14 March 2023

AUKUS leaders reveal Australian nuclear submarine plans

| Andrew McLaughlin
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Anthony Albanese, Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden, and British PM Rishi Sunak announce the AUKUS submarine arrangement in San Diego on Monday afternoon. Photo: PMO social media.

Australia will take delivery of up to five Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN) from the early 2030s and will then acquire eight UK-designed next-generation ‘SSN-AUKUS’ attack submarines and become a development partner in that program from the early 2040s.

The three-phased plan – or “optimal pathway” to an Australian nuclear-powered submarine capability – was revealed by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden and British PM Rishi Sunak in a joint announcement held pier-side at San Diego in California in front of a US Navy Virginia-class boat on Tuesday morning (14 March) Canberra time.

“In September 2021, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States announced AUKUS – a new security partnership that will promote a free and open Indo-Pacific that is secure and stable,” a joint statement by the three leaders reads.

“The first major initiative of AUKUS was our historic trilateral decision to support Australia acquiring conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines. Today, we announce our pathway to achieve this critical capability.

“Together we will deliver SSN-AUKUS – a trilaterally developed submarine based on the United Kingdom’s next-generation design that incorporates technology from all three nations, including cutting-edge US submarine technologies,” it says.

“Australia and the United Kingdom will operate SSN-AUKUS as their submarine of the future. Australia and the United Kingdom will begin work to build SSN-AUKUS in their domestic shipyards within this decade.”

“When we announced the AUKUS partnership in September 2021, we committed to set the highest nuclear non-proliferation standard. The plan we announce today delivers on this commitment and reflects our longstanding leadership in, and respect for, the global nuclear non-proliferation regime. We continue to consult with the International Atomic Energy Agency to develop a non-proliferation approach that sets the strongest precedent for the acquisition of a nuclear-powered submarine capability.”

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The deal will see Australia take three Virginia-class boats – pending US Congressional approval – and retain an option for an additional two vessels. However, the statement didn’t say whether these will be new-build submarines or, as has been widely reported, former US Navy boats. It is unlikely Australia will want to operate two different classes of SSN, so the possibility of the Virginias being former US boats is more likely.

The delivery of the Virginia-class boats will allow Australia to retire some or all of its Collins-class submarines. While more details are expected in the public version of the Defence Strategic Review due to be released next month, a plan to conduct a substantial life-of-type extension (LOTE) upgrade on the six-strong Collins fleet from 2024 will likely be scaled back, although some upgrade work will be required to keep these boats operationally viable until their withdrawal.

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The SSN-AUKUS will combine the best US and UK submarine technologies to replace the Astute-class boats in Royal Navy service from the late 2030s, while Australia will take its first SSN-AUKUS boats in the early 2040s. It is unlikely that Australia’s first boats will be built locally; instead, the Osborne shipyard in Adelaide will initially build components or modules for all SSN-AUKUS boats while it ramps up its own manufacturing capabilities and workforce.

Virginia class SSN

Virginia-class SSN, USS Missouri. Photo: US Navy.

The plan – which will reportedly cost north of an eye-watering $360 billion – is by far the largest defence procurement program in Australia’s history, although it is unclear what costs are included in that number.

Apart from the acquisition of the 11 to 13 new boats, other costs will likely include the construction of an east coast submarine base (reportedly at Port Kembla), the upgrade of the west coast base at HMAS Stirling near Fremantle, the development of a nuclear industry in Australia including the ramp-up of training courses and facilities for nuclear engineers and other specialist trades, maintenance and sustainment of the submarine capability through its life, and possibly complementary capabilities such as uncrewed or autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV), fixed underwater sonar arrays around Australia’s northern maritime approaches, and their support vessels and systems.

The plan will substantially increase Australia’s maritime capabilities and complement US and UK capabilities by adding fully interoperable submarines to the alliance to counter the massive build-up by China in the Indo-Pacific region.

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The leaders’ joint statement said that Australian personnel will train with US Navy and Royal Navy nuclear submarine forces from this year to begin the learning process of operating these complex boats and that US and UK boats will be forward-deployed to HMAS Stirling to augment Australia’s Collins-class boats until the first Australian Virginias enter service.

“Beginning in 2023, Australian military and civilian personnel will embed with the US Navy, the Royal Navy, and in the United States and United Kingdom submarine industrial bases to accelerate the training of Australian personnel,” the joint statement reads.

