Britain will play a bigger role in a security pact with the US to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines than envisaged 18 months ago, when the countries started negotiating the Aukus deal, according to several people familiar with the deal.
Rishi Sunak, UK prime minister, told colleagues on Wednesday that the so-called Aukus negotiations had been a success for Britain, with one minister noting that “the deal has definitely gone our way”.
“The prime minister was buzzing about it when he told ministers, smiling and bouncing on the balls of his feet,” the minister added.
Sunak, US president Joe Biden and Australia’s prime minister Anthony Albanese will unveil the deal in San Diego on Monday.
First announced in 2021, the Aukus pact is intended to help Australia secure nuclear-powered submarines as part of a wider push to counter Chinese military power that will also entail the three nations eventually co-operating in areas such as hypersonic weapons.
Monday’s announcement is expected to include details about the design of the submarines as well as how and where they will be built.
Early indications had suggested Australia would choose either a US design based on the current Virginia-class or a British design based on its Astute submarines.
However, recent attention has shifted to whether the submarines will be based on a variant of Britain’s design for its next generation of submarines, which will replace the Astute class.
Industry sources on Wednesday would only say that it will be a “hybrid” platform based on a “pragmatic” design. Military experts have said the submarines will rely heavily on US combat and weapons systems.
Negotiators have been at pains to agree a deal that would allow all members of the pact to claim some kind of victory.
A Downing Street aide said they could not “pre-empt any future announcements”.
One of the big questions surrounding the deal has been how the US and UK, which both have limited submarine-building capacity, would be able to construct a programme that would both help Australia without reducing the capacity of their own domestic industries.
In January, Jack Reed, the Democratic head of the Senate armed services committee, and his then Republican counterpart Jim Inhofe wrote to the Biden administration warning about the need to make sure that the US submarine industrial base did not reach a “breaking point”.
The two senators said they were worried that a plan to help the US and its allies operate in the Indo-Pacific could become a “zero-sum game” for scarce resources.
“There is no spare submarine capacity to do exports or to add another customer. Both the UK and the US are running hot to deliver for their own programmes,” said Nick Childs, senior fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“For everyone involved there will be a huge demand to recruit and skill-up their industrial base as well as on the operational side,” Childs added.
BAE Systems, which builds all the submarines for the Royal Navy at its Barrow-in-Furness site in Cumbria, north-west England, is building the last two Astute class boats, out of a total of seven, for the UK.
Ben Wallace, Britain’s defence secretary, said in January the UK would increase the number of jobs at Barrow from 10,000 to 17,000 people in order to fulfil both the Dreadnought programme to carry the country’s nuclear deterrent and the next generation design after the Astutes.
In the US, General Dynamics Electric Boat, which makes the Columbia and Virginia-class subs, employs just under 20,000 people. The US group has 17 Virginia-class submarines in the backlog scheduled for delivery through 2032.
Reporting by Jim Pickard, Sylvia Pfeifer, Demetri Sevastopulo, John Paul Rathbone
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