Australia could initially lease submarines from UK or US but nuclear weapons remain off limits

Senior ministers confirm leasing nuclear-powered vessels from Aukus allies could be stop-gap solution until Australia takes delivery of its own submarines

The short-term leasing of nuclear-powered submarines from the UK or the US is being considered by the Morrison government but the Coalition insists nuclear weapons won’t be based in Australia.

The finance minister, Simon Birmingham, and the defence minister, Peter Dutton, confirmed in seperate interviews on Sunday that leasing submarines from the Aukus allies could be a stop-gap solution until Australia takes delivery of its own – potentially in the 2040s.

“The short answer is yes,” Dutton said when asked on Sky News about leasing vessels.

Birmingham said leasing arrangements would not necessarily “increase the number of submarines and the capability across all of the partner nations” but would help with training and information sharing.

“Doing so may provide opportunities for us to train our sailors, provide the skills and knowledge in terms of how we operate,” he told the ABC.

“ [It would help] provide the platforms for us to upgrade the infrastructure in Perth, that will be necessary for the operation of these submarines. I expect we will see … lease arrangements or greater joint operations between our navies in the future that sees our sailors working more closely and indeed, potentially on UK and US vessels to get that skills and training and knowledge.”

Birmingham insisted there was no “quid pro quo” in Australia agreeing to step up its strategic relationship with the United Kingdom and the United States.

He insisted nuclear weapons would not be based within Australia’s jurisdiction.

“We’ve been clear, Australia’s position in relation to nuclear weapons does not change, will not change,” he said on Sunday.

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“We will meet all of our non-proliferation treaty arrangements and obligations and not be changing any of our policies in relation to the nuclear weapons technology.”

Birmingham did not rule out an increase in the number of UK and US uniforms on Australian shores.

“We already have US troops and marines who work in Australia on rotational deployments at times,” he said.

“We already do close integrated operations alongside our US partner as we do with a number of other countries and we always look to explore where they can be enhanced and it is in Australia’s national interest to do so.”

Birmingham said Australia had informed the French government “at the earliest available opportunity” of the plan to scrap a submarine deal with the French which prompted Paris to recall its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington.

Birmingham said the French were told the $90bn submarine deal was off “before it became public”. France said it was kept in the dark.

Birmingham said changes, not just in technology but also the region, had made a new deal necessary.

“Prior to that, we have been engaging with the French in terms of the changes that we’ve been observing in our region,” he said.

“The changes to the strategic nature of competition in the region. The changes to the challenges of the operational capabilities of conventionally powered submarines and the reasons we’ve been looking at the nuclear-powered submarine alternative are because of those different changes.

“This has been very sensitive to get to this point in time. We don’t underestimate the importance now of working with the French in the future around their engagement across the region and ensuring that we re-establish those strong ties with the French government and counterparts long into the future. Because their ongoing engagement in this region is important, alongside these decisions that we’ve made.”

But it is not just the French who have been made uneasy by the Aukus arrangement, which is still to be worked out in detail. Australia’s allies in the Indo-Pacific have also raised concerns over what the deal will mean for tensions in the region.

Malaysia said on Saturday that Canberra’s decision to build atomic-powered submarines could trigger a regional nuclear arms race, echoing concerns already raised by Beijing.

“It will provoke other powers to also act more aggressively in the region, especially in the South China Sea,” the Malaysian prime minister’s office said, without mentioning China.

Beijing’s foreign policy in the region has become increasingly assertive, particularly its maritime claims in the resource-rich South China Sea, some of which conflict with Malaysia’s own claims.

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Amy Remeikis

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