Australia is likely to purchase four Virginia-class nuclear submarines from the United States.

CNN reported that Australia could buy at least four US Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines as part of the landmark AUKUS pact with the United States and the United Kingdom, citing three sources familiar with the matter.

Submarine delivery could be delayed for quite some time. According to the article, the AUKUS alliance (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) would benefit from the early declaration.

Reuters was the first to report on the planned acquisition of US Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines, stating that at least five will be purchased.

The next steps for AUKUS will be outlined when Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese meets US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in San Diego on Monday, 13 March.

The Pacific Security Pact, first announced in September 2021, has drawn criticism from Beijing and is seen as an effort to challenge China’s growing power and authoritarian stance in the region.

Since the AUKUS cooperation was announced in 2021, officials from all three countries have met to discuss plans to provide the Royal Australian Navy with nuclear-powered submarines. As part of these preparations, the legal repercussions of transferring sensitive technology and the training of sailors have been taken into account. 

The sale of up to four US Virginia-class submarines to Australia is seen as a stopgap solution to equip Canberra with nuclear-powered submarines by the mid-2030s. The plan also calls for the US to increase port visits to Australians in the coming years and establishes the possibility of American attack submarines rotating around Perth in 2027.

The Australian Navy has six conventionally powered Collins-class submarines, whose service life will run until 2036. Unlike their conventional counterparts, nuclear-powered submarines are much harder to detect and can stay submerged for much longer.

The planned new class of submarines was not discussed in greater detail, nor was the manufacturer’s location.

In the meantime, The Guardian reported that the British government had successfully sold Australian nuclear submarines with a British designation, assuring the long-term viability of the Barrow-in-Furness shipyard.

According to the article, the Astute-class submarines now in service for the United States would act as a “patch” while Australia and the United Kingdom work together to develop a new generation of the submarine.

Australia will be the seventh nation to own a nuclear-powered submarine using an enriched uranium reactor as its propulsion system, putting its Navy on par with China. Other nations that have nuclear-powered submarines include the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, China, and India.

Virginia-class submarine

The Virginia class is the US Navy’s newest fast attack submarine, designed to replace the aging fleet of Los Angeles class submarines. Unlike ballistic missile submarines, which are part of the US nuclear arsenal, fast-attack submarines can use a variety of weapons, including torpedoes and cruise missiles.

Submerged submarines can transport special operations forces and conduct intelligence and reconnaissance missions. The Virginia class was designed specifically for post-Cold War submarine duties since it was more cost-effective.

The Virginia-class submarines are divided into five “blocks,” each with different incremental improvements and modifications related to ease of manufacturing and increased automation to reduce crew size.

The Navy highlighted Virginia’s potential to “operate anywhere, anytime, and contribute to regional stability and future peacekeeping” thanks to its nuclear propulsion.

The Virginia-class submarines aren’t the newest in the Navy, but they’ve been steadily upgraded and modernized so that each new generation is more powerful than the last.

The US Navy described that the traditional periscopes had been replaced on the Virginia-class SSNs by two photonic masts with visible and infrared digital cameras mounted on telescopic arms.

The ship’s control room has been relocated one deck lower and away from the hull’s curvature, giving it more space and a better layout that gives the commanding officer greater situational awareness.

In addition, the Virginia class is intended to remain at the forefront throughout its lifetime, rapidly introducing new systems and payloads through substantial use of modular construction, open architecture, and off-the-shelf components.