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9 Mar, 2023 14:28

Australian nuclear fleet ambitions emerge – Reuters

Canberra plans to buy three Virginia-class submarines from the US, with an option to procure two more, Reuters reported
Australian nuclear fleet ambitions emerge – Reuters

Australia could procure up to five US nuclear-powered submarines as part of the AUKUS security pact with Washington and London, Reuters reported on Wednesday, citing sources.

The report comes ahead of a meeting between US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in San Diego early next week to discuss the next steps in the AUKUS partnership.

According to four US officials interviewed by Reuters, in the early 2030s Australia would purchase three Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarines and have the option to buy two more. CNN previously reported, citing sources, that the Pacific nation intended to buy at least four subs of this class.

While nuclear-powered subs do not necessarily carry nuclear weapons, they can stay underwater for longer than conventional ones and are harder to detect.

One Reuters source claimed that the AUKUS agreement would consist of several stages spanning into the late 2030s, and would see at least one US submarine visit Australian ports in the coming years. Two US officials told the agency that after those visits, Washington would forward deploy some submarines in Western Australia by around 2027.

Another key element of the deal would be the development of a new unidentified submarine class according to British designs, but with the use of American tech, the report says.

This echoes a Guardian report on Wednesday claiming that British Prime Minister Sunak was “enthusiastic” about the upcoming agreement, with the outlet’s sources suggesting that the UK “had succeeded in its bid to sell British-designed nuclear submarines to Australia.” 

The pledge to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines was the cornerstone of the AUKUS deal first announced in 2021 and widely regarded as a challenge to China. Beijing has repeatedly criticized the pact, arguing that it involves the “illegal transfer of nuclear weapon materials, making it essentially an act of nuclear proliferation.” 

However, China is not the only country unhappy about AUKUS. By joining the pact with the US and UK, Australia scrapped a multibillion-dollar order for French submarines, leaving Paris furious.

Relations between the two countries frayed to the point that ex-French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described Canberra’s decision as a “stab in the back,” while French President Emmanuel Macron accused former Australian PM Scott Morrison of lying.