As the AUKUS trilateral security partnership between Australia, Britain and the United States marked its first anniversary this week, Australian defense officials have stressed that the "optimal pathway" to acquiring nuclear-powered submarines under the pact is taking shape.

But concerns remain over a potential capability gap in the country's submarine force as its current aging conventional submarines are expected to reach their retirement before the new boats can be delivered.

The officials have flagged an announcement early next year on the type of ship the country will use and how any capability gap will be handled.

The AUKUS partnership, announced on Sept. 15, 2021, came in response to increasing security challenges in the Indo-Pacific and has widely been viewed as a move to counter China's growing influence in the region.

Royal Australian Navy submarine HMAS Rankin is seen during AUSINDEX 21, a biennial maritime exercise between the Royal Australian Navy and the Indian Navy in September 2021 in Darwin, Australia. (Australian Defence Force/Getty/Kyodo)

Around 50 officials from the United States and Britain were in Australia this week for talks with the country's Nuclear Powered Submarine Task Force, as it nears the end of an 18-month study to determine which boat Australia will pick -- an American or British design, or some kind of hybrid -- the Guardian Australia reported.

Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles said in a briefing to local media this week that Canberra is on track to make initial announcements based on the study in the first part of 2023.

The minister all but ruled out the possibility of a uniquely Australian class of submarines, however, saying it will be "advantageous" for Australia to choose a submarine design that will also be in service with other navies, the Australian Associated Press reported.

"It's obviously much better if you are operating a platform which other countries operate as there is a shared experience and a shared industrial base to sustain it," Marles said. "It would be better if we're in a position where what we're doing is genuinely a trilateral effort," he added, according to The Australian newspaper.

But the first nuclear-powered submarine is not expected to hit Australian waters until at least 2040, and a viable capability is not expected for another 10 years, thereby creating the potential for a capability gap in the country's submarine force.

Speaking to reporters in the nation's capital in August, Marles said his mind "is completely open" about what Australia must do to deal with any capability gap, with options such as building an interim conventional submarine or buying new boats "off the shelf" from U.S. or British production lines on the table.

However, hopes of buying a submarine from one of the AUKUS partners have been all but dashed by senior officials from both countries. The U.S. Navy's Strategic Submarines Program executive officer, Rear Adm. Scott Pappano, said in August that any additional construction added to the U.S. production line would be detrimental to the country's defense needs.

Similarly, Britain's defense secretary, Ben Wallace, told reporters this month that the country is not in a position to provide Australia with one of its Astute-class submarines.

Marcus Hellyer, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a defense-policy think tank, warns that if Australia were to seek an interim conventional submarine capability, the tight timeframe for delivery means options are limited and will have challenges, whether it be an evolution of the current Collins-class boats or one of the foreign conventional designs available.

"We don't have all of the options we would like at this point in time because we've essentially spent the last 13 years getting even further away from having new submarines than when we started this journey in 2009," Hellyer said, noting that a defense white paper released that year had already identified a need for a greater submarine capability.

With senior defense figures and former Navy personnel split on the best path forward, it remains unclear how Australia will seek to plug the gap. An announcement on any measures is expected alongside the initial procurement decisions slated for March.

One thing that is certain for Hellyer is that the capability gap already exists and will only get worse as Australia's strategic circumstances worsen in the future.

The timeline for delivering new submarines in Australia has been delayed by changing pursuits under successive former prime ministers. In 2016, a leadership change ended the progression toward a deal with Japan and saw the French company Naval Group win the bid for the now-axed Attack-class submarine program.

As Australia now looks to make up a lost decade in its pursuit of new submarines, the next year will be pivotal as the three AUKUS partners move from the consultation phase to the implementation of the controversial partnership.

But with the anticipated date for delivery of the ships remaining well in the future, the three countries will have to work closely over the coming decades to counter China's growing military presence in the region.