Biden to unveil nuclear submarine partnership with Britain, Australia

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The leaders of the United States, Australia and Britain will unveil on Monday a plan to outfit Australia with nuclear-powered submarines in an unprecedented three-way defense partnership that seeks to counter China’s attempts to achieve naval dominance in the Pacific.

The plan, known as AUKUS, was first announced in September 2021. The advanced submarines — the first of which will be American-made — are now expected to arrive as early as 2032, still a decade off but years ahead of the timeline many expected, said Western officials, who like others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

President Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will unveil the details of the new partnership aboard the USS Missouri submarine in San Diego. If realized, analysts said, it could be the most consequential trilateral defense technology partnership in modern history.

The first to arrive will be America’s state-of-the-art Virginia class attack subs. Australia will buy up to five of the submarines, which experts said costs about $3 billion each. The ultimate model will be British-designed — an entirely new class to be called the SSN-AUKUS, the successor to the current Astute — and will contain extensive U.S. technology. The first deliveries of that boat will take place in the 2040s, officials said. And the goal is for Australia in that decade to be able to build its own SSN-AUKUS sub, though the nuclear-propulsion technology will be provided by the British or Americans.

The submarines will not carry nuclear weapons.

Australia has committed to a “proportional” investment in U.S. and British industrial capacity, and over the next several decades will be spending more than $100 billion to buy the submarines, build up its own industrial capacity, as well as shore up America’s and Britain’s shipbuilding capability, officials said.

But even with the influx of money, significant challenges exist, according to defense experts, who are skeptical that the already overstretched American and British shipyards can take on additional projects and still meet their navies’ submarine needs.

Still, administration officials said, the project shows that Europe is increasingly concerned about tensions in the Indo-Pacific, and that Britain, in particular, has ambitions to play a larger role in contesting China’s aggressive expansionism in the region. The partnership aims to integrate high-end capabilities among the three allies in a way that officials believe will signal to Beijing it is operating in a less permissive security environment.

Rattled by China, U.S. and allies are beefing up defenses in the Pacific

“It’s a moonshot,” said Australia’s ambassador to the United States, Arthur Sinodinos, speaking generally about AUKUS, “because it requires a major national effort to get this done. And like the moonshot, it can potentially have important spillover benefits to the rest of the economy, including the advanced technology sector.”

Some elements are already underway. Australian submarine crews are already studying in U.S. and British classrooms.

Later this decade, Australian crews will train on U.S. submarines that will, for the first time, be rotationally deployed to Australia — a significant advance in U.S. force posture in the region, Biden administration officials said. The goal there is to fill the “capability gap” that currently exists in the Australian Navy.

The first U.S. Virginia-class attack submarines will be under Australian operational control as early as 2032, senior administration officials said.

Lethal and difficult to detect, the Virginia-class are the most sophisticated submarines and will give the Australians the capability to locate and sink adversaries’ subs and ships, ranging far into the region, until the British can build its next generation nuclear-powered submarine. Nuclear-powered submarines have virtually unlimited range and can remain submerged indefinitely — surfacing only to restock food for the crew.

In the interim, Canberra will purchase up to five Virginia-class submarines, eventually replacing its outdated fleet of diesel-powered Collins-class submarines.

The SSN-AUKUS will be outfitted with U.S. nuclear propulsion. The technology is so sensitive — what one official called “the crown jewels of our country’s national security” — that the United States has shared it with only one other country: Britain.

Fissile material for the propulsion will be provided by the United States and Britain; the submarine project will not support a civil nuclear industry in Australia, officials said. Such assurances were key to building public support for the project, which echo a growing sentiment that China is a threat to national security.

The plan will involve “the highest levels of stewardship around nuclear material to ensuring the communities where these subs will be based are comfortable with what’s going on,” Sinodinos said.

The Chinese government is firmly opposed to AUKUS, with a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman on Thursday accusing it of “undermin[ing] the international nonproliferation system” and being driven by a “Cold War mentality.”

But Australia, which still counts China as its largest trading partner, notes that the Non-Proliferation Treaty does not bar a country from acquiring naval nuclear propulsion technology and said that AUKUS “will be fully consistent” with the treaty. Officials in Australia said its country is reacting to geopolitical and military trends in the region, with Beijing now boasting the world’s largest navy and engaged in the biggest arms buildup since World War II — far in excess, they say, of what is necessary for its own security needs.

Senior U.S. officials will engage directly with Beijing to convey, said one Biden administration official, “that our biggest and most important intention is to take the necessary steps to preserve peace and stability.”

They have already sought to allay concerns about “Cold War dynamics seeping into the region,” said the official, speaking to Southeast Asian partners like Indonesia and Malaysia, in particular. Washington, Canberra and London have also sought to ease hurt feelings in Paris, which was infuriated when Australia in 2021 backed out of a $66 billion deal to buy 12 French diesel-powered submarines.

At the time, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the Australian decision “unacceptable” and “incomprehensible.”

French ambassador accuses Australia of deceit over submarine deal

A European official, who spoke to reporters in Washington, said that next week’s San Diego gathering and the expected submarine announcement was no longer France’s concern. The official said that Paris didn’t object so much to the arrangement itself but that the way it was handled was a mistake.

Senior American officials spoke with senior French officials Wednesday in advance of the San Diego meeting.

The idea for AUKUS began with the Australians, who were seeking a replacement for their outdated diesel submarines. They turned first to the British, then quickly realized that they would need U.S. technology, Australian officials said. In 2021, discussions between Canberra and Washington intensified. In June of that year, the countries’ three leaders — Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison — met at the Group of Seven leaders’ summit in Cornwall on the British coast and agreed to the deal in principle.

But meeting the timeline the allies have set for themselves may prove tricky. The American shipbuilding industry is already overstretched, with the country’s two submarine shipyards suffering from capacity and workforce issues. Currently, they can’t even keep pace with the U.S. Navy’s requirement to produce three submarines a year.

Biden is requesting $2.4 billion over the next four years to increase submarine production, and $2.2 billion through 2028 to boost maintenance capabilities, officials said. And the Pentagon is undertaking a study about how best to meet submarine-building needs, with options including the construction of a third shipbuilding facility, one official said.

It is not clear whether Australia’s investment will get the submarine production to where it needs to be, experts said.

That’s because building the workforce will take time, as will developing the infrastructure and ensuring suppliers can provide the components. Even assuming the money is there to pay for it, the timeline is likely five to eight years to increase submarine production capability, said a congressional staffer who specializes in Navy shipbuilding.

The early 2030s timeline for delivery of the first Virginia-class sub strikes Navy experts as a stretch. “I don’t see how that’s possible,” the staffer said. “Right now it takes seven to eight years or more to deliver one. And opening a third production line — to get nuclear certification, hiring workers — I don’t see how they can do that in less than 10 years.”

But administration officials are looking at the long term. They stress that once the SSN-AUKUS is built, “We’re together forever,” as one official put it. “We’ve been with the British on nuclear-powered submarines for 65 years, and we will be indefinitely for the future with both countries,” the official said.

Michèle Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration, said AUKUS has the potential to be a “strategic masterstroke.”

In time, she said, “When the force is fully fielded, it will substantially increase allied undersea capability, which will absolutely contribute to both ensuring that we have freedom of action but also deterrence.”

But, she cautioned, “This is a generation-long effort. This is not something that’s going to change the equation tomorrow. It’s something that’s going to happen over time.”

Missy Ryan, Karen DeYoung and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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