Australia, the UK and the US are joining forces in the Pacific, but will nuclear submarines arrive quickly enough to counter China?

Canberra, Australia

More than a year after the US, UK and Australia abandoned the closely-hidden news that they were merging a submarine force, the trio released more details on their ambitious plans on Monday. A plan to counter China’s rapid military expansion.

As part of the multi-year AUKUS agreement, the partners will build a combined fleet of elite nuclear-powered submarines using the technology, manpower and funding of all three countries, creating a more formidable force in the Indo-Pacific than any of them could achieve alone.

But the long timetable and huge financial cost, only in the hundreds of billions for Australia alone, raises questions about how far the partners’ plans may deviate from their “optimal path” in the coming decades as governments and perhaps priorities change.

In a joint statement on Monday, US President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British counterpart Rishi Sunak said the “historic” deal will build on all three countries’ past efforts to “maintain peace, stability and prosperity throughout the world.”

The plan begins this year with the training of Australian personnel on US and UK submarines and bases, with the expectation that in about 20 years they will be in command of Australia’s first nuclear fleet.

But there is still a long way to go, as shown in a series of stages announced by the leaders as they stood side by side in San Diego Harbor.

From 2023, along with the training of Australians, American nuclear submarines will increase the number of visits to Australian ports, and in three years they will be joined by even more visits by British nuclear submarines.

In 2027, US and UK submarines will begin rotation at HMAS Stirling, an Australian military port near Perth, Western Australia. will receive a multi-billion dollar update.

Then, from the early 2030s, pending Congressional approval, Australia will buy three Virginia-class submarines from the US, with an option to buy two more.

During the same decade, the UK plans to build its first AUKUS nuclear submarine by merging its Astute-class submarine with a US submarine. combat systems and weapons.

Shortly thereafter, in the early 2040s, Australia will deliver the first of its homemade AUKUS submarines to its Royal Navy.

Like a series of markers on a page, the plan seems simple.

But the complexities involved are staggering and require an unprecedented level of investment and information sharing between three partners whose leaders’ political careers are much shorter than the man they oppose: Xi Jinping in China.

Last week, China’s political elite backed Xi’s unprecedented third term, solidifying his control and making him Communist China’s longest-serving head of state since its founding in 1949.

Xi Jinping, the most assertive Chinese leader of his generation, has expanded his country’s military and sought to extend Beijing’s influence far beyond the Indo-Pacific, to the annoyance of Western powers.

Richard Dunley of the University of New South Wales said Australia was forced to respond after years of inaction and the proposal represented an impressive fight for a workable plan.

“This is the last roll of the dice. And they managed to literally go through the eye of a needle, coming up with something that looks believable.”

Leader Xi Jinping vowed to turn China's military into

There was a diplomatic rush ahead of Monday’s announcement, in part to avoid the shock impact of the original announcement in 2021, when French President Emmanuel Macron accused former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison of lying. when he backed out of a A$90 billion deal to buy French submarines.

This deal would allow the delivery of new submarines in a shorter time, but they would be conventional diesel-powered ships, not modern nuclear ones.

Australia has learned from this diplomatic row, and its top leaders, including Albanese, made about 60 calls to allies and neighbors in the region to brief allies and neighbors on the plan before it was announced, Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles said.

China was not one of them.

Biden told reporters on Monday that he planned to speak to Xi soon, but declined to say when that would be, adding that he was not worried that Xi would take AUKUS’s statement as aggression.

This contrasts with Beijing’s sentiment, including accusations that the trio is fueling an arms race in Asia.

At Monday’s daily briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the AUKUS partners “completely ignored the concerns of the international community and went further down the wrong and dangerous path.”

He said the deal would “stimulate an arms race, undermine the international nuclear non-proliferation system, and damage regional peace and stability.”

Peter Dean, director of foreign policy and defense at the Center for US Studies at the University of Sydney, said China’s claims are exaggerated.

“If there is an arms race in the Indo-Pacific region, then only one country is participating in it – China,” he told CNN.

The US will sell up to five Virginia-class nuclear submarines to Australia.

According to Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto of the Australian National University’s Center for Strategic and Defense Studies, the smaller countries in the region are watching the AUKUS plan with concern that a wider presence in their waters could lead to unintended conflict.

“With the increased presence of US and British submarines in Australia, there is a greater need for China to control these units and thereby increase the likelihood of accidents or incidents at sea,” he said.

On Monday, Biden stressed that he wants “the world to understand” that the agreement “talks about nuclear power, not about nuclear weapons.”

According to a White House fact sheet, the US and UK will transfer nuclear material to Australia in sealed “welded power units” that won’t require refueling. Australia has pledged to dispose of nuclear waste in Australia on lands owned by the defense departments. But that won’t happen, at least not until the late 2050s, when the Virginia-class ships are decommissioned.

Australia says it does not have the ability to enrich it to weapons grade, will not acquire it, and wants to abide by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) non-proliferation principles.

The AUKUS plan is Australia’s admission that without submarines that can spend long periods at great depths, the country is completely unprepared to confront China in the Indo-Pacific region.

“It’s very difficult and very risky,” said Dunley of the University of New South Wales.

“But when the initial announcement and decision was made in 2021, Australia was left with very few good options. So I think they came out as well as they could,” he added.

The challenges are associated with a project of this magnitude that includes many moving parts with potential domino effects on time and cost.

The deal includes port and fleet upgrades, including extending the life of Australia’s Collins-class submarines to the 2040s to help transition to nuclear power.

“You have to take submarines out for quite a significant amount of time to refit them, and if there are delays or problems that could lead to a cascade, you can see problems that Australia doesn’t really have enough submariners to keep their current forces. sailors, not to mention increase it,” Danli said.

As all three countries look to expand their fleets, training enough personnel could be a major challenge, Danli said.

The element of role security means that the pool of skilled workers is inevitably small. Efforts are being made in all countries to encourage interns to live under the sea for a few months, potentially not easy to sell in a competitive job market.

And then there’s the funding.

The Australian government says it will find 0.15% of gross domestic product every year for 30 years, which could cost up to $245 billion (AU$368 billion).

Max Bergmann, director of the European Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the deal would ultimately require a healthy economy, with all three countries facing pressure on the cost of living.

“The UK economy is not in the best condition. And part of what she’ll need is a thriving economy, one that she can maintain the required level of spending“, he told reporters at a briefing.

transition from si to afford to keep Chinese leadership for life This means it could be around 90 years old by the time Australia and the UK launch their new AUKUS fleets.

By then, the landscape of the Indo-Pacific region may have changed dramatically.

Xi, 69, has made it clear that the issue of Taiwan, an insular democracy claimed by the Chinese Communist Party but never ruled, cannot be endlessly passed on to other generations.

For now, Australia says it is confident in Washington’s continued support for the program, which will build on the ongoing transfer of nuclear materials and other secret weapons from the US.

“We are approaching this with a high degree of confidence,” Defense Secretary Marles said on Monday.

However, the risk remains that in the future, an introverted U.S. leader in the style of former President Donald Trump, or perhaps even Trump himself, could emerge to threaten the deal.

Charles Edel, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the deal represented much more than a concerted effort to change China’s calculations about its security environment.

“It is meant to transform the industrial shipbuilding capacity of all three countries, it is meant to be a technology accelerator, it is meant to change the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, and ultimately it is meant to change the model of how the United States works with its closest allies.” and empower them.”