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Australia’s acquisition of nuclear submarines has been confirmed. What exactly do we get?

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Australia to buy 3 US nuclear subs, build 8 more under AUKUS pact with US & UK. Strengthening regional security.
Australia's acquisition of nuclear submarines

Australia will buy at least three nuclear-powered submarines from the U.S. and build eight of its own as part of the AUKUS agreement between Australia, the U.S. and the UK.

The announcement was made today by the leaders of the three countries. It could cost up to $368 billion over 30 years, with the first Australian-made submarines expected to be completed in the 2040s.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has called it “the biggest single investment in Australia’s defence capability in our history.”

What does it all mean?

Background

The AUKUS agreement was struck between Australia, the U.S. and the UK in 2021. It is an agreement to share military technology.

Its main focus is on sharing nuclear-powered submarines. The submarines use advanced U.S. military technology which has previously only been shared with the UK.

What do they do?

Nuclear submarines can remain at sea for much longer than conventional submarines and are harder to detect.

They can be used for surveillance and attack purposes. They are powered by nuclear energy, but the submarines Australia will access do not carry nuclear weapons.

Australia’s current conventional (diesel-powered) submarines are deployed from Western Australia and perform a range of activities in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

The details?

Australia will build eight nuclear-powered submarines in South Australia – one every two years beginning from the 2040s.

Before this (likely in the 2030s), the U.S. will sell Australia at least three of its own ‘Virginia class’ nuclear submarines, pending approval by the U.S. Congress. It’s not clear if these will be new or secondhand. There is an option for Australia to purchase two more if needed.

In the meantime, Australian navy personnel have already begun training to operate nuclear submarines.

Over the next few years, U.S. and UK nuclear submarines will be deployed to Western Australia and will be operated jointly with Australian personnel to continue this training.

Cost

The full submarine program is expected to cost between $268 billion and $368 billion over 30 years. Defence Minister Richard Marles has said this would represent about 0.15% of Australia’s total economic output every year. By comparison, overall defence spending would be more than 2%.

The Government also says it will create thousands of jobs including for the construction, maintenance and operation of the submarines.

Overseas reaction

The Chinese Government has been highly critical of AUKUS, accusing the three countries of escalating an “arms race” in the Indo-Pacific region. China has increased its own military spending significantly in recent years.

U.S. President Joe Biden said the submarines would ‘deter’ conflict in the Indo-Pacific and support “peace and stability for decades to come”.

Defence Minister Richard Marles said Australia’s acquisition of submarines was a response to “the biggest conventional military build-up that we have witnessed since the Second World War” in the Indo-Pacific.

Marles did not specifically refer to China but noted “it is not Australia which is doing that, and we need to respond.”..

“As a trading island nation so much harm can be done to us before ever setting foot upon our shores.”

Domestic reaction

The Opposition “welcomed” the announcement but expressed concern about whether the government would cut other defence spending. Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said the submarines would deter “any country who may be thinking about taking Australia on,” adding Australia could not afford to “go it alone” in defending itself.

The Greens oppose the move, which they call “a fundamental threat to Australian independence… [It will] unleash a regional arms race that only serves to enrich global arms manufacturers”.

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