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Australia Is Getting Nuclear Submarines. The Reason: China

AUKUS Submarine
The Virginia-class attack submarine Pre-Commissioning Unit Mississippi (SSN 782) conducts alpha trials in the Atlantic Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of General Dynamics Electric Boat)

In the fall of 2021, Australia made a consequential international affairs decision.

It ditched France, walking back on a huge defense contract to buy submarines from Paris, and joined hands with the United Kingdom and the United States in the new AUKUS agreement. 

Under AUKUS, Australia is to receive its first nuclear-powered attack submarines. 

Despite Chinese anger over AUKUS, the program is proceeding at pace, and a new contract just set the ball rolling. 

AUKUS Underway

In October, the British Ministry of Defense announced a new contract that will provide the first steps of AUKUS

Worth almost $5 billion, the contract will cover design, prototyping, and purchase of the main components for the first submarines. 

Australia isn’t the only country getting next-generation, nuclear-powered attack submarines under AUKUS. The U.K. is also updating its fleet to increase its deterrence against near-peer threats like Russia and China. 

“The signing of the Detailed Design and Long Leads (D2L2) Phase with BAE Systems (BAES), Rolls-Royce and Babcock represents a significant milestone for both the UK and the trilateral AUKUS programme as a whole, in the lead up to build the future class of nuclear-powered attack submarines, known as SSN-AUKUS,” the British Ministry of Defense stated in a press release. 

Construction of the British submarines will mainly take place in the port town of Barrow-in-Furness in northern England. The Australian Navy, however, will build its submarines in the country, but only after working throughout the 2030s to develop its submarine industrial base. Rolls Royce will provide the nuclear reactors for both British and Australian subs.

The goal of the British Ministry of Defense is to have the first AUKUS subs operational by the late 2030s. The new subs will replace the Royal Navy’s seven (five operational, two under construction) Astute-Class nuclear-powered fleet subs.

Australia will receive its first AUKUS submarines in the early 2040s.

“[The submarines] will be the largest, most advanced and most powerful attack submarines ever operated by the Royal Navy, combining world-leading sensors, design and weaponry in one vessel,” the British Ministry of Defense added in its press release.

It’s important to distinguish that the attack submarines will be nuclear-powered and not armed with nuclear weapons. Like all of the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers, they will use nuclear power for propulsion but won’t be carrying nuclear-armed warheads.

Nevertheless, the attack submarines will bolster Western capabilities in the region and present some tough questions to the Chinese Navy, which can field upwards of 600 vessels in the event of a conflict.

Challenges to AUKUS

However, as the AUKUS program moves forward, there are challenges that it must overcome. 

Australia and the U.S. are worried about espionage and information campaigns against the AUKUS program.

The Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS), the country’s foreign intelligence service, would like nothing more than to get its hand on some classified AUKUS technology. Whether it’s through cyber, signals, or physical access, the Chinese will definitely try to steal AUKUS technology and counter its advantages. Moreover, Beijing has already started using information operations to spread disinformation and misinformation on AUKUS and its goals in an attempt to confuse the Australian people and push them to oppose the pact.

The AUKUS program might be underway, but it has some troubled waters to navigate before it reaches port.

A 19FortyFive Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist specializing in special operations and a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ). He holds a BA from the Johns Hopkins University, an MA from the Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and is pursuing a J.D. at Boston College Law School. His work has been featured in Business InsiderSandboxx, and SOFREP.

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1945’s Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist with specialized expertise in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. His work has been featured in Business Insider, Sandboxx, and SOFREP.