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Nuclear Submarines Are Game-Changing Tech for Australia—and a Major Headache for China

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The U.S., the U.K., and Australia made the first concrete step on Monday to fulfill a tripartite defense deal centered on boosting the latter’s naval firepower to counter China’s growing military threat in the Indo-Pacific region.

During a press conference at the Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, Calif., President Joe Biden confirmed the U.S. will send three Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, with the potential to send two more if needed. The U.S. aims to complete the sale of the first three submarines by 2032.

But the “ultimate goal,” Biden said, is to work with the U.K. to develop the eponymous SSN-AUKUS, a “new state-of-the-art conventionally armed” submarine combining British submarine design with American technology.

“It will meet Australia’s defense needs while bringing our militaries, our scientists, our engineers, our shipbuilders, our industrial workforce, our countries closer together—closer than ever,” said Biden, who individually met with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak after the announcement.

Reuters first reported last week that Canberra will over the course of the next decade buy up to five Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines from the U.S.

Albanese said the pact represents “the biggest single investment in Australia’s defense capability in all of our history,” adding that it will create around 20,000 direct jobs for Australians. The prime minister added that Australians will command and maintain the submarines.

Nuclear-powered submarines are considered superior because they can stay underwater longer; currently only six countries 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.

“This is a powerful partnership,” U.K. Prime Minister Sunak says. “For the first time ever, it will mean three fleets of submarines working together across both the Atlantic and Pacific, keeping our oceans free, open and prosperous for decades to come.”

A naval game-changer—eventually

Many observers believe procuring nuclear-powered submarines will be momentous for Australia’s military might.

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 and 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.

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.

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.”

As part of the AUKUS pact, Biden said that Australian military and civil personnel will embed with U.S. and U.K. troops in boats and in bases for training and development. Biden added that the U.S. plans to increase nuclear-powered submarine port visits to Australia later in the year, while American and British undersea craft will have “rotational presence” in Perth, Western Australia as early as 2027 to help train the local force.

Jingdong Yuan, a professor at the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney, estimates to TIME that it may even take longer than the proposed 10-year timeline 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, and the country’s mission to the United Nations reiterated its concerns on Twitter after the announcement, claiming that the Western alliance triggers the risk of nuclear proliferation.China has also suggested that the AUKUS pact promotes a Cold War-type mentality and hurts stability in the region.

During the announcement, Biden insisted that the submarines are not nuclear-armed, and that using nuclear propulsion technology is “tested and safe.”

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 are ongoing.

“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. 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.

Read More: China and the U.S. Are at Odds Over a Balloon. Why Much of Asia Isn’t Blowing Up About It

Still, China’s not likely to immediately retaliate, experts say. 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 thawed 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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