Australia will upgrade to nuclear-powered submarines in new security partnership with Britain, US

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WASHINGTON - In the most significant move between the three countries in decades, and a sharp signal that defence in Asia and the Indo-Pacific is being beefed up against what is seen as the threat of a rising China, Australia, the US and Britain on Wednesday (Sept 15) announced a new trilateral security partnership.

This will, among other things, upgrade Australia's submarines to a nuclear-powered fleet, vastly expanding its reach and capabilities.

The "new architecture" is "about deepening cooperation on a range of defence capabilities for the 21st century", a senior US administration official told journalists.

US President Joe Biden - with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison joining him virtually - announced details late on Wednesday afternoon (5am Singapore time) in Washington.

The partnership will spur cooperation across many new and emerging arenas, including cyber, applied artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and some undersea capabilities, officials said.

"We'll also work to sustain and deepen information and technology sharing, and I think you're going to see a much more dedicated effort to pursue integration of security and defence-related science, technology and industrial bases and supply chains," one of the officials said.

The pact, with the acronym Aukus, is not aimed at China, the senior administration officials insisted - framing it as part of a continuum of US involvement in the region and its alliances with Australia and Britain.

"This is about a larger effort to sustain the fabric of engagement and deterrence in the Indo-Pacific," another senior official said, adding: "We have a history of innovation upgrading capabilities. I would urge you to look at it in this context."

"One of the things the United States has done most effectively in the Indo-Pacific is to secure peace and stability and to be the ultimate guarantor of that rules-based order.

"This allows Australia to play at a much higher level and to augment American capabilities that will be similar. And this is about maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific."

Addressing doubts as to the US' commitment and resolve in the Indo-Pacific, the official said: "What President Biden is saying with this initiative is, count us in. We are all in for a deeper sustained commitment to the Indo-Pacific, and we recognise that one of our critical roles is indeed the maintenance of peace and stability there.

"This is meant to complement ongoing and existing security and political partnerships, and… to send a message of reassurance and a determination to maintain a strong deterrent stance into the 21st century."

And on the role of Britain, the officials noted "a desire for Great Britain to substantially step up its game in the Indo-Pacific".

"The process of this next 18 months is to help chart out what exactly that means. Obviously, Great Britain has… deep historical ties to Asia. I think they've indicated to us that they do want to do more going forward. And I think this is a clear and decisive next step in that arena."

Australia thus far has conventional submarines, which must surface periodically and have limited range, and which are viewed as being outclassed by China's growing maritime reach. Upgrading to nuclear power will give Australia long-range and stealth capabilities.

"They're quieter, they're much more capable; they will allow us to sustain and to improve deterrence across the Indo-Pacific," one of the senior officials said.


Australia currently has conventional submarines, which must surface periodically and have limited range. PHOTO: SUBMARINE GROUP 7/FACEBOOK

The officials stressed that this was about nuclear propulsion and Australia would remain a non-nuclear power state.

"Australia has no intention of pursuing nuclear weapons," one of them said.

"This is about nuclear power submarines, but it's a very important initiative that will basically set us on a new course of trilateral cooperation into the 21st century.

"We will work closely on efforts to ensure the best practices with respect to nuclear stewardship," he said.

"You will see much deeper interoperability among our navies and our nuclear infrastructure people.

"This is a fundamental decision… that binds decisively Australia to the United States and Great Britain for generations," he said.

Mr Ashley Townshend, director of foreign policy and defence at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, tweeted: "This is surprising and a very welcome sign of Biden's willingness to empower close allies like Australia with highly advanced defence tech assistance - something the US has rarely been willing to do. It suggests a more strategic approach to collective defence."

The pact comes ahead of the first in-person summit in Washington on Sept 24 of leaders of the Quadrilateral Dialogue or Quad - India, the US, Australia and Japan.

"It's a huge breakthrough in US-Australia relations" given the sensitivity of the technology the US will share, Dr Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific Security Chair at the Hudson Institute in Washington told The Straits Times.

"This is going to give a colossal upgrade to Australia's submarine capability and the survival of its future missile fleet.

"This counters China's... area access denial (and) potentially puts Australia, India, the US and Japan into the kind of... joint patrols and operations they have been talking about," Dr Cronin said.

"It is going to be transformative in Asia, and the Pacific will be the centre of the submarine world for better or worse once you get to the 2030s and beyond."