Australia plans to purchase at least four nuclear-powered Virginia-class submarines from the United States, three sources familiar with the matter said, part of an emerging defense partnership widely viewed as a bid to counter China’s military ambitions in the Pacific.
Delivery of the submarines isn’t likely for years, potentially into the 2030s, but the expected announcement will act as a demonstration of progress by the AUKUS grouping, comprised of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese addressed the plan, which Reuters first reported, at a news event in Ahmedabad, India, on Wednesday.
While he did not provide details of the plan, he emphasized that his country will retain “absolute sovereignty” when it comes to control of nuclear-powered submarines acquired through the AUKUS partnership.
Asked by a journalist whether “Australia will retain full operational control of submarines, or could they be commanded by Americans,” Albanese said: “Australia will retain absolutely our sovereignty, our absolute sovereignty, 100%.”
The Virginia-class is the latest fast attack submarine in the Navy, intended to replace the aging fleet of Los Angeles-class submarines. Unlike the ballistic missile submarines, which are part of the US nuclear arsenal, fast attack submarines can employ a number of different weapons, including torpedoes and cruise missiles. The submarines can also carry special operations forces and carry out intelligence and reconnaissance missions.
Australia is also expected to work with the United Kingdom on developing a new class of nuclear-powered submarine, which could include US parts, the sources said, as the three countries move ahead with the defense partnership.
President Joe Biden will host the prime ministers of Australia and the United Kingdom in California next week to discuss the next steps in the partnership.
After announcing the AUKUS partnership in 2021, officials from the three countries have been working through plans to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, including legal issues in transferring classified technology and how to train Australian sailors on the submarines.
As part of the announcement, US submarines are likely to increase their visits to Australian ports in the coming years, before the eventual delivery of the new Australian submarines.
In purchasing US Virginia-class submarines while also developing submarines based on a British model, both the US and UK’s industrial bases will stand to benefit.
The AUKUS partnership is meant as a way to increase security in the Pacific region amid escalating tensions with China.
In San Diego on Monday, Biden is expected to discuss the plan with Albanese and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Both will be visiting the United States for the first time since assuming their roles. San Diego hosts a large US naval presence, including submarines, for the Pacific Fleet.
Negotiations have been ongoing for more than a year on the nuclear-powered submarines, which caused consternation when they were announced because it scuttled Australia’s plans to purchase conventional submarines from France.
Biden at the time called the rollout of the AUKUS submarine plan “clumsy.”
This story has been updated with additional information.