AUKUS row as claims Australia has lost interest in UK nuclear subs

AUKUS partnership taught France ‘harsh lessons’ says Shields

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An AUKUS row has broken out after Australia’s opposition leader and former Defence Minister claimed the country is reluctant to acquire British nuclear submarines, instead looking to those made in the United States. The defence pact was signed by Australia, the UK and the US at the end of 2021, and was unanimously hailed by all three countries. It stated Australia would acquire eight nuclear-powered submarines of either US or British design and technology or possibly a combination of both.

But Peter Dutton, who was Defence Minister when he led the decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, this week claimed he had been advised there were a host of problems with choosing the British option.

Some of the reported issues include a lack of production capacity in the UK and fears over how compatible a British-designed submarine would be with those operated by the US – Australia’s closest global ally.

Mr Dutton said he was briefed before the Australian election last May that manufacturing giant Rolls-Royce, which assembles reactors for British nuclear submarines, did not have any available production capacity.

The former Defence Minister was also reportedly told the UK’s submarine production facility at Barrow-in-Furness “didn’t have the ability to scale up”.

But the comments from Mr Dutton have been met by a furious response from Australia’s current Defence Minister, Pat Conroy, accusing him of “either being mischievous or he’s not privy to the latest information”.

Mr Conroy said he had just returned from a trip to the UK and had received a full briefing of what their plans are, labelling the comments from Mr Dutton as “incredibly irresponsible”.

He said: “He [Dutton] is either being mischievous or he’s not privy to the latest information. I’ve just come back from Barrow in the United Kingdom where I’ve got a full briefing on what the UK is doing.

“I think those comments from Peter Dutton are incredibly irresponsible. This was a man who received classified briefings up until May 21 on this programme.”

The alternative option for Australia would be the Virginia-class, the larger and latest operational nuclear-powered submarine from the US.

There had been speculation Australia, which may not receive its first nuclear-powered submarines until the late 2030s, had been keeping a close eye on the Astute-class submarine from the UK.

However, there have also been indications Australian defence chiefs had started to favour a design based more on the UK’s planned next-generation submarine, dubbed SSNR.

The comments from Mr Dutton follow those he made in an article last June revealing that when he was Defence Minister, he believed the US would sell Australia two Virginia-class nuclear submarines by 2030, with another eight to be built in Australia.

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These latest remarks from the former Defence Minister come as Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese prepares to travel to Washington this month to meet both UK counterpart Rishi Sunak and US President Rishi Sunak.

The three leaders plan to reveal the “optimal pathway” for Australia to replace its ageing fleet of locally built diesel-electric submarines.

The signing of the historic AUKUS pact between the three countries at the end of 2021 made unwanted global headlines because of the furious reaction from France.

Australia had abruptly cancelled a French–Australian submarine deal worth £50billion, and the AUKUS pact infuriated Emmanuel Macron’s Government, with Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian describing it as a “stab in the back”.

The French considered the Asia-Pacific region to be of key strategic and economic importance, with 1.65 million French citizens on islands such as La Réunion, New Caledonia, Mayotte and French Polynesia.

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