Finally, this week, specifics of the type of submarine fleet Australia plans to acquire as a result of the AUKUS deal became public. Initial indications indicate that many Australians, Britons, and Americans will be pleased with the proposed overhaul of Australia’s submarine force and, by extension, the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) force position.
Australia may acquire foreign-built nuclear submarines in the 2030s and eventually build its own global force of lethal attack ships.
The AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, and the United States) agreement, announced in the summer of 2021, promises a nearly unparalleled magnitude of technology transfer. In the next decades, Australia will acquire nuclear attack submarines and the technology to produce its own submarines.
In the very long term, the agreement aims to unite Canberra, Washington, and London in a military and technological alliance that guarantees competitiveness in the Western Pacific. In the short term, it promises to equip Australia with one of the world’s largest and most advanced fleets of nuclear attack submarines.
AUKUS stood in for a major manufacturing deal between Australia and France, to the grave diplomatic consternation of Paris. The event threatened a major disruption in US-French relations, though solidarity over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine appears to have quieted concerns of permanent damage.
Nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) are especially useful for Australia due to the vastness of the Pacific.
Submarine-launched nuclear missiles (SSNs) are capable of long-range operations, which means they may aid in missions near Taiwan, Korea, or the Indian Ocean. This allows the Royal Australian Navy to expand its area of operations and conduct missions without the need for support from other countries naval facilities.
Several Australians appear to oppose the construction or acquisition of British submarines more than the procurement of Virginias. Others worry that the deal ties Australia too closely to the United States, although a rapid increase in Australian military capabilities clearly helps to allay other security concerns.
The Virginia Bridge
The Virginia class is an extremely capable attack submarine. It appears the Australian batch will consist of used US boats, although many of the details remain unclear at the time of publication.
If Australia gets Block V ships, their Virginias will have a submerged displacement of around 10,000 tonnes, a top speed of over 25 knots, and a weapon complement of around 65. (torpedoes and cruise missiles). Obviously, older ships can’t perform as well as newer ones.
Australia has pledged to help the United States upgrade its shipbuilding industry. While the United States works to increase its own fleet in anticipation of speedier building in China, shipyard capacity could prove problematic.
Craig Hooper, however, argues that exporting the ships to Australia would take the pressure off America’s failing submarine maintenance infrastructure.
In any event, these vessels will vastly improve Australia’s current fleet of limited-capacity Collins submarines, which the RAN has had difficulty manning and maintaining in service. The Collinses are about a third their size, with an endurance limit of more than two months and a weapons load of about two dozen units.
The plan also includes an ambitious human capital development strategy. Maintenance of nuclear submarines differs considerably from conventional submarines, and Australia has had difficulty manning Collins boats.
Early Australian ships might have had dual Australian-American crews with Australian commands. This type of arrangement is unusual but has historical precedent for Australian operations in both World Wars.
Next Generation of Astutes?
It is unclear what the first Australian domestically built ships will look like. The UK will collaborate with Australia on the construction and design, although the ships will also include US components.
Increasing Australia’s shipbuilding capacity will be one of the most important achievements of the AUKUS deal, assuming it all goes ahead. The next generation of British attack submarines (SSNR) will use a vertical launch system like their American counterparts, as the Royal Navy’s Future Attack Submarine Project envisioned.
It would be quite strange if the 2nd generation Australian boats were missing a component that the Virginias already had, so presumably, the Australian subs will look a lot like the SSNRs.
The Australians will face a difficulty, but not an impossible one, in operating two distinct types of nuclear submarines. Nearly every navy with nuclear submarines in its fleet operates in more than one class.
Australia will be the smallest country to operate nuclear ships, but it won’t be the poorest. Operating two types of attack ships will not present much more of a challenge for the Australians than for the French and British, who operate both SSN and SSBN.
AUKUS: What now?
Thanks to AUKUS, Australia will have a fleet of world-class nuclear attack submarines if all these work. The RAN’s global capabilities will rival those of China, France, and the UK.
Many question marks remain, of course, including the long-term ability of the Royal Australian Navy to man and maintain these vessels while dealing with the rest of its extensive responsibilities.
There are a lot of moving components in the AUKUS trade. Therefore, a lot of bad things could happen. If successful, however, the United States will have helped cultivate a powerful new friend, and Australia will have acquired world-class military strength and an impressive industrial base.