USS North Dakota submarine

US, UK and Australia will build nuclear submarines to ‘keep oceans free’

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The AUKUS partnership will see the three countries join forces to deliver “one of the most advanced” submarines “the world has ever known”, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said.

The UK, US and Australia will work together “keeping our oceans free” with a new generation of nuclear-powered attack submarines, the three nations have announced, in what was perceived as an effort to counter China's maritime power. 

The pact will allow Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines for the first time, using technology provided by the US and designs by British experts.

As part of the agreement, the UK will also build next-generation submarines, which are expected to be in operation for the Royal Navy by the late 2030s. The boats will replace the UK’s seven Astute-class subs, although the government has not specified how many will be ordered.  

The submarines have been described as the "largest, most advanced and most powerful attack submarines ever operated by the Royal Navy" and are said to be able to stay submerged for months, shoot missiles longer distances and also carry more.

The AUKUS alliance was first announced in September 2021. The historic endeavour aimed to support Australia to acquire a conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarine, or ‘SSN’. 

Following an 18-month scoping period, the design for the submarines has now been chosen, incorporating US and UK expertise. The construction of the submarines will mainly take place in Barrow-in-Furness in the UK. 

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has called the deal the “most significant multilateral defence partnership in generations”.

“The AUKUS partnership, and the submarines we are building in British shipyards, are a tangible demonstration of our commitment to global security," he added. “This partnership was founded on the bedrock of our shared values and resolute focus on upholding stability in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

“And I am hugely pleased that the plans we have announced today will see pioneering British design expertise protect our people and our allies for generations to come.”

As part of the announcement, Sunak also revealed that an additional £5bn will be provided to the Ministry of Defence over the next two years. The funds are expected to be spent in a number of areas including modernising the UK’s nuclear enterprise and funding the next phase of the AUKUS submarine programme.

The UK’s SSN-AUKUS submarines will be built by BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce. 

“This is a significant step forward for our three nations as we work together to contribute to security in the Indo-Pacific and across the world," Ben Wallace, defence secretary, said. 

“Supporting thousands of jobs across the UK, with many in the north-west of England, this endeavour will boost prosperity across our country and showcase the prowess of British industry to our allies and partners.”

Nonetheless, the AUKUS alliance has received criticism from countries including China and France, which had separate plans to help Australia build 12 nuclear-powered submarines. 

"It's really a stab in the back," France's foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told France Info radio.

China's embassy in Washington accused the countries of a "Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice".

Although China was not directly mentioned in the AUKUS announcement, the three leaders repeatedly referred to regional security concerns, which they said had "grown significantly".

The agreement marks the first time that the US is sharing its submarine technology with a country other than the UK. Moreover, with this pact, Australia will become just the seventh nation in the world to operate nuclear-powered submarines, after the US, UK, France, China, India and Russia.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he was “proud to partner” with the UK to “construct the next generation of submarine”.

US President Joe Biden said the US could ask for “no better partners” than the UK and Australia when it came to ensuring the security of the Indo-Pacific.

Biden said Australian personnel would “embed” with US and UK crews this year, and have bases on shipyards to increase their knowledge of the technology behind the nuclear-powered submarines.

“Later this decade, we will also be establishing a rotational presence of US and UK nuclear-powered subs in Australia to help develop the workforce Australia is going to need to build and maintain its fleet," he added. 

The three nations insisted that the deal did not increase the risk of nuclear proliferation.

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