarines and have the option to buy two more. Nuclear submarines can stay underwater for longer than conventional ones and are harder to detect.
Meanwhile, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported on Wednesday, citing multiple unnamed sources, that the UK had “succeeded in its bid to sell British-designed nuclear submarines to Australia” and that Sunak was “buzzing about it” when he told ministers.
It suggested that the Virginia-class submarines from the US would be a “stop-gap” while Australia and the UK worked together on a design for a next-generation submarine from the existing Astute class vessel, noting that the task’s complexity meant it might not be ready until the 2040s. The Times newspaper also reported that Australia would acquire British submarines.
On Monday the British government is also due to publish an update to its so-called “Integrated Review” of security, defence and foreign policy, a spokesman for Sunak said in London.
Australia currently operates a fleet of six conventionally powered Collins-class submarines, which will have their service life extended to 2036.
The AUKUS announcement has raised concern among some of Australia’s regional allies, including Indonesia and Malaysia, that it could fuel a nuclear arms race in the Indo-Pacific. On Thursday, Australia’s defence minister sought to reassure them.
“Clearly, these submarines will have the capability to operate at war, but the true intent of this capability is to provide for the stability and for the peace of our region,” Defence Minister Richard Marles told parliament.
Under the initial AUKUS deal, the US and UK agreed to provide Australia with the technology and capability to deploy nuclear-powered submarines.
If Australia’s submarines do come from the United States, it will be the first time US-developed technologies for nuclear submarines have been exported since the 1960s, when the US helped Britain design its undersea fleet.