Much has been accomplished since the US, UK and Australia announced plans to develop a new generation of nuclear-powered attack submarines together, but much more remains to be done, as a November 2023 report published by the House of Commons Library explains.
The report details many of the challenges facing the AUKUS nuclear submarine programme (SSN-AUKUS) that will see the Royal Australian Navy acquire nuclear-powered attack submarines for the first time and the UK build the successor to its Astute-class submarines.
SSN-AUKUS (also recently referred to as SSN-A in the UK) will be based on the UK’s next-generation submarine design, but that design will incorporate technologies from all three nations, including cutting edge US submarine technologies, largely from the Virginia-class SSN, including propulsion technologies and components, a common vertical launch system and weapons. The AUKUS partners will also develop a joint combat system for the submarines. Design work on the UK’s next-generation submarine was already underway as part of the Submersible Ship Nuclear Replacement (SSN-R) programme.
The submarines will be built in the UK and Australia, with work due to begin by 2030, with a view to them entering service toward the end of the 2030s (UK) and the early 2040s (Australia). In the interim, the US – pending Congressional approval – will sell Australia three Virginia-class SSN, with potential for the sale of a further two.
The last of the UK Royal Navy’s Astute-class SSNs is expected into service by 2026, but a decision on how many AUKUS submarines the UK will require has yet to be made and will be based on the strategic threat assessment at the time. As such, an estimated cost of the programme has not been provided by the UK government, although the government has announced significant new funding (£3 billion) to underpin the SSN-AUKUS programme, and the wider Defence Nuclear Enterprise (DNE), over the next two years.
To deliver the AUKUS SSN capability at the earliest opportunity, including the necessary Australian infrastructure, technical capabilities, human resource and experience required to operate and support it (what the partners refer to as ‘sovereign ready’), the programme will adopt a phased approach.
From 2023, Australian military and civilian personnel will be embedded with the US Navy, the Royal Navy and within the US and UK submarine industrial base. The US will increase its number of SSN port visits to Australia where Australian naval personnel will join US crews for training and development. The UK will increase its SSN visits to Australia from 2026.
From 2027, and once Australia has developed the necessary infrastructure and stewardship capabilities, the US and UK will begin forward rotations of SSN to Australia to accelerate the development of a sovereign SSN capability. One UK Astute-class submarine and up to four US Virginia-class SSNs will establish a rotational presence at naval base HMAS Stirling, in Western Australia. UK participation in SRF-West will require a bilateral status of forces agreement.
In the early 2030s, and pending US Congressional approval, the US will sell three, possibly more Virginia-class SSNs to Australia to help grow its sovereign SSN capability and to address the potential gap between the retirement from service of its diesel-electric Collins-class submarine fleet and the entry into service of SSN-AUKUS.
Work on the construction of the first SSN will start in the UK in the early 2030s. Knowledge and expertise will be shared with Australian engineers in the early years of construction to allow the subsequent domestic manufacture of their own fleet. Some components for the Australian SSNs, including all the nuclear propulsion reactors, will be manufactured in the UK.
In the late 2030s, the UK will deliver its first SSN-AUKUS (SSN-A) class submarine to the Royal Navy. Australia will deliver the first domestically built submarine to the Royal Australian Navy in the early 2040s.