“The United States plans to increase SSN port visits to Australia beginning in 2023, with Australian sailors joining US crews for training and development; the United Kingdom will increase visits to Australia beginning in 2026.”

The joint statement focussed solely on the submarine announcement and didn’t touch on Pillar 2 of the AUKUS construct which will allow for joint development of advanced cyber capabilities, hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence and other technologies. It is expected details of some of these elements will be revealed in the Defence Strategic Review or in the new Defence Integrated Investment Plan (IIP), which is expected to follow later this year.

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HiddenDragon7:52 pm 14 Mar 23

We are heavily reliant on maritime trade for the things we need to buy and sell, and have a bountiful continent and vast exclusive economic zone to defend. With isolationism on the rise in Washington, and expansionism on the rise in Beijing, this deal makes great good sense, in spite of the substantial costs and risks involved.

From a parochial perspective (this is the RiotAct, after all) the growing costs of the submarine commitment – an estimated $58bn. in the first decade, and $210bn. to $310bn. in total over the second and third decades – will probably see Canberra become an increasingly Defence-oriented town as federal governments look for savings, which will likely include reducing federal administrative involvement in areas which are the primary responsibility of other levels of government.

Tom Worthington2:47 pm 14 Mar 23

Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV), appear as a footnote in the AUKUS plans, will be petty cash compared to the cost of the submarines, but will be key to their viability. By the time Australia is due to take delivery of the first SSN-AUKUS boats in the 2040s, conventionally armed submarines will be obsolete. Instead they will act as drone carriers, standing off over the horizon, launching drones into the air and water, to carry out surveillance and attack. There is considerable scope for Australian industry to build the thousands of AUVs, and UAVs, required to equip the submarines, and train the crews in their use. This is a new field, and one where Australia can take the leadership role, training US and UK crews, and providing them with equipment.

The AUKUS deal Tom Worthington keeps America’s arms industries afloat. Australia does not have the resources or capacity to sustain such a significant project or follow the US into another unwinnable war. Australia’s government should concentrate on Australia’s economy, in tatters after 10 years of conservative government. The project’s magnitude will force us to outsource and contract expertise and capacity to the Americans who are noted for their secrecy, and refusing to share knowledge and technical know-how to their allies, further diminishing our sovereignty.
Do you really believe that AUKUS will protect us should our governments and journalists provoke China into war? Or that America will come to our aid? AUKUS pales in significance to China’s tremendous military might. Our special friend did not mind stepping in to take over trade with China when China slapped bans on our imports.
AUKUS makes our country a greater target. Australia has willingly followed America into too many failed wars. Not to mention illegally invading a sovereign nation without sanction from the UN. The invasion was predicated on lies from our Prime Minister. These conflicts have unleashed deadly consequences and upheavals that are felt today.
Putin should be called to account for his war in Ukraine. But our hypocrisy to what Russia is doing is despicable!
These wars and the AUKUS deal would have been strongly opposed by previous Labor leaders.

What a load of complete bunkum.

This project does not remotely affect the viability of US arms industries.

But it most definitely will improve Australia’s industrial base and skills.

The deal announced has the bulk of the submarines being built in Australia based on a British submarine design with additional US components.

The idea that our country is not capable of sustaining such a project is a slap in the face to our scientists, engineers, industrial workers and universities. In reality, it will create new industries, and bring thousands of new jobs. It’s not like they are starting to build the subs tomorrow.

“Do you really believe that AUKUS will protect us should our governments and journalists provoke China into war?”

Yes, of course, the only way that way would occur is if the passive and peaceful Chinese government was “provoked”. China is such a good global citizen aren’t they comrade Jack?

In reality, this deal helps to build capability as a deterrent to China’s expansionist plans in our area and massively increases the strategic ties with the US and UK, positioning us well from the growing threat. A threat that most definitely will not be bound by the kinds of restrictions you want to apply to other countries.

AUKUS is a fantastic strategic defensive move for our country.

This is incredibly shameful! Shame Shame Shame on the once proud but now weak Australian Labor party! Another Australian prime minister, and Labor for God sake, in Washington getting instructions from the Yanks! Just another kick in the guts to Australian sovereignty!

Capital Retro3:03 pm 14 Mar 23

Albo was live on every TV network this morning and loving it. It was hard to keep my All Bran down.

So negotiating a treaty that significantly increases our ability to protect our nation and regional interests is somehow a threat to our sovereignty?

You do come out with some weird stuff Jack.

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