The UK’s nuclear-powered submarine fleet could double in size as plans were revealed for the new “Aukus” vessels to be based on a British design.
In a bid to counter the growing threat from China, the UK’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, vowed alongside his US and Australian counterparts to stand “shoulder to shoulder” to protect peace in the Indo-Pacific given its implications for security across the world.
A “historic” deal 18 months in the making was announced by the three leaders in Point Loma, San Diego, that will see new Aukus submarines seaworthy from the late 2030s. They will be based on a British design, with some made in the UK by BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce – principally in Barrow-in-Furness.
The new submarines will replace the current seven nuclear-powered vessels used by the UK – but more could be added, taking the potential size of the fleet to 19.
The Aukus security pact, which military top brass believe is the most significant for Britain since the US helped it become one of the few nuclear powers in 1958, will see Australia become only the seventh such country in the world to gain nuclear powered submarines.
Australia expects to receive delivery of its own submarines in the early 2040s. In the mean time, British submarines will start to be rotated to Australia from as early as 2027 to build the country’s knowledge, workforce and infrastructure in preparation.
This year, more senior Australian officers will start training on US and UK submarine bases, with the US hoping to sell Australia three Virginia class submarines and a further two if needed.
China has sought to sow doubts about the project, arguing it would have a “grave nuclear proliferation risk” and could violate an international treaty. But the three Aukus countries said they had set the highest standard and worked closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
For more than 60 years, they argued, the UK and US have operated more than 500 naval nuclear reactors that have collectively travelled more than 150m miles without incident.
Speaking in California on Monday, Sunak, US president Joe Biden, and Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese vowed the move would contribute to “global security and stability”.
In the face of concerns about growing military and economic hostility from China, the three leaders said in a joint statement: “For more than a century, our three nations have stood shoulder to shoulder, along with other allies and partners, to help sustain peace, stability, and prosperity around the world, including in the Indo-Pacific.
“We believe in a world that protects freedom and respects human rights, the rule of law, the independence of sovereign states, and the rules-based international order.”
Quoting former US president John F Kennedy who visited San Diego and spoke of the importance of freedom, peace and stability in 1957, Sunak said the Aukus powers were “united by that same purpose”.
He targeted China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, saying they threatened to create “a world defined by danger, disorder, and division”.
Although Britain’s closest threat geographically is Russia, given its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, defence figures believe that the growing threat will emerge from China.
If the ice caps in the Arctic continue to melt, there are concerns China’s surplus naval fleet could begin to operate on Europe’s doorstep.
With Taiwan holding elections next year, some western countries fear that could provide the impetus for an attempt by China to seize control of the island.
Aukus is not anticipated to create a domino effect – meaning it will probably remain a three-way trilateral relationship rather than bringing other countries into the pact.
However, the UK government is confident it has captured the imagination of observers and hopes they will align with the Aukus objectives. That could include more military joint exercises, but go as far as prompting a re-think of relying too heavily on Chinese investment and trade ties.
While Sunak said this week China posed an “epoch-defining challenge” to the world order, he has resisted classifying the country as a “threat” in the updated integrated defence review. The prime minister faced down hawks in his own party who want him to take a stronger approach, as he does not believe that deteriorating relations with Beijing are inevitable.
He told journalists on Monday: “We don’t believe it’s on a predetermined course.”
Engagement with China remains “sensible and responsible”, Sunak said. He added: “But we can’t be blind or naive to the challenge it poses.”
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