SAN DIEGO—The U.S., Australia and United Kingdom announced Monday that Australia will acquire nuclear-powered submarines, making official a decadeslong plan that will require billions of dollars of new investment in the defense industrial base in all three countries.
The announcement came at the start of a summit at a San Diego naval base between President Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. The three nations are working to boost their military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific in a bid to counter China’s growing armed forces.
“We’re putting ourselves in the strongest possible position to navigate the challenges of today and tomorrow together,” Mr. Biden said during remarks on a pier in front of a nearby submarine. The U.S. president stressed that the submarines set to be acquired by Australia will be nuclear-powered, but won’t carry nuclear weapons.
To speed up the effort, the U.S. will sell as many as five U.S. Virginia-class submarines to Australia to provide the country with nuclear-powered subs in the 2030s. While some of the subs could be made from scratch, others will be pulled from the fleet of subs in service with the U.S. Navy, officials have said.
Submarine production would later shift to Britain and Australia, which would produce a sub with a new design that would incorporate American technology. Those subs are projected to enter the Australian fleet in the 2040s.
Other facets of the plan call for the U.S. to rotate attack subs through a base near Perth by 2027 so Australia can gain proficiency in operating and maintaining nuclear submarines.
Overall, Australia would acquire at least eight nuclear-powered subs under an arrangement that is intended to preserve the lead the West has over China in undersea military systems and cement the alliance between Australia, the U.S. and Britain. The nuclear-powered subs for Australia would only carry conventional weapons.
The U.K. government, meanwhile, said Sunday ahead of the summit that it would spend an extra $6 billion investing in its nuclear defense capabilities and replenishing munitions stockpiles. Most of those funds will go into the country’s nuclear program, including enhancing support for its submarine fleet.
Mr. Sunak said in an interview Sunday that China poses an “epoch-defining systemic challenge” to the U.K. and its allies. In a more volatile world, he said, “What we need to do as allies is outcooperate and outcompete our adversaries.”
Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters traveling with the president that the U.S. has briefed China on Aukus, but declined to characterize Beijing’s reaction. He said the submarine agreement isn’t a response to any specific country, but rather an effort to improvise coordination in the region.
The three nations formed a trilateral security alliance in 2021 called Aukus—an acronym for Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. While the focus of Monday’s meeting will be on boosting Australia’s nuclear submarine capability, the alliance plans to cooperate in the future on cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, hypersonic missiles and undersea capabilities.
The U.S. Navy currently has about 50 nuclear-powered attack subs and is hoping to boost that fleet to 66. A major expansion of the U.S. industrial base will thus be needed, U.S. officials say, to provide Australia with subs while enabling the U.S. Navy to also expand its inventory.
U.S. officials said they plan to sell three Virginia-class submarines to Australia, with an option to buy two more. Their goal is to get the first Virginia-class sub to Australia by 2032. The U.K. is hoping to provide subs to Australia by 2042, the officials said.
The force that will rotate through the base near Perth starting in 2027 would include 4 U.S. attack subs and one U.K. attack sub. They wouldn’t all be there at the same time, the officials said.
Australian workers will come to U.S. shipyards this year to begin training. Australian personnel have been accepted into the U.S. and British naval propulsion programs and will attend their schools.
The Pentagon will provide $4.6 billion in U.S. funds to expand the submarine production base, the officials said.
Australia, meanwhile, will invest at least A$3 billion into the industrial bases of the U.S. and U.K. over the next four years, with most of that amount going to the U.S., said Pat Conroy, Australia’s defense industry minister.
U.S. officials said they have briefed lawmakers and Western allies on their plans.
Some in Congress have expressed concern that providing Australia with subs might hamper the U.S. effort to expand its own fleet. Congress will need to approve the transfer of existing U.S. subs to Australia. The Biden administration is calculating that the investments going to the defense base will secure support on Capitol Hill.
Australia currently has six diesel-electric Collins-class subs, which are aging and will be phased out in coming years. Nuclear-powered submarines can operate stealthily underwater over greater distances and longer periods than diesel ones.
A newly released Australian government report on the plan said the Virginia-class subs will enable Australia to “better secure its own national interests, cooperate more effectively with its partners and strengthen its support for the stability of the Indo-Pacific.”
Still, the plan will be costly, and it is expected to cost up to A$58 billion over the next decade, and 0.15% of Australian GDP annually to the mid-2050s. Some of that cost had already been budgeted for Australia’s prior plan to acquire French submarines. But given the long time horizon and economic uncertainties such as the path of inflation, estimating the total cost over the longer term is difficult.
As part of the plan, Australian officials said they would invest in submarine sustainment infrastructure at the naval base near Perth. They also said they would invest in submarine construction infrastructure near Adelaide.
The U.S. has been monitoring China’s military expansion in the Indo-Pacific with concern. The CIA has said that Chinese President Xi Jinping has instructed his military to be prepared to take military action against Taiwan by 2027, though the agency has added that doesn’t mean that Beijing has decided to do so.
Western officials hope the Aukus alliance will prevent China from using its growing military strength as a means of political coercion or making aggressive moves in the region.
Mr. Biden has made China a central focus of his foreign-policy agenda and the Pentagon has said it views Beijing as the top long-term threat to American interests. The U.S. president has repeatedly said he wants to avoid conflict with China. Much of the Biden administration’s focus over the past year has been drawn to the war in Ukraine as the U.S. and its Western partners have provided Kyiv with weapons and intelligence to counter Russia’s invasion.
The president has sought to forge a working relationship with Beijing, holding a closely watched summit with Mr. Xi last year in Indonesia. But tensions between Washington and Beijing have remained high as China has continued to conduct air operations near Taiwan and has moved ahead with an extensive effort to expand its nuclear forces.
Tensions escalated earlier this year after the Biden administration accused China of flying a spy balloon over the U.S. and a visit to Beijing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken was deferred. Mr. Biden has said he hopes to speak with Mr. Xi soon, though the timing of that conversation is unclear.
China has emerged as a salient political issue in the U.S. as Mr. Biden prepares to launch his re-election campaign. Newly empowered House Republicans established a select committee on China and some GOP lawmakers have accused the president of being too soft on Beijing.