Australia is to embark on one of its most significant, expensive and geopolitically consequential military tasks in a century: the push to acquire, operate – and eventually build – nuclear-powered submarines.
The program is forecast to cost $268bn to $368bn between now and the mid 2050s, most of it beyond the first four-year budget period.
As part of the multi-decade nuclear-powered submarine plan to be unveiled on Tuesday, Australian taxpayers will pour “substantial” funds into expanding American shipbuilding capacity, understood to be about $3bn in the first four years.
The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, was due to announce the details in San Diego alongside the US president, Joe Biden, and the UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak. Ahead of the joint event, Albanese said the Aukus plans would represent “a new dawn for Australia’s defence policy”.
Senior Biden administration officials said the budget commitment from Australia was “another manifestation of just how serious and critical this effort is”. The $3bn would help the US reduce work backlogs on its own Virginia class submarines, and expand its production ability.
Australia would invite “rotational forces” of US and UK submarines to visit the country from 2027.
The first Australian-built nuclear-powered submarines, fitted with vertical launch systems to fire cruise missiles, are due to enter into service in the early 2040s.
The British designed submarine “will incorporate US technology such as propulsion plant systems and components, a common vertical launch system and weapons”, an Australian government fact sheet said. “The Aukus partners will also develop a joint combat system as an expansion of the US-Australia combat system.”
Albanese said the plan was in the interests of all three countries. “The sum of the three is more than one plus one plus one in this case,” Albanese said as he met with Sunak on the eve of the announcement.
Further details were expected to be released later on Tuesday, but Biden administration officials said the plan would begin with increased visits by US submarines to Australian ports “starting this year”.
From 2027 at the earliest, the UK and the US plan to establish a rotational presence of one UK Astute class submarine and up to four US Virginia class submarines at HMAS Stirling near Perth, Western Australia.
This will be called ‘Submarine Rotational Force-West’ (SRF-West). The Australian government argues this rotational presence “will comply fully with Australia’s longstanding position of no foreign bases on its territory” because these submarines will be rotated through the location and will not be permanently based in Australia.
The three countries argue the rotational presence will “put our nations shoulder to shoulder as Australia builds the necessary operational capabilities and skills to steward and operate its own fleet of nuclear-powered submarines”.
The US and UK submarines would operate as sovereign assets under the command of, respectively, American and British commanders, but there would be “a significant degree of coordination in their activities”, a US official said.
Beginning in the early 2030s, the US intends to sell Australia three Virginia class submarines, with the potential to sell up to two more if needed, pending approval from the US Congress.
The three governments argue this is “critical to continue growing Australia’s ability to own and operate” a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and to ensure Australia does not experience any capability gap when its Collins class diesel-electric submarines are retired from the 2030s.
The third phase of the program involves the design and construction of a submarine to be known as the “SSN Aukus”, to be based on a UK design but incorporate US technology – as the Guardian foreshadowed last week.
“Australia’s long-term submarine will be a state-of-the-art platform that uses the best of US, UK and Australian technologies,” the official said.
“SSN Aukus will be built and deployed by both Australia and the UK. The United Kingdom intends to deliver its first SSN Aukus domestically in the late 2030s. Australia intends to deliver the first SSN Aukus built in Australia to the Royal Australian Navy in the early 2040s.
“This is going to require significant improvements in industrial bases in all three countries.”
Administration officials said the US would announce an investment of US$4.6bn in its own submarine industrial base. While these would be American funds, Australia would also make a sizeable contribution.
The funding for US domestic production could be a point of tension in Australia at a time when the budget is facing pressure on multiple fronts.
The project’s projected cost includes includes $9bn over the initial four-year budget period, or an increase of $3bn compared with the $6bn earmarked for the abandoned French project. Defence is being asked to offset that $3bn, which could come through changes to other defence projects.
Ahead of the announcement, the Australian government released analysis suggesting that Aukus would support some 20,000 Australian jobs – including in the Australian Defence Force, the public service and private industry – over 30 years.
Albanese said on Monday the further investment in defence capability would not stop Australia from “investing in our relationships in the region as well”.
He said he had been speaking with other leaders in the Indo-Pacific ahead of the announcement “and it’s been well-received and understood why we’re doing this”.
The Coalition’s defence spokesperson, Andrew Hastie, earlier offered bipartisan support to the overall Aukus deal, saying it is “truly a multigenerational nation-building task for the Australian people” and that it “cannot fail”.
Speaking in Canberra on the eve of the announcement, Hastie said the opposition welcomed early reports of plans for the “rapid acquisition” of Virginia class nuclear-powered submarines from the US. He said this would partly answer the rapidly deteriorating strategic situation in the Indo-Pacific.
Hastie also acknowledged the Aukus project would require some “hard choices” in the budget because “money doesn’t grow on trees”.
Despite the Coalition’s recent opposition to modest superannuation budget changes, Hastie pledged to “work with the government to make sure that we can finance this”.
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