The governments of Australia, the UK and US have set out a staged plan to deliver to the Royal Australian Navy a new fleet of conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) under the framework of the tripartite AUKUS alliance.
Announced on 13 March 2023, the so-called Optimised Pathway outlines a phased approach to the acquisition and sustainment of a nuclear submarine capability in what will be Australia’s single biggest investment in its defence capability.
This follows the Commonwealth’s decision in September 2021 to cancel the procurement of 12 conventionally powered Attack-class submarines in favour of acquiring a minimum of eight more capable nuclear-powered boats to be delivered in partnership with the UK and US governments.
Under the Optimised Pathway, Australia will initially purchase three Virginia-class SSNs from the US government, with an option to buy up to two more. This will be followed by the acquisition of a new SSN-AUKUS submarine that leverages the UK’s next-generation SSN(R) design together with a number of advanced US propulsion and combat system technologies.
SSN-AUKUS will thus be the future attack submarine for the Royal Australian Navy and UK Royal Navy, with production lines being established in both countries.
Importantly, the Optimised Pathway includes milestones for Australia to establish the capabilities to safely operate and steward SSNs. The UK and US governments will share their long experience in the construction, operation, maintenance and disposal of nuclear-powered submarines to assist the Commonwealth in achieving those milestones.
For Australia, the acquisition of SSN capabilities represents a complex, multi-decade undertaking unprecedented in its scope and ambition: the Canberra government expects the full cost of the programme, including construction and maintenance and service, to range from between A$268 billion (US$178 billion) and A$368 billion through to 2055.
In parallel with the Optimised Pathway plan, the Australian government has reaffirmed its commitment to the Collins-class Life of Type Extension (LOTE) programme. The LOTE is intended to ensure that the Royal Australian Navy’s existing Collins-class diesel-electric submarines remain operationally capable and available into the 2040s, supporting the transition to new nuclear-powered boats.