• As part of the AUKUS deal, US and UK submarines will operate out of Western Australia by 2027.

  • That location will allow allied submarines to spend more time operating in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

  • The agreement on the base comes as rivals, mainly China, increase their submarine activity in the region. 

American and British submarines will soon operate from Australia, giving allies greater range and presence in the Indian and Pacific oceans, where submarine activity by friend and foe alike has intensified.

In March, President Joe Biden and his British and Australian counterparts announced a timetable for Australia to procure new nuclear-powered submarines, first buying US-built submarines in the early 2030s and then taking delivery of the first Australian-built ships in the early 2040s.

In the coming years, however, American and British submarines will visit Australia more frequently and as early as 2027, those navies will begin basing attack submarines – one British and up to four American – at HMAS Stirling, an Australian navy base near the city of Perth, on the coast of the Indian Ocean.

The US Navy has its eyes on a new submarine base.
The US Navy has its eyes on a new submarine base.

Australia has established Submarine Rotational Forces-West near HMAS Stirling to enhance its capability in operating nuclear-powered submarines.

The AUKUS deal responds to China and Russia’s growing submarine fleets and activities in the Pacific. Russia’s Pacific Fleet has received new submarines, including the Yasen-class guided-missile submarines, which are concerning due to their stealth capabilities.

The United States views the Yasen-class submarines as a significant challenge, with concerns about their quiet operations compromising tracking by the US Navy. Chinese submarines are less advanced than Russian ones, but China prioritizes naval modernization, including technology upgrades and expanding shipyards.

The establishment of Submarine Rotational Forces-West in Australia aims to enhance the country’s ability to operate nuclear-powered submarines. This move comes in response to the expansion of submarine fleets and operations by China and Russia in the Pacific region.

Russia’s Pacific Fleet has been receiving new submarines, including the technologically advanced Yasen-class guided-missile submarines. These submarines are a concern for the United States because of their ability to operate silently, which could potentially hinder the US Navy’s tracking capabilities.

The Yasen-class submarines pose a dual challenge for the United States, operating in the Atlantic and Pacific regions. US naval intelligence officials have expressed concern about their impact on US security, while the head of the US Northern Command has warned that they could become a persistent threat to the US mainland in the near future.

Although not as advanced as their Russian counterparts, Chinese submarines are undergoing modernization efforts. The Chinese Navy prioritizes strengthening its capabilities, incorporating new technologies, and expanding its shipyards. However, the growth of China’s submarine fleet is expected to be modest as it focuses on overall naval development.

The US Navy has its eyes on a new submarine base.
Ray Mabus, then US Secretary of the Navy, part of a Chinese Yuan-class submarine in Ningbo.

China’s submarine forces have made significant advancements, particularly with their quieter and technologically advanced Yuan-class diesel-electric submarines. These submarines possess advanced sonar systems and show promise in anti-submarine warfare capabilities.

The Chinese navy’s Jin-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines are believed to be conducting continuous deterrence patrols at sea, indicating improved operational capabilities. These submarines are now armed with third-generation JL-3 ballistic missiles that have the range to reach the United States from the South China Sea, marking a significant development for Chinese submarines.

Given this evolving threat, the United States Navy is placing a higher priority on basing submarines closer to the Western Pacific. Currently, 25 out of the US Navy’s 49 attack submarines are based in the Pacific, and efforts have been made to increase the number of submarines based in Guam.

The US Navy plans to invest more in its submarine support facility in Guam to support this strategic shift to expand its regional operational capacity.

The US Navy has its eyes on a new submarine base.
A Chinese Jin-class ballistic missile submarine.

Operating submarines from Australia, particularly from Perth, would bring them closer to the Western Pacific and allow for longer deployments of up to a year compared to the usual six-month deployments with transit time. This would increase the US submarine presence in the region.

The development of more advanced submarines, including nuclear-powered ones, by China, could enable them to deploy submarines to more distant waters like the Indian Ocean for extended periods. This aligns with China’s strategy to project power and fight in distant seas.

Chinese submarines heading towards the Indian Ocean are likely to use the deeper straits of the Indonesian archipelago closest to Australia, enabling them to remain submerged for longer.

The presence of British and Australian submarines in the region would help alleviate the tracking burden on US submarines in monitoring the increasingly active Chinese submarine fleet.

Australia will need to develop the necessary expertise and facilities to maintain nuclear-powered submarines, which it has not done before. This and potential delays in submarine orders could strain US shipyards and impact submarine repairs.

The AUKUS program may complicate China’s efforts to extend the scope of its submarine operations to distant seas until it improves its ability to project and sustain broader military capabilities to counter allied submarines.

The increased presence of British and, eventually, Australian submarines in the region would create challenges for China in minimizing its submarines’ detectability and traceability risks. Beijing may need to reassess its strategies to counter the growing submarine activities of its allies.

Chinese submarines operate primarily in the “near seas” off the Chinese coast, especially in the South China Sea. However, the development of more advanced submarines with longer endurance could enable China to expand its submarine operations to distant waters, including the Indian Ocean.

The AUKUS program aims to enhance the submarine capabilities of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States in the Indian and Pacific oceans. However, there are challenges to overcome, such as Australia’s need to develop the necessary infrastructure and expertise to maintain nuclear-powered submarines and potential strains on US shipyards and submarine repairs.

Nonetheless, the presence of more allied submarines in the region would ease the burden on US submarines in tracking and monitoring the active Chinese submarine fleet. This could potentially compel Beijing to adjust its submarine operations to mitigate detection risks.

Until China enhances its ability to project and sustain a broader range of military capabilities, its submarines are likely to focus on areas within reach of friendly naval and ground forces. The AUKUS program may complicate China’s ambitions to extend the scope of its submarine operations to distant seas.