Australia to Buy U.S. Nuclear-Powered Submarines in Deal to Counter China

SYDNEY — Australia will buy up to five Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines from the United States to be delivered in the 2030s, according to people briefed on the deal, which accelerates and deepens an ambitious defense agreement aimed at reinforcing American-led military dominance of the Asia-Pacific region to counter China’s military growth.

Australia would then buy a new class of submarines with British designs and American technology in another stage of the deal. The arrangement — which would also include rotating American attack submarines through Perth, in Western Australia, by 2027 — adds new details and complexities to a 2021 security pact between Australia, Britain and the United States, known as AUKUS.

Nuclear submarines can stay underwater longer and travel farther than conventional submarines without surfacing. They are the headline items of the deal, which also includes long-term plans to cooperate on artificial intelligence, quantum computing, cyberwarfare and missiles.

President Biden plans to host the leaders of Australia and Britain in San Diego on Monday, when they will announce the next phase of the AUKUS partnership. What officials have described so far points to a level of technology-sharing and interoperability that goes far beyond what the three countries have done previously.

Shipyards in the United States will construct the first submarines, and Britain will take the lead after that with next-generation subs. Governments and weapons makers in both countries already have packed schedules to build submarines for their own navies.

Australia also faces a steep challenge to help build and operate submarines with nuclear propulsion. The country of 25 million operates one small nuclear reactor. Its sole university program dedicated to nuclear engineering produces about five graduates every year.

The 2027 rotations and purchase of American submarines in the next decade would help cover a potential gap in Australia’s undersea abilities, as its six diesel submarines age out of service. But the arrangement would also require a level of expertise that it is not likely to develop over the next decade — which means it will heavily depend on the U.S. Navy.

Reuters reported on elements on the deal earlier on Wednesday.

A Virginia-class submarine requires a crew of 132, including 15 officers. Even if the service members report to Australian commanders, many if not most of the crew may have to be American.

“We’ll have to have dual national crews,” said John Blaxland, an international security expert at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at Australian National University. “We’re going to need an unprecedented level of close, trusted collaboration to make this work — at the political, operational and worker-bee level.”

Pressing questions about a shared crew have started to emerge. For instance, in the case of a war over Taiwan — a democratic, self-governing island that China considers its territory — would Australian officials be able to tell U.S. commanders that they wanted to wait to send submarines with American sailors onboard?

Speaking in India on Thursday, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia said his country would maintain “100 percent sovereignty” over the submarines it would operate.

In reality, many analysts have concluded that the new AUKUS plan will limit Australia’s margin for discretion during some potentially momentous years. It could lead to greater political opposition to AUKUS in Australia and to greater risks if an unexpected encounter with China or another rival power leads to escalation and conflict.

“The U.S. track record of making sensible, measured, responsible calls is not 100 percent good,” Professor Blaxland said, referring to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam. “It’s patchy at best.”

While the goal is deterrence, another danger is that China will view the AUKUS weapons arrangements as a provocative move by the United States and its allies to constrain China by any means necessary — and prepare for potential war. Xi Jinping, China’s leader, might then rush advances of his military, as well as take more aggressive actions in the region to ready for an armed conflict.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that China sees this as confirmation that Australia is well on the way to signing up for America’s containment strategy,” said James Curran, a historian of U.S.-Australia relations at the University of Sydney. “But does China see this as a credible deterrent? I think there’s a question mark over that.”

However, U.S. intelligence agencies have not been able to determine Mr. Xi’s exact intentions with Taiwan in the near future. He and other Chinese leaders have consistently said Taiwan must be brought under Chinese Communist Party rule. But he has not explicitly stated a timeline for that, while a few U.S. military officials have said recently that they think the United States and China could be at war over Taiwan soon.

U.S. officials have also been monitoring modernization efforts by the Chinese military to establish dominance in other waters around the region, including in the South China Sea, most of which China claims as its territory. U.S. officials say China also intends to project military power with a robust naval fleet in the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf and beyond.

China is trying to build military bases and naval ports around those bodies of water, U.S. officials say. It already has a base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, and has been aiming to build ones or establish naval access to ports in Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea and the United Arab Emirates, according to an annual worldwide threat assessment released by U.S. intelligence agencies on Wednesday.

Some analysts say that the idea of the three English-speaking countries in the defense arrangement coordinating more closely, including against perceived common rivals, was much more notable than the granular details of weapons sales.

“In a narrow sense, AUKUS is a trilateral partnership meant to enhance the defense capabilities of the nations involved,” said Charles Edel, a former State Department official and the Australia chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“But its broader significance lies in its intention to drive technological innovation, grow the industrial capacity and deepen strategic coordination between the U.S., Australia and the U.K.,” he said. “Ultimately, strategic convergence, and not submarines, is the big story behind AUKUS.”

Damien Cave reported from Sydney, and Edward Wong reported from Washington. John Ismay contributed reporting from Washington.

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