Following a joint announcement on Monday by leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom, and United States, the White House released a roadmap devised over the course of 18 months of intergovernmental deliberations. The roadmap lays out exactly how Washington and London intended to help Australia stand up a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and develop the capability to build more. The effort is estimated to cost Australia a whopping $268 to $368 billion AUD ($179 to 246 billion USD).
This technically challenging and immensely expensive project under the auspices of the trilateral AUKUS pact is geared at making Australia a robust naval power that can better counterbalance China’s military buildup in the Pacific.
Aspects of the plan were leaked the preceding week, and you can see those early reports discussed in this prior article. A close reading of a fact sheet prepared by the White House, and other official statements, helps to understand how the plan would work and to dispel some prior misconceptions.
Australia will share its submarine base in Perth with the U.S. and UK starting in 2027.
The U.S. Navy, followed three years later by the UK Royal Navy, will increase the number of submarine port visits to Australia to conduct preliminary training and take in Australian personnel — some of whom are already serving on U.S. ships to learn about nuclear technology. As the Collins–class submarines have less than half the crew of a Virginia, the Royal Australian Navy will need to recruit a lot more submariners, even as trains existing forces in additional skills.
Reportedly, the Submarine Rotational Force-West will be established at HMAS Sterling naval base near Perth, intended for its Collins-class diesel electric submarines. This will see four U.S. Virginia-class submarines and one British Astute-class subrotate there regularly — a substantial expansion of the U.S. Navy’s posture in the Pacific.
Australia plans to spend $8 billion AUD upgrading HMAS Sterling to support nuclear submarine operations. The rotational nature of the force will satisfy Australian laws banning permanent basing of foreign military forces, much like NATO troops routinely rotating to bases in Eastern Europe.
Located near the southwestern tip of Australia, Perth both benefits and suffers from being 2,000 miles away from key operating areas at the Sunda and Singapore Straits that control access to Australian waters. This constrains the risk of enemy attacks, but the distance also means the Collins submarines must spend days in transit and a lot of fuel to reach the area.
Nuclear-powered subs will somewhat mitigate that disadvantage since they can cruise at much higher speeds. They can also transit without fear of running out of fuel or having to surface or use a snorkel.
America will give Australia a mix of new and used Virginia-class attack submarines. The oldest ones look like they’ll be due for retirement in the 2050s.
Because Australia’s Collins–class submarines will need to start retiring in the 2030s, the U.S. will furnish Australia with three Virginia-class subs starting in the early part of that decade to fill the gap. These will reportedly be a mix of newly built Virginias and some that have already some years of service with the U.S. Navy, possibly already with Australian crew onboard.
The transfer will require Congressional approval, which is not guaranteed given possible fluctuation in the ideological character of the U.S. government. Some expect that due to the long time needed to train enough new crew members, even once inducted by the RAN, the submarines will continue to depend on majority-U.S. crews.
Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles noted Australia would need to dispose of nuclear fuel by the 2050s. That implies at least one Virginia will age out 20 to 30 years later. The Virginias are built for 33 years of service, meaning those given to Australia second-hand would have at least 60% of their service lives ahead of them, if not more.
The option for sale of two extra Virginia-class submarines is a failsafe.
The brief states that the UK and Australia will share in common the same next-generation nuclear-powered attack submarine, dubbed the SSN-AUKUS for now. The default plan is for three Virginias to be followed by five Australian-built SSN-AUKUS submarines. The two extra Virginias are optional stopgaps offered in case SSN-AUKUS falls behind schedule.
As Australia’s Virginias finally age out in the 2060s, they too will be replaced by AUKUS subs, meaning Australia plans to build eight SSN-AUKUS vessels beside a minimum of three American-built submarines.
The United Kingdom and Australia will operate the same next-generation submarine.
The brief claims the first British-built SSN-AUKUS would be launched in the late 2030s at Barrows-in-Furness, followed by an Australian-built SSN-AUKUS in the early 2040s. Thereafter, new Australian subs would be produced at a rate of one every two years.
This a slightly faster timeline than some analysts expected, and perhaps it reflects an expectation that efforts to expand shipyards will increase the pace of production. Bear in mind, though, that defense officials often present best-case schedules overlooking likely delays when building entirely new platforms.
The brief’s wording implies there will not be substantial differences in the equipment of Australian and British subs, allowing them to pool personnel and spare parts inventories. Sharing a common combat system and other components with U.S. submarines may reduce some of the extra costs the RAN will incur operating two different types of submarines simultaneously.
Nuclear non-proliferation and waste disposal have been considered.
Australia’s submarines will be propelled using nuclear reactors, but they won’t be armed with nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, because these submarines use highly enriched fuel that is technically weapons-grade, some in the nuclear non-proliferation community disapprove.
Critics concede that the risk of nuclear fuel falling into the wrong hands via Australia is low, but argue that it could provide a precedent for China and Russia to rationalize sale of nuclear-powered submarines to less scrupulous actors such as North Korea. That said, Russia has been leasing nuclear-powered submarines to India since the 2000s.
Regardless, the brief goes to considerable lengths to explain that the nuclear fuel will be handled responsibly, and in fact that Australia will not enrich uranium or produce new nuclear fuel. Nor will it reprocess used fuel as part of the submarine program (though the wording doesn’t rule out doing those things for unrelated reasons). Instead, the U.S. and UK will supply fully assembled and sealed nuclear reactors that will slot into Australia’s home-built submarines. These reactors will not require refueling during the service life of the sub.
The fact sheet reasserts that Australia doesn’t want nuclear arms, nor to build facilities that could convert nuclear fuel into weaponry, and that handling of nuclear materials will be in compliance with rules set by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Canberra has committed to dispose of spent nuclear fuel, something that will be done on land owned by the Australian military, according to Marles.
Big bucks will be spent for a bigger submarine-building industry
The trilateral pact involves large-scale investments by all parties — not just to buy submarines, but to set up additional facilities to produce and maintain them and to train RAN personnel on how to use them.
Australia will spend $2 billion AUD on expansion of the Osborne Shipyard in Adelaide and will double employment there. It will also spend $3 billion AUD over next four years towards British and American shipyards.
The U.S. has committed to spending $2.2 billion from 2024-2028 expanding its own submarine industrial base to improve yearly submarine output. The UK is also pledging an unspecified investment in industry to speed up fielding of the SSN-AUKUS.
Overall, the plans formally unveiled yesterday show that some thought has been given to sequencing mid- and long-term solutions to prepare the RAN for this epochal change. Planners have also thought about how to reduce costs by sharing common systems among nations. And despite their considerable cost, the subs are a survivable means to exert sea control against formidable adversaries and bring a secondary land-attack utility to the table.
However, seeing such a multi-decade project through will require steady hands between successive governments that historically have sought to undo the policy choices of their predecessors.
Sébastien Roblin has written on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including 19FortyFive, Popular Mechanics, The National Interest, MSNBC, Forbes.com, Inside Unmanned Systems and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.