Biden, allies unveil nuke-powered subs plan for Australia

US President Joe Biden speaks after meeting with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, right, and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at Naval Base Point Loma, March 13, 2023, in San Diego. (PHOTO / AP)

SAN DIEGO – The United States, Australia and Britain on Monday unveiled details of a plan to provide Australia with nuclear-powered attack submarines from the early 2030s.

US President Joe Biden addressed a ceremony at the US naval base in San Diego, accompanied by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to unveil the agreement under the 2021 AUKUS partnership.

Sunak called it "a powerful partnership," adding that for the first time ever it will mean three fleets of submarines working together across the Atlantic and Pacific.

Under the deal, the US intends to sell Australia three US Virginia class nuclear-powered submarines, which are built by General Dynamics, in the early 2030s, with an option for Australia to buy two more if needed, a joint statement said.

READ MORE: Australia's nuclear submarine plan to cost up to $245b by 2055

It said the multi-stage project would culminate with British and Australian production and operation of a new submarine class – SSN-AUKUS – a "trilaterally developed" vessel based on Britain's next-generation design that would be built in Britain and Australia and include "cutting edge" US technologies.

AUKUS will be the first time Washington has shared nuclear-propulsion technology since it did so with Britain in the 1950s

Britain would take delivery of its first SSN-AUKUS submarine in the late 2030s, and Australia would receive its first in the early 2040s. The vessels will be built by BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce.

"The AUKUS agreement we confirm here in San Diego represents the biggest single investment in Australia’s defense capability in our history, strengthening Australia’s national security and stability in our region," Albanese said at the ceremony.

An Australian defense official said the project would cost A$368 billion ($245 billion) by 2055.

AUKUS will be the first time Washington has shared nuclear-propulsion technology since it did so with Britain in the 1950s.

Biden stressed that the submarines would be nuclear-powered, not nuclear armed: "These boats will not have nuclear weapons of any kind on them," he said.

In launching the partnership, Australia also upset France by abruptly cancelling a deal to buy French conventional submarines.

The agreement will see US and British submarines deployed in Western Australia as soon as 2027 to help train Australian crews and bolster deterrence. US officials said this would involve four US submarines and one British in a few years.

This first phase of the plan is already underway with the US Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine Asheville visiting Perth in Western Australia, officials said.

Big questions and huge investment

Big questions remain about AUKUS, not least over strict US curbs on the extensive technology sharing needed for the project and about how long it will take to deliver the submarines.

In a reflection of stretched US production capacity, a second senior US official told Reuters it was "very likely" one or two of the Virginia-class submarines sold to Australia would be vessels that had been in US service, something that would require congressional approval.

British and Australian officials said this month work was still needed to break down bureaucratic barriers to technology sharing and Monday's announcement did not cover this second stage.

ALSO READ: Australia defends nuke sub plan ahead of key deal

The second US official said Australia would contribute to boosting US and British submarine production and maintenance capacity.

He said Washington was looking at "double digit billion" investment in its submarine industrial base on top of $4.6 billion already committed for 2023-29 and that the Australian contribution would be less than 15 percent of the total.

Albanese said he expected AUKUS would result in A$6 billion invested in Australia’s industrial capability over the next four years and create around 20,000 direct jobs over the next 30. He said it would require funding amounting to around 0.15 percent of GDP per year.

Britain, which left the European Union in 2020, says AUKUS will help boost its economy's low growth rate. Sunak said AUKUS was "binding ties to our closest allies and delivering security, new technology and economic advantage at home."