South Australia’s naval shipbuilding sector is moving to become more heavily involved in US nuclear submarine construction, well before work begins on AUKUS vessels.

The SA government said it had struck a deal with shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII) — which builds Virginia-class submarines — that would potentially allow SA companies to enter supply chains for American nuclear-powered naval vessels.

Premier Peter Malinauskas, who travelled to HII’s shipbuilding site in the city of Newport News in Virginia for the announcement, said the move was partly intended to ensure SA defence companies had sufficient work until construction of the new SSN-AUKUS submarines began sometime next decade.

“There are already 53 suppliers that are engaged on the list with HII looking at their opportunities to not just participate in the SSN-AUKUS supply chain but even potentially the [nuclear-powered] Virginia-class supply chain,” he said.

“Our partnership with HII will help facilitate that endeavour.”

HII’s Michael Lempke said the AUKUS deal would allow naval industrial enhancement in Australia, the UK and the US.(ABC News)

The shipbuilding giant said it was already in talks with the 53 South Australian suppliers.

“South Australia is uniquely positioned. Frankly, Australian industry is quite strong — it is very capable [but] it is not a capability issue as much as it is a scaling issue,” head of HII’s Australian business Michael Lempke said.

“We really look at AUKUS as an opportunity to enhance the industrial capability of all three partner nations, and the collaboration we’re talking about today is a very important next step in that partnership.”

The government said HII would assess SA companies with expertise in “design and engineering, equipment integration, advanced manufacturing, welding, [and] fabrication”, and then advise them on ways to become involved in US supply chains.

SA Premier Peter Malinauskas in headgear at the HII shipbuilding site at Newport News.(ABC News)

“Every opportunity we can get from an experienced shipbuilder like HII is something we simply must grab,” Mr Malinauskas said.

“It would be impossible to overstate the size of the challenge to not just deliver the supply chain but also the direct employees who will be working on the SSN-AUKUS program.”

Under the current terms of the AUKUS deal, Australia will buy at least three nuclear-powered Virginia-class submarines from the US in the early 2030s, and then build at least five of a new, nuclear-powered submarine class dubbed the SSN-AUKUS, likely in Adelaide, in the 2030s, 2040s and beyond.

Adelaide-based industry group the Defence Teaming Centre said the announcement went a long way to quell the fears of a “valley of death” — a period in which there are few manufacturing projects.

Defence Teaming Centre CEO Libby Day said a range of SA defence companies stood to benefit.(ABC News: Marco Catalano)

“One of the things about SSN-AUKUS is of course it’s very future-focused. There are not going to be submarines rolling out of South Australia for many years to come,” chief executive Libby Day said.

“Through the guidance of HII — who, in the US, are the biggest builders of the Virginia-class submarines — there will be opportunities for those South Australian companies who meet the requirements to be put forward for some areas of work on the Virginia-class submarines.

“There are many types of companies who stand to benefit — machine shop welders, fabrication companies and broader-based skills as well.”

Mr Malinauskas said he had already met — and would again meet — with Australia’s Ambassador to the US, Kevin Rudd, during his trip.

He said he would also meet with congressional leaders, and industry figures linked to the AUKUS supply chain, in coming days.