Australia is expected to buy up to five Virginia-class nuclear submarines from the United States under the AUKUS pact, defying repeated warnings that US shipyards were stretched to full capacity and could not sell any boats to Australia.
In the longer term, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is set to announce Australia will acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines based primarily on a new British design in a major victory for his British counterpart Rishi Sunak.
Albanese will appear at the San Diego Naval Base on Tuesday with Sunak and US President Joe Biden to announce details of the project.
Albanese has said the nuclear-powered submarines – which can travel longer distances underwater than conventional vessels – will “be the single biggest leap in our defence capability” in Australia’s history.
The longer-term AUKUS submarines would be a modified version of the UK’s next-generation Astute-class submarine, which is currently being designed, according to Bloomberg.
The vessels would be assembled in Adelaide and include American technology, fulfilling Defence Minister Richard Marles’ vow that the AUKUS submarine project will be a truly three-nation endeavour.
However, the decision to proceed with a new design will raise concerns about potential delays and cost blowouts, given it is more complicated than buying existing technology.
The purchase of Virginia-class vessels will help Australia bridge a looming capability gap between the retirement of the current diesel-powered Collins-class submarines and the arrival of the new nuclear-powered AUKUS boats.
Australia will buy three Virginia-class submarines sometime in the early 2030s and will have the option to buy two more, multiple US defence sources told .
The outcome vindicates the optimistic approach of US congressman Joe Courtney, who said last year that Australia should not give up hope of purchasing nuclear-powered submarines off-the-shelf from the United States as an interim solution.
A delegation from South Australia is expected to visit the BAE Systems shipyard in the British port city of Barrow-in-Furness in the coming weeks to begin sharing information about the project.
American nuclear-powered submarines are expected to regularly dock at the HMAS Stirling Naval Base in Perth while Australia awaits its own vessels.
Sunak is reportedly delighted about the outcome of the 18-month negotiations, which will help secure the future of the Barrow-in-Furness shipyard.
The initial expectations were that Australia would opt for a US-designed submarine, with Britain being a bit-player in the project.
The United Kingdom’s top envoy in Australia on Thursday rebuked Opposition Leader Peter Dutton for saying Australia should not acquire nuclear-powered submarines from Britain under the AUKUS pact, personally telling the opposition leader his remarks were unhelpful.
Dutton, who was defence minister when AUKUS was announced in September 2021, last week warned against acquiring a future fleet from the UK, saying he thought the American Virginia-class submarines were the best option for Australia.
“The beauty in my mind with the American model, of the Virginia class, was that it was a proven design, it gave us interoperability with the Americans, and there will be more American subs in the Indo-Pacific than there will be British submarines,” Dutton said.
Asked about Dutton’s remarks during an appearance at the National Press Club, UK High Commissioner Vicki Treadell said: “I told Mr Dutton myself last night that I didn’t agree with his view.”
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