The US reveals details about the plan to deliver nuclear submarines to Australia.

A road map developed during 18 months of international negotiations was released by the White House on Tuesday, following the joint announcement made by the leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States on Monday.

The roadmap lays out exactly how Washington and London intend to help Australia get a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines on its feet and develop the ability to build more. This effort is estimated to cost Australia between A$268 and A$368 billion (US$179 and $246 billion).

This technically demanding and immensely expensive project, sponsored by the AUKUS trilateral pact, aims to turn Australia into a robust naval power that can better counter China’s military expansion in the Pacific.

Some aspects of the plan were leaked last week, which can be found in this previous article. One can learn more about the plan’s mechanics and dispel some of their preconceived notions by reading the White House’s fact sheet and other official pronouncements in detail.

Australia will share its Perth submarine base with the United States and the United Kingdom from 2027

The United States Navy, and three years later, the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy, will increase the frequency with which their submarines visit Australian ports in order to conduct preliminary training and host Australian personnel, some of whom already serve on US ships, to learn about nuclear technology.

The Royal Australian Navy will need to hire many more submariners in addition to training its current force in new skills because Collins-class submarines have a crew size that is less than half that of a Virginia.

Submarine Rotational Force-West will reportedly be established at the HMAS Sterling naval base near Perth for its Collins-class diesel-electric submarines. Four US Virginia-class submarines and one British Astute-class submarine will regularly rotate there, substantially expanding the US Navy’s position in the Pacific.

Australia plans to spend A$8 billion to modernize HMAS Sterling for nuclear submarine operations. The rotating nature of the force will comply with Australian laws prohibiting the permanent establishment of foreign military forces, just as NATO troops routinely rotate to Eastern European bases.

Situated near the southwestern tip of Australia, Perth benefits and suffers from being 2,000 miles from the key operating areas of the Sunda and Singapore Straits, which control access to Australian waters. This limits the risk of enemy attack, but the distance also means that Collins submarines must spend days in transit and lots of fuel to reach the area.

Nuclear-powered submarines will somewhat mitigate that handicap since they can cruise faster. They can also transit without fear of running out of fuel, having to surface, or using a snorkel.

THE UNITED STATES TO DELIVER A MIX OF NEW AND USED VIRGINIA-CLASS ATTACK SUBMARINES TO AUSTRALIA – OLDER ONES LOOK LIKE TO RETIRE BY THE 2050S

With Australia’s Collins-class submarines due to retire in the 2030s, the United States will provide Australia with three Virginia-class submarines beginning in the early 2030s to fill the gap. Reportedly, they will be a mix of new-build Virginias and some that have served a few years in the US Navy, possibly already with an Australian crew on board.

Legislative approval of the transfer is needed, but given the unpredictable ideological makeup of the current US administration, that’s no sure thing. Some anticipate that, due to the long time required to train a sufficient number of new crew members, even once recruited by the RAN, the submarines will continue to rely on mostly American crews.

Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles noted that Australia would have to eliminate nuclear fuel by the 2050s. That means at least one Virginia will be aged 20 to 30 years later. Virginias are designed to last 33 years, so even pre-owned examples shipped to Australia would still have a respectable 60% of their life expectancy remaining.

THE OPTION TO SELL TWO ADDITIONAL VIRGINIA CLASS SUBMARINES IS A SAFETY MECHANISM

The report notes that the UK and Australia will now share the same next-generation nuclear-powered attack submarine, dubbed SSN-AUKUS. The default plan calls for three Virginias followed by five Australian-built SSN-AUKUS submarines. The two additional Virginias are optional patches offered in case the SSN-AUKUS is delayed.

When the Australian Virginias finally get old in the 2060s, they too will be replaced by AUKUS submarines, meaning Australia plans to build eight SSN-AUKUS vessels alongside a minimum of three US-built submarines.

THE UK AND AUSTRALIA TO OPERATE THE SAME NEXT-GENERATION SUBMARINE

The paper predicts that the first British-built SSN-AUKUS will be launched from Barrows-in-Furness in the late 2030s, with an Australian-built SSN-AUKUS following in the early 2040s. After that, Australia would produce a new submarine every two years.

This is a somewhat faster schedule than some analysts had expected and perhaps reflects the expectation that efforts to expand the yards will increase the pace of production. Keep in mind, however, that defense officials often present optimistic timetables that overlook potential delays in building greenfield platforms.

It is anticipated that the SSN-AUKUS will utilize a Rolls-Royce PWR3 jet, a US BYG-1 combat system (or a later variant), and US vertical launch and missile systems.

The report’s wording implies that there will be no substantial differences in the equipment of Australian and British submarines, allowing them to pool inventories of personnel and spare parts. 

Sharing a fighting system and other components with US submarines could decrease some of the increased costs incurred by the RAN for operating two distinct types of submarines simultaneously.

Nuclear nonproliferation and waste disposal have been taken into account.

Australian submarines will be powered by nuclear reactors but will not be armed with nuclear weapons. However, since these submarines use technically weapons-grade and highly enriched fuel, some members of the nuclear nonproliferation community frown.

Opponents acknowledge that the chance of nuclear fuel falling into the wrong hands via Australia is modest but warn that it might set a precedent for China and Russia to justify the sale of nuclear submarines to less scrupulous players like North Korea. That being said, Russia has been leasing nuclear submarines to India since the 2000s.

In any event, the report goes to great lengths to explain that nuclear fuel will be handled responsibly and that Australia will not, in fact, enrich uranium or produce new nuclear fuel. Moreover, it will not reprocess old fuel as part of the submarine program, while the newsroom does not rule out doing so for unrelated reasons.

 Instead, the US and UK will supply fully assembled and sealed nuclear reactors to fit Australian domestically-built submarines. These reactors will not require recharging for the life of the submarine.

The fact sheet reaffirms that Australia does not want nuclear weapons or build facilities that can convert nuclear fuel into weapons and that handling of nuclear materials will conform to standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

According to Marles, Canberra has committed to disposing of spent nuclear fuel, which will be done on land owned by the Australian military.

A lot of money will be spent to expand the submarine construction industry.

The trilateral pact necessitates substantial investments on the part of all parties, including purchasing submarines, constructing new facilities to build and maintain them, and training RAN personnel in their use.

Australia will invest A$2 billion in expanding the Osborne shipyard in Adelaide, doubling jobs. It will also allocate A$3 billion over the next four years to UK and US shipyards.

The United States has pledged to spend $2.2 billion between 2024 and 2028 to expand its submarine industrial base to improve annual submarine production. The UK has also promised unspecified industry investment to speed up the deployment of SSN-AUKUS.

Yesterday’s plans show that people have thought about the order of short-, medium-, and long-term solutions to prepare the RAN for this new era.

Planners have also considered reducing costs by sharing common systems between nations. And despite their considerable cost, submarines are a survivable means of exerting sea control against formidable adversaries and provide a secondary land-attack utility.

However, to carry out a project of several decades duration, it will be necessary for successive governments, which have historically tried to undo the political decisions of their predecessors, to act firmly.