DECRYPTION – Americans and British signed the agreement on Monday to equip Australia with nuclear submarines.
The Australian Navy will be equipped with the future SSN Aukus nuclear submarine, but after a long, complex and costly process. From Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, US President Joe Biden announced Monday alongside Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak details of the plan to supply submersibles to Australia as part of the Aukus, the triple alliance formed in 2021 by the three countries.
“We are announcing together our first project, the SSN Aukus, a state-of-the-art nuclear submarine, based on the new British design, which will incorporate the most advanced American technologies”Biden announced from the dock of this naval base in California.
Virginia submarines to wait
Australia and the UK will begin building the SSN Aukus in their national shipyards during this decade. But the first nuclear-powered submersible of this new class cannot be delivered to Australia until the early 2040s, while Australia’s current Collins-class submarines are due to be withdrawn from service at the end of the decade. 2030, the connection should be made in stages, and in particular by the sale to Australia of three American nuclear-powered submarines of the Virginia class.
Previously, the Americans will increase their naval presence in Australia in order to ensure the progressive training of Canberra crews. “From 2023, Australian military and civilian personnel will be integrated into the US Navy and Royal Navy and US and UK submarine construction yards to accelerate their training”, the White House said in a statement. The United States also plans to increase visits by its submarines to Australian ports from 2023, and to embark Australian sailors to train them.
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The sale of US Virginia-class submarines is expected to take place “in the early 2030s, subject to Congressional approval” “with the ability to sell up to two more if needed. This step will systematically increase Australia’s sovereign VMS and support capability.”
Eighteen months after the surprise announcement of this triple naval alliance in the Pacific, which had abruptly and without notice terminated a contract between Australia and France, and aroused protests from China, the Aukus creates extremely close military, technological and political ties between the three countries. In addition to its gigantic cost, estimated between 100 and 170 billion dollars, this naval program involves unprecedented transfers of advanced technologies.
If the United States thus strengthens an alliance with a key partner in its strategy of containment of China in the Indo-Pacific region, it also takes the risk of additional tensions with Beijing. China has already denounced this arms deal of considerable strategic significance as a violation of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and as a naval arms race likely to increase tensions in the region. The United States stressed that it was not supplying nuclear weapons to Australia, a transfer prohibited by the treaty, but only the propulsion technology for these submarines. “These submarines are nuclear powered, not equipped with nuclear weapons”Biden insisted. “Australia will not produce nuclear fuel”.
A sensitive sharing of know-how
The United States exports for the first time since the Cold War one of its most advanced and secret technologies. They will have to make significant changes to their very complex rules for controlling exports of strategic arms. The construction of nuclear-powered submarines is a know-how that is held by very few countries, and the United States has so far only shared it with the United Kingdom, for a agreement signed in 1958.
The United States is also concerned about its shipbuilding capabilities, already at their maximum, in the face of additional orders. The US Navy, which is seeking to partially catch up with China, whose navy has overtaken it in number of units, launched in 2020 the replacement of its Ohio-class ballistic missile nuclear submarines by the new Columbia class. These submersibles, an essential component of American nuclear deterrence, are considered a priority. At the same time, the shipyards must also supply the US Navy with Virginia-class attack submarines at the rate of two per year, to compensate for the gradual withdrawal from service of the Los Angeles-class submarines.
Last December, two American senators warned Joe Biden against the risk of seeing the commitments made within the framework of the Aukus to provide Virginia-class submarines come to the detriment of the American submarine fleet.
An extremely expensive program
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese thanked the United States and welcomed the Aukus agreement signed by his predecessor Scott Morrison. “The trilateral collaboration will strengthen our joint capabilities, improve our information and technology sharing, and integrate our industrial bases and supply chains while enhancing the security of each nation”. He also engages his country in a potentially extremely costly program, which places it in close technological dependence on the United States. While the submarines supplied will be all-Australian, the submersibles purchased to make the transition may require a mixed crew including US sailors. Washington will also provide nuclear fuel.
The three heads of state and government presented the Aukus alliance as a “powerful partnership” full of possibilities, going beyond the sharing of advanced technologies, aiming to “to maintain peace, freedom and security”. None mentioned France, whose contract with Australia was terminated without much tact or diplomacy.
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