Australians to train on UK nuclear submarines under landmark pact
Australian naval officers will be allowed to train inside Britain’s nuclear-powered submarines for the first time to ensure they are prepared for the eventual arrival of the highly prized technology under the AUKUS pact.
Defence Minister Richard Marles is set to announce the landmark agreement at a press conference with UK Secretary of State Ben Wallace in the English port town of Barrow-in-Furness on Thursday.
“The idea of Australian crew working with either British or American crews to get experience on British or American vessels in the shorter term is what we are seeking to do,” Defence Minister Marles said in an interview with the London Times.
“Having the opportunity for Australian submariners to gain experience on the submarines of either the United States or the United Kingdom is going to be absolutely fundamental.”
Marles is making his first visit to the UK since Labor’s May election victory.
Defence contractor BAE Systems is currently constructing a fleet of nuclear-powered Astute-class submarines for the UK Navy at its shipbuilding yards at Barrow-in-Furness, as well as a fleet of Dreadnought-class ballistic-missile submarines.
The US Congress is also considering a bill that would allow Australian submariners to join their American counterparts for training and operations on the US Navy’s nuclear-powered Virginia-class submarines.
Under the legislation, at least two Australian submarine officers would be selected each year to train with the US Navy and study at the Navy’s Nuclear Propulsion School.
Marles is expected to stress that the UK training announcement does not indicate Australia is leaning one way or the other as it decides whether to acquire nuclear submarines from the US or UK.
Despite the critical submarine negotiations, in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, Marles declined to say whether the government would appoint a high commissioner to the UK by the end of the year.
Previous high commissioner George Brandis stepped down in April.
“We see the relationship with Britain as being very central to our national interest and our world view,” Marles said. “We have ... will have a very intense and ongoing agenda with Britain; Britain is our oldest relationship.”
Marles said the government was speaking to the UK and the US about possible options to speed up the delivery of nuclear-powered submarines.
“I mean, the former government left us with, really, a situation of not having a prospective boat in the water until the 2040s,” he told the ABC.
“This is a long way into the future and we are trying to examine, with both the United Kingdom and the United States, about whether there is any way in which we can get that date brought forward, and to the extent that there is any capability gap that arises as a result of whenever that date is, ways in which we can fill that capability.”
Marles declined to say whether Solomon Islands had issued Australia with a moratorium on naval visits to the Pacific nation as it had with the US.
“I’ve seen the reports,” he said. “Ultimately, that is a matter for Solomon Islands.”