Updated Mar 13, 2023, 5:17pm EDT

US, UK, Australia reveal nuclear-powered submarine plans under historic AUKUS agreement

The Virginia-class USS North Dakota (SSN 784) submarine is seen during bravo sea trials in this U.S. Navy handout picture taken in the Atlantic Ocean August 18, 2013.
REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Handout

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The News

President Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese are unveiling a plan to deliver a new fleet of conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines by the 2040s, part of an effort to counter China’s military might in the Pacific.

The multi-step plan was described by senior Biden administration officials and lays out the forthcoming phases of the trilateral security pact known as AUKUS. The ultimate result will be a new class of submarine known as SSN-AUKUS that will fuse British design with U.S. technology, one senior administration official said on a call with reporters. The submarines will be built by both the U.K. and Australia beginning in the late 2030s and early 2040s, respectively.

In the meantime, the U.S. and U.K. will begin rotating submarines in Australia as early as 2027, the official said, and Australian sailors will embed with U.S. and U.K. forces for training purposes. Australia will also purchase between three and five Virginia-class submarines from the U.S. in early 2030 in order to close capability gaps.

“For more than a century, our three nations have stood shoulder to shoulder, along with other allies and partners, to help sustain peace, stability, and prosperity around the world, including in the Indo-Pacific,” the leaders said in a joint statement Monday afternoon. “We believe in a world that protects freedom and respects human rights, the rule of law, the independence of sovereign states, and the rules-based international order.”

“The steps we are announcing today will help us to advance these mutually beneficial objectives in the decades to come,” they added.

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Know More

Biden and his Australian and British counterparts met at Naval Base San Diego later Monday to discuss AUKUS, which was launched in September 2021 in order to deliver nuclear-powered submarines to Australia.

The pact is widely viewed as an attempt to counter China’s own military buildup, though officials have been careful not to explicitly characterize the partnership as a response to Beijing.

“Each of our three countries have a clear determination to take the necessary steps to maintain peace and stability going forward,” a second senior Biden administration official told reporters. “We believe that it is increasingly being challenged and under threat not only by developments in China but other countries like North Korea and Russia, which shares a Pacific engagement as well.”

The first senior administration official acknowledged the plans would require all three countries to make “significant improvements” to their respective industrial bases. Sunak also announced Sunday that the U.K. would increase defense spending by $6 billion in part to help fund the next phase of AUKUS.

The U.S. plans to invest $2.4 billion over the next five years to boost capacity for producing nuclear-powered submarines, according to a White House fact sheet, and will seek $2.2 billion in additional funding for submarine maintenance through 2028.

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Step Back

When the U.S. first unveiled the AUKUS in September 2021, the agreement upset the French, who lost out on a contract worth billions of dollars to build submarines for Australia. French officials also said at the time they received little heads up.

Monday’s announcement marks an end to the 18-month consultation period that the leaders agreed to when they unveiled AUKUS.