Australia offered a briefing to China before it made its $368bn AUKUS announcement, but whether or not Beijing took up the opportunity remains unknown.
Defence Minister Richard Marles said he wasn’t aware of China’s response; just a day after Beijing’s mouthpiece outlet, The Global Times, warned Australia was “planting a time bomb”.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, alongside British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and American President Joe Biden in San Diego announced the historic AUKUS deal on Tuesday, which will cost between $268b and $368b by the 2050s, with homemade nuclear submarines to be ready by 2042.
The program will feature at least three submarines to be purchased from the US, upgrades to extend the life of the existing fleet, with at least five UK-designed vessels with US-technology to be built in Adelaide by the 2040s.
Mr Marles said the program was the biggest leap in Australia’s capability in history, and was made against a backdrop of an increasingly complex strategic landscape, namely the rapid rise of China’s army.
But Chinese president Xi Jinping, speaking on the eve of the AUKUS announcement, warned Australia was making an “expensive mistake” and that Beijing would continue to grow its military to counter the perceived threat.
He addressed the National People’s Congress on Monday saying the military would be bolstered to create a “great wall of steel”, labelled security the “bedrock of development” and accused Western colonial powers of “national humiliation”.
“We must fully promote the modernisation of national defence and the armed forces, and build the people’s armed forces into a great wall of steel that effectively safeguards national sovereignty, security and development interests,” he said.
The three partners said AUKUS would be instrumental in maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific, but Mr Sunak said in the last 18 months, the challenges Western democracies faced had grown.
“Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, China’s growing assertiveness, the destabilising behaviour of Iran, and North Korea all threaten to create a world defined by danger, disorder and division,” Mr Sunak said.
“Faced with this new reality, it’s more important than ever we strengthen the resilience of our own countries.”
Anthony Albanese, Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak announced the AUKUS deal in San Diego. Picture: Jim Watson / AFPAustralia’s SSN-AUKUS will be delivered by the 2040s. Picture: Jim Watson / AFP
The SSN-AUKUS will be similar to the existing US Virginia-class submarine given it will have an American nuclear reactor, which will be built in the UK.
Over the life of the project it will create more than 20,000 direct jobs, with the cost projected to hit between $268bn and $368bn by 2054/55.
To plug the capability gap, some of Australia’s Collins-class submarines will have their life extended, ensuring the fleet is kept “operationally capable and available” into the 2040s.
Australia will purchase between three and five Virginia-class submarines from the United States from early next decade to be based out of Perth.
Australia’s first SSN-AUKUS submarines, made in Adelaide, will be delivered by the early 2040s, years after the UK delivers its first vessels.
In making the announcement in San Diego, Mr Albanese said AUKUS was more than just the UK and the US sharing “their most advanced submarine capability”.
“It’s also about drawing and building on the expertise within our three nations so that we can achieve things greater than the sum of our parts,” Mr Albanese said.
“This is a genuine trilateral undertaking – all three nations stand ready to contribute and all three nations stand ready to benefit.”
The US Navy Virginia-class submarine is expected to operate out of Australia from 2027. Picture: POIS Yuri Ramsey/Australian Defence Force via Getty Images
Mr Biden said the US could ask for “no better partners” in the Indo-Pacific than Australia and the UK, noting the region is where “so much of our shared future will be written”.
“Forging this new partnership, we’re showing again how democracies can deliver, how our own security and prosperity and not just for us but for the world,” he said.
Australia will become just the seventh country to have nuclear-powered submarines, which Mr Biden was at pains to point out was different to being nuclear armed.
“Australia is a proud non-nuclear weapons state, and it’s committed to stay that way,” Mr Biden said.
“These boats will not have any nuclear weapons of any kind on them.”
The AUKUS timeline
Beginning this year, Australian military and civilian personnel will embed within the US Navy and the Royal Navy, and in the UK and US submarine industrial bases, to train up Australian personnel.
The US plans to increase nuclear-powered submarine visits to Australian ports this year, with Australian sailors joining US crews.
From 2026, the UK will increase visits to Australia.
As early as 2027, up to four US Virginia-class submarines and one UK nuclear vessel will begin rotations of their nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, based out of Perth.
In the early 2030s, around 2033 – pending US Congress approval – the US will sell at least three Virginia-class submarines to Australia, with the potential for Australia to buy two more.
In the late 2030s, the UK will deliver its first SSN-AUKUS.
In the early 2040s, Australia will deliver its first SSN-AUKUS built in South Australia’s submarine construction yard in Osborne.
Mr Sunak and Mr Albanese said AUKUS would be instrumental in maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images
What’s the cost?
The project is expected to cost between $268bn and $368bn by 2054/55.
Over the forward estimates, the cost will reach about $9bn.
At least $6bn of that will be spent in Australia, predominantly in South Australia and Western Australia, to start ramping up their own ship building and maintaining infrastructure.
Over the medium term (the 10 years to 2032-33), the program will cost between $50-$58bn.
Longer term, through to the 2050s, it will cost around 0.15 per cent of GDP per year on average.
Mr Sunak said it was ‘more important than ever we strengthen the resilience of our own countries’. Picture: Leon Neal – WPA Pool /Getty ImagesThirsty work this submarine business. Picture: Leon Neal – WPA Pool /Getty Images
What will the SSN-AUKUS look like?
By the 2040s, Australia will have built and begun delivering the SSN-AUKUS submarine – the same vessel that the UK will have in the water a few years prior.
The crew size will be about 100.
The next-generation UK-designed vessel will incorporate technology from all three nations, including cutting-edge US technology.
It will have a US nuclear reactor to be built in the UK.
The vessel will also feature a joint US-Australia combat system – already on the Collins – and a US-Australian heavyweight torpedo.
They will have US-nuclear propulsion plant systems and components and combat systems.
What about waste?
No decision has been made on where Australia will dispose of its radioactive waste from nuclear-powered submarines, but Australia will need to manage its own rubbish as a responsible nuclear steward.
Further technical work and consultation is needed to determine how best to get rid of the waste.
Australia has been managing radioactive waste for decades, and operational radioactive waste will be stored on Defence sites.
Defence will undertake a review this year to identify locations in the current or future Defence estate where intermediate-level waste and high-level waste, including spent fuel, could be stored and disposed of.
As part of this review, consultation and engagement will be undertaken with Indigenous and community groups.
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