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AUKUS – Australia, the US and UK make nuclear-powered submarine announcement

Australia will acquire at least three and possibly five US Virginia-class submarines, starting in the early 2030s – pending US Congressional approval; and it will build in Adelaide eight SSN-AUKUS conventionally-armed nuclear-powered submarines, based on a UK design, incorporating cutting edge Australian, UK and US technologies. The UK will deliver its own first SSN-AUKUS in the late 2030s, with the first SSN-AUKUS built in Australia delivered in the early 2040s.

The total cost of this program is likely to be some $268 billion, or more, out to 2050 in then-year dollars.

Meanwhile, the US Navy and Royal Navy will increase the number of submarine visits to Fleet Base West, starting from this calendar year; and Australian military and civilian personnel will be embedded in the US and UK navies and industrial bases. And from 2027 we will see rotations of an anticipated four US Navy submarines and one Royal Navy submarine to Fremantle, in much the same way the US Marines currently rotate through Darwin. This will help in the training of Australian officers, sailors and others in handling and operating a nuclear-powered submarine.

That’s what we know. What can we deduce, or guess?

  • The RAN will continue to use the AN/BYG-1 submarine combat system and the Mk48 Mod 7 CBASS torpedo, both of which equip the Virginia-class boats
  • The planned Life of Type Extension (LOTE) of at least some of the RAN’s existing Collins-class boats will be cancelled

What don’t we know?

Some of the uncertainty is laid to rest in the US White House and UK Gov.UK web sites. Shame on the Australian government for not being at least as forthcoming as these sources of information – after all, it’s our country that’s acquiring the submarines and in the words of an official media release by the Australian Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, “Today’s significant AUKUS announcement about Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines is the single biggest investment in our defence capability in our history and represents a transformational moment for our nation, our Defence Force and our economy.”

If you want to know more about Australia’s nuclear-powered submarine program than the Australian government has said, then go to:


However, despite the openness of these sources, lingering uncertainties remain:

  • Which Block of the Virginia-class will we get (if approved by the Congress)? Presumably, if these are new boats we’ll get whatever Block is under construction at that time for the US Navy. If second-hand, knowing that the projected life of the S9G nuclear reactor is about 33 years, then getting any boats built before 2010 would be pointless
  • What will be the work split between the UK and Australia in the SSN-AUKUS program?
  • How many submarines does the UK need?
  • Who will manufacture the submarines’ nuclear power plants, and where?
  • What type of reactor will they be?
  • What will be the configuration and crewing demands of the SSN-AUKUS design?
  • Will the US Navy adopt this submarine also?
  • What will be the role of Australia’s submarine industry base alongside those of the UK and USA?
  • What effect will the US government’s notoriously opaque and labyrinthine ITAR regime have on AUKUS?
  • Can Australia train enough people to a level sufficient that we can man our nuclear-powered submarines safely?
  • When will we learn about Pillar 2 of AUKUS?

It’s likely that we’ll learn more (though exactly how much more remains to be seen) lat er this month or some time in April when the Australian Government publishes the redacted Defence Strategic Review (DSR) and its response. These announcements may also address Pillar 2 of AUKUS and the need for joint R&D into advanced technologies and joint acquisition of equipment that embodies this technology.

If the SSN-AUKUS build is as ‘trilateral’ as the UK suggests then it would seem logical for Australia to build a part of each of those boats. Australia could build the front end while the UK builds the reactors and back end of the submarine, including the power train. Final assembly of the submarines would be undertaken by the two countries. The US would provide the AN/BYG-1 combat system for at least the RAN and US boats, and possibly for all of them.

Assuming the UK needs about the same number of submarines as Australia, this would see the yard at Osborne, SA, manufacturing a significant part of 16 submarines at a higher rate than building eight for the RAN. The economies of scale and ‘learning curve effect’ would see the cost of these go down progressively and the speed of construction and build quality rise.

As far as the costs and benefits of the nuclear-powered submarine program are concerned, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence said: “We expect the phased approach will result in $6 billion invested in Australia’s industrial capability and workforce over the next four years, creating around 20,000 direct jobs over the next 30 years.

“This whole of nation effort also presents a whole of nation opportunity; for new jobs, new industries, and new expertise in science, technology, and cyber.

“Businesses right across the country in every state and territory will have the opportunity to contribute to and benefit from these opportunities over decades.

“Over the next four years, this will see $2 billion in expected investment into South Australia, and a further $1 billion in Western Australia.

“This commitment from the Australian Government will require funding for the phased approach to amount to around 0.15 per cent of GDP per year, averaged over the life of the program.” The defence budget is forecast to rise to about 2.2% of GDP by the end of this decade – the 0.15% cost of the submarine program will need to be added to this.

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