The Washington Post

Biden to unveil sub partnershi­p with Britain, Australia

- BY ELLEN NAKASHIMA Missy ryan, Karen Deyoung and Magda Jean-louis contribute­d to this report.

The leaders of the United States, Australia and Britain will unveil on Monday a plan to outfit Australia with nuclear-powered submarines in a novel 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 SSNAUKUS, 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.

“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.”

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 nuclearpow­ered 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.”

 ?? Carolyn Kaster/ap ?? Members of the U.S. Navy stand on the USS Delaware, a Virginia-class fast-attack submarine, during a commission­ing ceremony at the Port of Wilmington in Wilmington, Del., in April 2022.
Carolyn Kaster/ap Members of the U.S. Navy stand on the USS Delaware, a Virginia-class fast-attack submarine, during a commission­ing ceremony at the Port of Wilmington in Wilmington, Del., in April 2022.

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