Australia defends nuke sub plan ahead of key deal

In this Aug 31, 2014 photo, the Virginia-class attack submarine Pre-commissioning Unit (PCU) John Warner is moved to Newport News Shipbuilding's floating dry dock in Virginia, US. (PHOTO / HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

SYDNEY/WASHINGTON – Australia's nuclear submarines will ensure peace and stability across the Indo-Pacific, southeast Asia and Indian Ocean, Defense Minister Richard Marles said on Thursday ahead of a landmark agreement between Washington, Canberra and London.

US President Joe Biden will host Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Monday in San Diego, site of major US Navy operations, to chart a way forward for Australia's plans to obtain nuclear-powered submarines.

"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," Marles told parliament.

Australia is expected to buy up to five US Virginia class nuclear powered submarines in the 2030's as part of the AUKUS pact, a landmark defense agreement between Washington, Canberra and London, four US officials said on Wednesday.

"It is difficult to overstate the step that as a nation we are about to take … we have never operated a military capability at this level before," Marles said. "I want to say, at this moment to our neighbors and to our friends around the world that as Australia invests in its defense … we do so as part of making our contribution to the peace and the stability of our region and of the world."

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The agreement will have multiple stages with at least one US submarine visiting Australian ports in the coming years and end in the late 2030's with a new class of submarines being built with British designs and American technology, one of the officials said.

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.

Richard Marles, Defense Minister, Australia 

Two of the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that after the annual port visits, the US would forward deploy some submarines in Western Australia by around 2027.

In the early 2030's, Australia would buy 3 Virginia class submarines and have the option to buy two more.

AUKUS is expected to be Australia's biggest-ever defense project and offers the prospect of jobs in all three countries.

Australia has an existing fleet of six conventionally powered Collins-class submarines, which will have their service life extended to 2036. Nuclear submarines can stay underwater for longer than conventional ones and are harder to detect.

The officials did not elaborate on the planned new class of submarines, including offering specifics about production locations.

The Pentagon referred queries to the White House, which declined to confirm details about any upcoming announcement. The British Embassy in Washington did not comment directly on the Reuters report but repeated an announcement from London that the British prime minister would travel to the US for further talks on AUKUS.

The Australian Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Under the initial AUKUS deal announced in 2021, the US and Britain agreed to provide Australia with the technology and capability to deploy nuclear-powered submarines. But a deal between the three countries on how specifically to achieve that goal had not been ironed out.

Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Richard Marles (left) meets with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (not in the picture) at the Pentagon on Feb 3, 2023, Washington. (PHOTO / AP)

The US Congress has been briefed several times in recent weeks on the impending AUKUS deal to garner support for the legal changes needed to smooth out technology transfer issues for the highly protected nuclear propulsion and sonar systems that will be aboard Australia’s new submarines, a congressional source said.

Over the next five years, Australian workers will come to US submarine shipyards to observe and train. This training will directly benefit US submarine production as there is currently a labor shortfall for shipyard workers the US needs to build its submarines, the source said.

It is unclear how the upcoming announcement might affect the US Navy's expectations for its own submarine acquisitions in coming years.

The Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan released last year forecast submarines being produced at a rate of 1.76 to 2.24 per year and forecast the fleet grow to between 60 to 69 nuclear attack submarines by 2052, according to the Congressional Research Service.

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General Dynamics Corp, which makes Virginia class submarines, has 17 of them in its current backlog delivering through 2032.

To date no party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) other than the five countries the treaty recognizes as weapons states – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France – has nuclear submarines.