By Anthony Galloway
Australia will pursue long-range hypersonic missile technology and undersea drones while it builds a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines as part of a new military pact with the United States and Britain, in a move China has labelled an “extremely irresponsible” threat to regional stability.
The announcement of the partnership, to be known as AUKUS, has sent shockwaves around the world as the three countries look to provide a more assertive military posture in the face of Beijing’s rapidly escalating militarisation of the South China Sea.
China’s foreign ministry said the agreement “seriously undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race”.
In a major development, US President Joe Biden said on Thursday his nation would lend its nuclear technology to Australia for the first time to help its ally build an advanced fleet of submarines. The US has previously offered the technology only to Britain and the deal with Australia has been described as a “one-off”.
Australia on the same day dramatically dumped its troubled $90 billion deal with France’s Naval Group to build 12 conventionally powered submarines, wasting more than $2.4 billion in sunk costs and compensation.
Canberra will now build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines with the help of the US and Britain under the new pact, which Prime Minister Scott Morrison described as the “single greatest initiative” in Australia’s national security alliances since the establishment of the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) in 1951.
“The relatively benign environment we have enjoyed in many decades in our region is behind us,” Mr Morrison said. “We have entered, no doubt, a new era, with new challenges for Australia and for our partners and friends and countries right across our region.”
Mr Morrison said the new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines would be built in Adelaide and stressed the government was “not seeking to establish nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability”.
The nuclear-powered submarines may not arrive until as late as 2040, despite Defence officials last year warning the country no longer had a 10-year window to defend itself from an attack.
With the first of Australia’s six existing Collins-class submarines to start being decommissioned from 2038, national security experts fear the government has not left itself any room for delays in the nuclear-powered submarine program.
To fill this void, Australia will acquire long-range missiles – including Tomahawk cruise missiles on its Hobart-class destroyers, anti-ship missiles for the Super Hornet aircraft and hypersonic missiles that can travel at least five times the speed of sound – as well as unmanned underwater vehicles under the AUKUS pact.
More US Marine troop deployments in Australia, on top of the existing 2500-strong force that rotates through Darwin, could also be on the agenda.
Australian taxpayers have forked out $2.4 billion to Naval Group for work already done and the government will probably have to pay at least $140 million more for breaking the agreement. The nuclear-powered submarines will also cost more than the $90 billion that was projected for the French submarines.
Mr Morrison on Wednesday attempted to contact French President Emmanuel Macron, who is said to be extremely disappointed by the decision, but the two leaders did not have a phone conversation.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told news site France Info he felt “stabbed in the back” over the “unacceptable” deal that shuts the French military out of a key initiative in Western efforts to build a bulwark against China.
“This unilateral, brutal, unforeseeable decision really looks like what [former US president] Mr Trump was doing,” Mr Le Drian said. “This move is unacceptable between allies who want to develop a structured Indo-Pacific partnership.”
“Building and operating nuclear-powered submarines is a highly complex operation and our record on submarine development is mixed. This will be a massive and difficult national undertaking.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian described the transfer of US nuclear technology as “extremely irresponsible”.
“China always believes that any regional mechanism must go with the trend of the times for peace and development, and should be conducive to mutual trust and co-operation between regional countries,” he said. “They should not target any third party or harm the party’s interests by forming an exclusive and closed small group.”
Australia, the US and Britain are looking to project a more powerful posture in the region amid China’s growing assertiveness across a number of flashpoints. However, Mr Morrison insisted the pact was not aimed at any one country and said he was happy to talk with Chinese President Xi Jinping about the decision.
The construction of the nuclear-powered submarines in Adelaide is not expected to affect any of Australia’s international nuclear non-proliferation agreements. The reactors will arrive in Australia already containing enriched uranium, and using the American technology means it does not have to be refuelled for the life of the submarine, unlike other nuclear-powered boats.
Domestic laws governing nuclear power may need to be tweaked for the purposes of building and operating the submarines locally.
The decision to go with nuclear-powered submarines was made on the basis that they are considerably faster and can stay underwater, undetected, for days longer than conventional submarines. Australia, the US and Britain will work out how best to deliver them over the next 18 months.
The submarines will be built at the Osborne Naval Shipyard in Adelaide, where Naval Group was to construct the 12 attack-class submarines. Senior government officials confirmed the first one or two submarines could be built in the US or Britain but no decisions had been made.
“Nuclear-powered submarines do not have the same limitations that face conventional submarines on weapons storage, speed and endurance,” Mr Morrison said. “They can stay completely submerged for many months, limiting the opportunities for detection by adversaries.”
Labor leader Anthony Albanese, who was briefed on the proposal on Wednesday, said he welcomed the new partnership but would seek further details.
“While there is much that we welcome, it’s also clear that today’s announcement is the single biggest admission of failure on the part of the Morrison-Joyce government over its $90 billion future submarines program,” he said. “A program that is running 10 years late from its original schedule and $40 billion over budget.”
Marcus Hellyer, a senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the development showed “how much the world has changed in five years” and called it the “biggest defence capability story of my lifetime”.
He said nuclear submarines were “better hunters, better at escaping, and can spend much more time on station.”
Naval Group said the development was a “major disappointment” for the company and that it had offered Australia a “regionally superior conventional submarine with exceptional performances”.
Mr Morrison also confirmed the full cycle docking of Australia’s existing fleet of six Collins-class submarines would remain in Adelaide, despite years of lobbying from Perth.
With Latika Bourke and Matthew Knott
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