3 October 2023

UK government awards first major contracts for design of SSN-AUKUS submarines

| Andrew McLaughlin
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concept art of the AUKUS submarine

Concept art of the SSN-AUKUS submarine design, Image: UK Ministry of Defence.

The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has awarded £4 billion ($A7.6bn) in contracts to three British companies for the detailed design phase of the SSN-AUKUS (SSN-A) nuclear-powered attack submarine class.

The detailed design and long leads contracts were awarded to BAE Systems, Babcock Marine and Rolls-Royce for the design, prototyping and purchase of main long lead components for the UK’s first submarines, which are scheduled to enter service in the mid-2030s.

After operating a number of ex-US Navy and possibly new-build Virginia class nuclear-powered submarines in the 2030s, the SSN-A submarine will be the follow-on submarine for Australia from the early 2040s, and Australia will provide design input.

“The signing of the detailed design and long leads phase with BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and Babcock Marine represents a significant milestone for both the UK and the trilateral AUKUS program as a whole, in the lead-up to build the future class of nuclear-powered attack submarines, known as SSN-AUKUS,” the UK MoD said in a statement.

UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps added: “This multi-billion-pound investment in the AUKUS submarine program will help deliver the long-term hunter-killer submarine capabilities the UK needs to maintain our strategic advantage and secure our leading place in a contested global order.”

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The first SSN-A boats will be built at BAE Systems’ Barrow-in-Furness shipyard in the north-west of England, will be powered by Rolls-Royce nuclear reactors, and will receive extensive design and engineering input from Babcock.

The UK’s boats will replace the current Astute class, seven of which are in service and the final two are in the late stages of construction.

In a company release, Babcock CEO David Lockwood said: “Babcock plays a critical role in submarine programs, supporting submarine availability in the UK and internationally.

“The importance of applying our extensive knowledge and long-standing experience is being recognised through this contract award to ensure that the new class delivers the operational availability through life that the Royal Navy requires.

“In addition, we look forward to providing ongoing support to help deliver capability for the Royal Australian Navy under the AUKUS agreement,” he added.

Rolls-Royce Submarines President Steve Carlier said: “This is a truly exciting time for our business, with work secured that will see us support UK and Australian submarines well into the second half of this century.

“It will see thousands of jobs created across the UK supply chain … and we’re proud to be playing our part in this international endeavour.”

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Under the AUKUS construct, it is planned that Australia will build up its own submarine industrial base through investment in the Osborne shipyard near Port Adelaide in South Australia and extensive training of its workforce partly at Barrow-in-Furness and in US shipyards.

Australia’s SSN-A boats will replace the ex-US Navy Virginia boats, and possibly the last of a substantially upgraded Collins class conventional submarines if that upgrade goes ahead.

The UK’s contracts combined with investments by Australia into US shipyards to increase their capacity and into Osborne are all part of the groundwork being laid for the three-phased nuclear-powered submarine agreement within AUKUS.

Some elements of phase one have already commenced, with exchange postings for Royal Australian Navy submariners on US and Royal Navy submarines, and a plan that will soon see Australian design, engineering and manufacturing staff embedded in the UK and US shipyards. Phase one also includes increased port visits to the Royal Australian Navy’s Fleet Base West in WA by US Navy and Royal Navy nuclear submarines.

Subject to US Congressional approval, the second phase will see the transfer – whether by lease or sale – of between three and five US Navy Virginia class boats to Australia from 2032. These vessels will allow Australia to fill a capability gap between the retirement of its older Collins class boats and the arrival of the first SSN-As.

Phase three will be the introduction of SSN-A boats into the Royal Australian Navy from the early 2040s.

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