US And Aukus Allies Unveil Submarine Deal To Counter China In Pacific

The push has will likely further inflame US-China tensions, which are running high over a host of issues.
Anthony Albanese, Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak hold a press conference in San Diego on March 13. Photographer: by Leon Neal/Getty Images
Anthony Albanese, Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak hold a press conference in San Diego on March 13. Photographer: by Leon Neal/Getty Images

The leaders of the US, the UK and Australia unveiled an ambitious multibillion-dollar plan for a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines that will ply the Pacific in an effort to blunt China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea and around Taiwan. 

“Forging this partnership, we’re showing again how democracies can deliver our own security and prosperity, and not just for us but for the entire world,” President Joe Biden said as he stood in front of the USS Missouri nuclear submarine at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego. 

He said the pact demonstrated the countries’ shared commitment to ensuring that “the Indo-Pacific remains free and open.”

The deal, which Biden announced with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, calls for the US to sell Australia as many as five of its Virginia-class submarines and then, two decades from now, for Canberra and London to deliver a next-generation submarine — to be dubbed the SSN Aukus — together. That sub won’t carry nuclear-tipped missiles in keeping with Australia’s status as a non-nuclear-armed state.

In a testament to the US faith in the three nations’ partnership, Washington also plans to share some of its nuclear-submarine technology for the first time. The new submarine will be based on the UK’s design for its next-generation attack submarine, the SSNR, but will also incorporate technologies from subs like the Missouri.

Monday’s announcement represents the culmination of the Aukus partnership, which was announced 18 months ago as part of a broader US push to boost its military assets in the Pacific and send a signal that it wouldn’t be daunted by China’s push to reclaim land and build military installations on disputed islands and atolls across the South China Sea.

The push has will likely further inflame US-China tensions, which are running high over a host of issues, including Biden’s insistence that the US would help Taiwan if it’s attacked by China as part of an effort to bring the island under Beijing’s control. Last week, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said the US, the UK and Australia should “do more things that are conducive to regional peace and stability.”

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan denied Monday that the agreement was “directed at any one country.” He said Biden wants to hold a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping now that the Chinese leader’s closest circle of top lieutenants has changed with the conclusion annual National People’s Congress. 

“It is an affirmative message and agenda to all the countries in the region and frankly, to the wider world as well,” Sullivan said. “There is no need for confrontation. There is no need for a new Cold War.”

The deal also came at a cost. When it was announced in 2021, Australia pulled out of a defense alliance with France and canceled plans to order 12 French diesel-powered submarines in a move that French officials said was a stab in the back. France briefly recalled its ambassadors to the US and Australia in a sign of protest.

While the three sides have hailed the agreement as a landmark deal that adds substance to an 18-month old partnership, questions have already arisen about its ability to counter China given the price tag and the time the submarines will take to be delivered. 

Australia won’t get a Virginia-class submarine until the 2030s, and the SSN Aukus will take another decade to arrive.

The deal will also strain Australia’s defense budget. A Virginia-class sub has a price tag of about $3.5 billion. A fact sheet distributed by the three sides on Monday said the US is investing $2.4 billion over fiscal years 2023 to 2027 in its submarine industrial base. The US also added $2.2 billion to its submarine maintenance budget over fiscal years 2024 to 2028.

The Aukus submarine program will increase Australia’s defense spending by 0.15% of GDP over the next 30 years, according to the government in Canberra, potentially costing more than A$360 billion ($240 billion) by the time of the full fleet of eight vessels is completed. The initial cost will be A$9 billion up until June 2027, a third of which will go to the US and the UK to upgrade their industrial capacity.

Under the terms of the deal, SSN Aukus submarines will be built in both Australia and the UK and will be bought by both countries, according to the officials. The UK will deliver its first subs in the late 2030s, while Australia will deliver its first vessels in the early 2040s. There are currently no plans for the US to buy the ship.

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“This will be an Australian sovereign capability - built by Australians, commanded by the Royal Australian Navy and sustained by Australians in Australian shipyards,” said Albanese. He said the program will create about 20,000 jobs for Australians from many trades and specializations.

US officials said that plans to upgrade this capability will be rolled out in three phases.

During the first phase, the US and UK will deploy a rotational force of submarines to Australia as early as 2027. During this time, Australian sailors and workers will be embedded in US submarines and shipyards for training. Australia will also build up infrastructure to host the submarines during this period, the people said.

During the second phase, the US will sell up to five Virginia-class submarines to Australia, with a target date of completing the first sale in 2032, the people said. These submarines would likely be a combination of in-service vessels and new vessels in order to meet the deal’s time lines. 

The submarines will be fully-owned by Australia and subject to Australian military command, the people said. The third phase will involve the roll-out of the SSN Aukus.

“Aukus matches our enduring commitment to freedom and democracy with the most advanced military, scientific and technological capability,” Sunak said. “Nowhere is that clearer than in the plans we’re unveiling today for the new Aukus submarine, one of the most advanced nuclear-powered subs that the world has ever known.”

--With assistance from , and .

(Updates with Biden and Albanese comments)

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