British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace says building Canberra’s fleet of nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS pact is likely to be a tri-nation project, raising expectations Australia, the United Kingdom and United States will jointly develop a new generation of boats.
Wallace appeared confident the US would waive some restrictions on the transfer of technologies crucial to the operation of the nuclear-powered submarines and the development of any new fleet that was common to all three navies.
Defence Minister Richard Marles is awaiting the recommendations of the federal government’s nuclear-powered submarine taskforce, due within weeks, before announcing the model it will adopt.
With recent speculation about US shipyards’ ability to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia as they work to meet their own needs, Marles last month suggested it would involve significant input from both the UK and US.
Wallace, who met with his Australian and US counterparts at the Pentagon in December, reiterated in an interview on Thursday the submarine capability would be delivered as part of a joint project.
“The Australian government’s getting exactly to the position where it knows what it wants,” Wallace said. “I’m pretty confident that it will be a tri-nation project.”
The UK has begun design work on its next generation of submarines to succeed its Astute-class fleet.
The future submarine class, dubbed the SSNR (submersible ship nuclear replacement), could serve as the starting point for any new trilateral submarine.
But Wallace cautioned Australia’s acquisition would take years to deliver and said critical steps to build up the local skills base and infrastructure, such as training Australian submariners on UK boats, were under way.
“No one’s going to press a button and magic up a submarine,” he said.
“We are growing our workforce from 10,000 to 17,000 to build ours and eventually [that] will be part of the Australia program – that is a big program, but it’s also a great economic stimulus for that part of Australia – there will be thousands of jobs in high-tech and engineering.”
Wallace said under AUKUS, the US had shown a determination to change some of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) that both Britain and Australia had often faced.
“I think the Americans have realised that if you want to grow a group of allies and friends to advance together you’re going to have to have a different attitude on ITAR – they recognise that and they’re making a big change,” he said.
Wallace has previously floated the prospect of the UK sending its own boats to the region to plug Australia’s capability gap as its ageing Collins-class fleet retires.
Nick Childs, senior fellow for naval forces and maritime security at The International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the forward deployment of US boats to Australia, perhaps with increasing numbers of Australian personnel in the crews over time for training, was a possible approach.
“A forward-deployed UK submarine might also be added to the mix at some point,” he wrote.