OPINION | US and UK jump-start Australia’s nuclear submarine program
Australia’s nuclear-powered, conventionally armed submarines (SSNs) will be of a new British design, but their reactors, combat systems and heavyweight torpedoes will all be American.
On Monday, March 13, after 18 months of intense consultations, details of this massive joint project to produce SSNs were announced by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden, and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the US naval base in San Diego. A stated objective is to enable the three nations “to grow the size of our combined submarine forces”.
Albanese said this was “the biggest single investment in Australia’s defence capability” in the country’s history and would require a whole-of-nation effort.
Throughout the process, there’s been a strong focus on very visibly setting the highest standards of nuclear stewardship to ease concerns that have been raised about the possibility of the tri-national project driving nuclear proliferation in the Indo-Pacific. The program is comprehensive and carefully stepped to build up a potentially lethal submarine deterrent in the region and to get formidable attack submarines into the hands of Australian sailors as quickly as possible.
Australia has declared that it will not seek to acquire nuclear weapons and will not enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel as part of this program. And while Australia is a major global source of uranium, it has undertaken not to produce the fuel for its submarines. The reactors will not need to be refuelled in the submarines’ lifetime, and the UK and US will provide Australia with nuclear material in units that are welded shut.
While the reactors to be fitted to the new submarines will contain high-grade nuclear material, it cannot be used to make nuclear weapons without further chemical processing, which Australia says it will not seek.
The whole endeavour will proceed within the framework of Australia’s comprehensive safeguards agreement and its additional protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The three nations have consulted closely with the agency on the AUKUS program.
Rather than adding to the complexity of the project, using the US combat system and Mark 48 heavyweight torpedoes in a British-designed submarine will provide Australia with opportunities. The combat system and torpedoes will be evolved versions of those already used in Australia’s Collins-class submarines. Australia was involved in the development of both and will have a key role to play in incorporating them into the British design.
The US will immediately increase the number of submarine visits to Australian ports and the UK will make regular visits from 2026. While that will establish a nuclear submarine presence, it will also provide increasing opportunities for Australia to begin building the industrial capability to service and maintain the boats during their visits. The three leaders said that would increase capacity in peacetime “and meet operational needs in time of crisis”.
“Australia and the UK intended to start building the submarines in their domestic shipyards before the end of this decade.”
By 2027, the intention is for the US and UK to begin formally rotating submarines through the HMAS Stirling naval base in Western Australia under a formal process to be designated Submarine Rotational Force–West.
The base will be expanded to support the scale of infrastructure required for nuclear-powered submarines—both visitors and those that will belong to Australia. The UK is expected to provide one of its Astute-class submarines for these rotations and the US up to four Virginia-class SSNs. The partners stressed that this arrangement would not constitute basing: “This rotational presence will comply fully with Australia’s longstanding position of no foreign bases on its territory”.
Apart from bringing strategic weight, that will also increase opportunities for Australian personnel to serve aboard the submarines of both allies. Biden said that would help “jump-start” Australia’s capability.
Pending congressional approval, the US has committed to selling three of its Virginia-class hunter-killer submarines to Australia in the next decade and it will provide up to five if required.
The three leaders said Australia and the UK intended to start building the submarines in their domestic shipyards before the end of this decade. The UK plans to deliver its first boats to the Royal Navy in the late 2030s. Australia’s boats will be built in Adelaide and the goal is to deliver the first locally built SSN to the Royal Australian Navy in the early 2040s. The three leaders stressed that the highest nuclear non-proliferation standards will be applied to each phase of this program.
Estimates of the total cost over the life of the program range from AU$268 billion to AU$368 billion (US$177 billion to US$244 billion). That includes running and maintaining the boats.
From 2023–24 to 2026–27, the program will cost an estimated AU$9 billion (US$5.9 billion). Of that, AU$6 billion (US$3.9 billion) will come from funding that had been allocated to the since cancelled French Attack-class conventionally powered submarine program.
Over the 10 years to 2032–33, it’s estimated that Australia’s spending on the AUKUS nuclear boats will rise to between AU$50 billion (US$33 billion) and AU$58 billion (US$38 billion). Of that, AU$24 billion (US$15 billion) will come from the Attack-class program.
In the longer term, until 2054–55, the government estimates that the SSN program will absorb about 0.15 per cent of Australia’s GDP on average. The money will include an Australian contribution to the cost of the expansion of the American submarine industry base to enable the US to provide the additional Virginia-class boats for the RAN.
“Australian personnel already train aboard US and UK submarines and their numbers and seniority will increase as the program progresses.”
Having industrial capability in all three AUKUS nations will strengthen supply chains and make them more resilient, the leaders said.
The British company Rolls-Royce will build the reactors to an American design.
A major hurdle will be finding and training the large numbers of specialised engineers and technicians required to build and maintain nuclear-powered submarines. And each of the new boats will require a crew of about 100. The Collins-class submarines currently operated by the RAN have crews of around 65.
Albanese said the submarine project would create around 20,000 direct jobs for Australians, including engineers, scientists, technicians, submariners, administrators and tradespeople.
“[T]his investment will be a catalyst for innovation and research breakthroughs that will reverberate right throughout the Australian economy and across every state and territory, not just in one design element, not just in one field, but right across our advanced manufacturing and technology sectors, creating jobs and growing businesses right around Australia, inspiring and rewarding innovation, and educating young Australians today for the opportunities of tomorrow,” Mr Albanese said.
The process of building up workforce numbers and skills has already begun. Australian naval personnel and civilian specialists are embedded with the US Navy and the Royal Navy and with relevant industrial bases in both countries. Australian submariners joined US nuclear-propulsion training programs last year.
The US Congress has passed a bipartisan provision allowing Australian naval officers to train at Naval Nuclear Power Training Command in South Carolina and eventually to serve on US submarines. The UK is also training some Australian officers on such courses.
Australian personnel already train aboard US and UK submarines and their numbers and seniority will increase as the program progresses.
Australia will send hundreds of workers to US and UK shipyards and scientists and technicians to US and UK technical facilities for specialised training and to gain the experience they’ll need to build and sustain nuclear-powered submarines.
It’s understood that regional nations have been extensively briefed on the AUKUS developments in recent weeks.