How Nuclear Submarines Would Be a Game-Changer in the Indo-Pacific

The heads of state of the U.S., U.K., and Australia will meet in San Diego, California, on Monday amid reports that Canberra is planning to beef up its naval capabilities with nuclear-powered submarines, as part of a tripartite defense deal to counter the growing threat from China in the Indo-Pacific region.

While visiting Ahmedabad, India, on Thursday, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese confirmed that he will meet with U.S. President Joe Biden and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, but he spoke little about the submarines in question.

Reuters first reported on Wednesday that Canberra will over the course of the next decade buy up to five Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines from the U.S. as part of the AUKUS pact between the three nations. Other recent reports have claimed that Australia plans to develop a new class of nuclear-powered submarines based on British Astute-class design that could include parts from the U.S. When asked about who will have operational control of the undersea crafts, Albanese said “Australia will retain absolutely our sovereignty, our absolute sovereignty, 100%.”

The Virginia-class is the latest fast attack submarine in the U.S. Navy, set to replace the older Los Angeles-class submarine fleet. Fast attack submarines can be equipped with multiple payloads, according to the U.S. Navy, and can carry out intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance missions, as well as fire torpedoes and cruise missiles.

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Nuclear-powered submarines are considered superior because they can stay underwater longer, and only six countries currently have them. Australia acquiring a fleet of these vessels has been the centerpiece of the AUKUS partnership since it was announced in 2021, with the country having ditched an earlier deal with France for diesel-powered undersea craft. Still, the three AUKUS member-states had yet to iron out how to transfer the technology for the submarines to Australia.

A naval game-changer—eventually

Many observers believe procuring these nuclear-powered submarines will be momentous for Australia’s military might. In a February speech, Albanese himself touted the AUKUS pact as “the single biggest leap in our defense capability in our history.”

Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales-Canberra, tells TIME the submarines are a “game-changer” for Australia by giving its military long-range striking ability, making it more interoperable with the fleets of the U.S. and the U.K.

Australia currently deploys a fleet of six conventional Collins-class diesel-powered submarines commissioned between 1996 and 2003. In the past decade, several Australian governments tried to find ways to modernize the fleet, before settling with the AUKUS pact.

But Thayer warns that procuring these nuclear-powered submarines isn’t going to be a simple process—considering Australia’s lack of nuclear technicians, a solid nuclear and shipbuilding industry, defense infrastructure, and trained personnel to man these ships.

“Australia’s current Collins-class have less than 50 crew members on them. You’re almost doubling that with the Astute and you’re going over 100 with the Virginia class,” says Thayer. “It’s gonna be a hard slog.”

Jingdong Yuan, a professor at the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney, estimates to TIME that it may even take until beyond the reported goalpost of 2040 for Australia to finally have a functional fleet of these nuclear-powered submarines.

How China will react

China has long voiced its opposition to the AUKUS pact, claiming that the Western alliance triggers the risk of nuclear proliferation in the region, promotes a Cold War-type mentality, and hurts stability in the region. That said, Collin Koh, a naval affairs expert and research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, believes China uses the pact to justify its own military investments, which were ongoing already.

“They will have prepared the responses but nothing is going to change pertaining to their ongoing defense buildup,” Koh tells TIME.

Beijing is also expected to turn to neighbors in Southeast Asia anew to garner support against the development—although the region has stayed quiet for the most part. In 2021, Indonesia and Malaysia expressed concern over Australia’s future nuclear-powered submarines, but Koh says security ties between those two countries and the AUKUS-member states have warmed since the pact was announced. “I think that very much reflects the much more overriding concerns about China,” Koh said.

Still, China’s not likely to immediately retaliate. Australia’s procurement of the nuclear-powered submarines would only add to Beijing’s growing security threats from other regional pacts, like the Quad—a security dialogue that Australia and the U.S. have with India and Japan. But knowing that the fleet will take time to build, along with the fact that China’s diplomatic relationship with Australia has since warmed under Albanese, will probably temper any concrete military reaction from Beijing, says Yuan. “Instead of doing anything that could harm [or] damage the current relatively stable bilateral relationship. I think the most the Chinese can and will do is to make comment.”

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