Speculation about the future of Australia’s submarines is rife ahead of next week’s expected major AUKUS announcement.
Sources from both the United States and the United Kingdom have told media they respectively anticipate a positive outcome when Anthony Albanese meets with Rishi Sunak and Joe Biden in San Diego next week to announce the “optimal pathway”.
According to Reuters, Australia is expected to buy up to five US Virginia-class nuclear powered submarines in the 2030s, to operate until Australia has built its own vessels.
Sources say the eventual submarines will be UK-designed with US-technology.
One source told Reuters at least one US submarine will visit Australian ports in the coming years, until the late 2030s when the new class of submarines becomes operational.
Two other sources said that after annual port visits, the US would forward deploy some submarines to Western Australia by 2027.
At the start of the next decade, Australia would purchase three Virginia-class submarines and have the option to buy two more to bridge the nation’s capability gap until Australia can build its own.
Meanwhile, the Guardian UK is reporting Mr Sunak has told his ministers to expect a “positive” outcome from the meeting.
Multiple sources told the UK newspaper that British-designed nuclear submarines will be used in Australia, but they expect US technology to be used “heavily”.
In designing a next-generation submarine, UK sources said the expectation was to build off the existing Astute submarine design.
While Mr Albanese and his government have remained tight lipped over what the three leaders will announce in the US next week, Opposition leader Peter Dutton has pushed for Australia to acquire submarines from the US.
Mr Dutton last week said he had received advice during his time as defence minister that the UK did not have the production capability to support both an Australian program and its own.
British high commissioner to Australia, Vicki Treadell at the National Press Club on Wednesday said Mr Dutton’s comments were not helpful, nor did she agree with them.
She said she had spoken to Mr Dutton on Tuesday night and told him.
“He is commenting on an outcome that he doesn’t yet know,” she said.
Pressed as to whether it was inappropriate for him to do so, Ms Treadell said there was “a lot of speculation” in the lead-up to the AUKUS announcement.
“Everyone is entitled to speculate. I was simply pointing out that I did not think such expressions were helpful in what is a genuine trilateral partnership started under his government.”
The Opposition’s spokesman for foreign affairs, Simon Birmingham, on Thursday said Mr Dutton’s comments had been taken out of context.
“He indicated that he thought a mature design was a safer and more certain prospect in terms of the delivery, successfully, of those submarines than a new boat design would be,” he told ABC Radio.
“But he also made it clear that we will support as a Coalition, whatever process and decision the AUKUS taskforce has landed at, and that the government has agreed with the US and the UK.
“We recognise the importance of bipartisanship in this.
“ … When it comes to any type of shipbuilding exercise, a mature design historically will provide you with greater certainty in terms of lowering the risks of cost or time issues during that process.”