Australia is set to purchase up to five U.S. Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines in the 2030s as part of a meaningful defence agreement with Washington, Canberra, and London; four U.S. officials said on Wednesday, a move that would provide China with a new challenge.
One of the officials stated that the agreement, known as the AUKUS pact, will have multiple stages, beginning with at least one U.S. submarine visiting Australian ports in the coming years and concluding in the late 2030s with the construction of a new class of submarines using British designs and American technology.
Monday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will host the leaders of Australia and Britain in San Diego to discuss the delivery of nuclear-powered submarines and other high-tech weapons to Australia.
China has criticized the Western partners' effort to offset China's military expansion, pressure on Taiwan, and increasingly robust deployments in the contentious South China Sea.
Under the condition of anonymity, two officials stated that, following the annual port visits, the United States would advance deploy several submarines in Western Australia by 2027.
Australia would purchase three Virginia-class submarines and have the option to buy two more in the early 2030s.
AUKUS is Australia's most prominent defence project and offers employment opportunities in all three nations.
The service life of Australia's six Collins-class submarines with conventional propulsion will be extended to 2036. Nuclear submarines may remain submerged longer than conventional subs and are more difficult to detect.
The officials did not specify the projected new class of submarines, including construction locations.
The Pentagon referred inquiries to the White House, which declined to disclose specifics of any forthcoming statement. The British Embassy in Washington declined to comment directly on the Reuters article. Still, it reiterated an announcement from London that British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak would travel to the United States for additional AUKUS-related discussions.
The Australian Embassy in Washington did not reply to a request for comment immediately.
Under the initial AUKUS agreement announced in 2021, the United States and the United Kingdom committed to giving Australia the technology and capability to deploy nuclear-powered submarines as part of coordinated efforts to confront China's growing threat in the Indo-Pacific area.
However, the three nations have not yet agreed on achieving this objective.
A congressional source stated that the U.S. Congress had been briefed on the impending AUKUS deal multiple times in recent weeks to garner support for the legal changes required to smooth out technology transfer issues for the highly protected nuclear propulsion and sonar systems that will be aboard Australia's new submarines.
Over the next five years, Australian personnel will observe and train at U.S. submarine shipyards. According to a source, this training will directly boost U.S. submarine production as a shortage of dock employees is now needed to construct U.S. submarines.
Uncertain is how the imminent announcement may impact the U.S. Navy's expectations for its submarine acquisitions in the coming years.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the Navy's 30-year shipbuilding plan issued last year forecasts a production pace of 1.76 to 2.24 submarines per year and a fleet size of 60 to 69 nuclear attack submarines by 2052.
General Dynamics Corp (GD.N), a manufacturer of Virginia-class submarines, has an order backlog of 17 submarines through 2032.
No party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) other than the five countries the treaty acknowledges as weapons states - the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France - has nuclear submarines at this time.