Australian Nuclear Submarine - Options
Reuters reported on 08 March 2023 that Australia was expected to buy up to five US Virginia class nuclear powered submarines in the 2030s as part of a landmark defense agreement between Washington, Canberra and London, citing four US officials, saying this is "in a deal that would present a new challenge to China." The agreement, known as the AUKUS pact, will have multiple stages with at least one US submarine visiting Australian ports in the coming years. Two of the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that after the annual port visits, the United States would forward deploy some submarines in Western Australia by around 2027. In the early 2030s, Australia would buy three Virginia-class submarines and have the option to buy two more. AUKUS would culimnate in the late 2030s with a new class of submarines being built with British designs and American technology. The existing fleet of six conventionally powered Collins-class submarines will have their service life extended to 2036.
The Virginia-class submarines from the US would be a stop-gap while Australia and the UK worked together on a design for a next-generation submarine from the existing Astute class vessel. The task’s complexity meant it might not be ready until the 2040s. The UK’s Guardian newspaper reported on 08 Marach 2023, citing multiple unnamed sources, that the UK had “succeeded in its bid to sell British-designed nuclear submarines to Australia” and that Sunak was “buzzing about it” when he told ministers.
The three countries agreed to launch a trilateral effort of 18 months, which will involve teams — technical and strategic and navy teams — from all three countries to identify the optimal pathway of delivery of this capability. The only country that the United States has shared this kind of nuclear technology for propulsion is Great Britain, and that arrangement dates back to 1958. Under this unique set of circumstances, the USA decided to add Australia to that deep partnership to explore the best ways for Australia to pursue nuclear-powered submarines. Three existing designs could form the point of departure for this effort.
- The 3,000 ton Collins Class, Australia's conventional submarines which are the largest, and possibly the most advanced and efficient non-nuclear submarines in the world.
- The 7,800 ton Astute class submarines, British nuclear powered hunter-killers SSNs which supersede the Swiftsure class.
- The 9,500 ton Block V SSN-774 Virginia-class, the most modern American submarine designed to support an unprecedented array of joint littoral warfare missions.
These submarines represent three rather divergent hull forms, and the design process would thus have to entail more than simply "blending" the three. The Royal Australian Navy is likely to build versions of the latest US or British submarines that have more potent weapons and sensors than their Chinese counterparts. Either way, Australia’s eight nuclear submarines will be designed to sink China’s growing submarine fleet, and will be equipped with torpedoes and mines, as well as cruise missiles that can be used against ships and land targets.
The "pathway of delivery" would require far more than simply the design and construction of the boats and their reactors, but would also require an architecture for the nuclear fuel cycle for the bomb-grade uranium needed to fuel the reactors. The absence of such fuel cycle infrastructure in Australia was historically one of the arguments against nuclear powered submarines.
Some fraction of this fuel cycle might be localized in Australia, which has around one third of the world's uranium resources, and is the world's third ranking producer, accounting for approximately 10 percent of annual global production. Some other stages in the fuel cycle might be provided on an arms-length basis by either the UK or USA [eg, enrichment in the UK, spent fuel disposal in the USA].
The Australian Prime Minister detailed that the trio will take the next 18 months to "work together to seek to determine the best way forward to achieve this. This will include an intense examination of what we need to do to exercise our nuclear stewardship responsibilities in Australia." "We intend to build these submarines in Adelaide, Australia, in close cooperation with the United Kingdom and the United States," Morrison added. "But let me be clear," he said. "Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons [nor] establish nuclear capability. And we will continue to meet all our nuclear non-proliferation obligations."
South Australia will play a key role in the new tri-lateral alliance between Australia, United States and United Kingdom. The Australian Government intended to build the new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines in Adelaide.
The Government will actively work with industry to ensure the people and skills developed under the existing program are not lost to the Government’s Naval Shipbuilding Enterprise as it established a new program to support the delivery of nuclear-powered submarines to the Navy. The existing submarine workforce are prime candidates for the unprecedented work that needs to be performed across the Enterprise over the coming decades.
The Government will partner with the Australian-owned sovereign shipbuilder, ASC, to manage and implement a new Sovereign Shipbuilding Talent Pool. The Government is committed to finding a role within the Sovereign Shipbuilding Talent Pool for each and every skilled shipbuilding worker impacted by this announcement. The Sovereign Shipbuilding Talent Pool will re-deploy the existing shipbuilding workforce throughout current and new shipbuilding programs, while building the nuclear-powered submarine skills that will be crucial for the success of the nuclear-powered submarine program.
In the United States, following the Virginia Block VI/VII, the Next-Generation Attack Submarine (SSN(X)) will be designed to counter the emerging threat posed by near peer adversary competition for undersea supremacy. Under the US Navy’s FY2020 30-year (FY2020-FY2049) shipbuilding plan, the first SSN(X) would be procured in FY2031. In FY2032 and FY2033, the final four Virginia-class boats would be procured. Procurement of follow-on SSN(X)s, at a rate of two per year, would then begin in FY2034. Rather than buying the last Virginias, Australia might wish to buy the initial SSN(X) boats, similar to the Seawolf class submarine.
Design work for the next-generation of Royal Navy submarines is underway following the award of two contracts to UK industry, the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace announced 17 September 2021. Two contracts worth £85-million each had been awarded to BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce to deliver design and concept work for a future Class of Royal Navy submarine.
SSNR emerged in 2019 from the Maritime Underwater Future Capability (MUFC) program to develop “future capability requirements and develop options to perform operations and tasks within the underwater environment when the current Astute Class Submarines leave service.”
No name has been assigned to this class, which might as well be called the Commonwealth [or Dominion] class, because it seems ideally suited for collaboration with Australia, and possibly Canada. Just days before the UK announced the SSNR project, Australia cancelled further work on an existing conventional submarine contract with France, and announced its intention to proceed with a nuclear submarine with fellow Anglophones UK and USA, under the AUKUS alliance. In addition to the SSNR project, the US has embarked on a counterpart SSN-X project.
But the American SSN-X is probably rather more submarine the Australians are seeking, will not see new boat until the 2030s, and the massive SSN-X design effort would probably prove rather indifferent to Australian input. In contrast, the SSNR project would see smaller boats in the water in the 2020s, and the six units of the SSNR class might prove quite amenable to design input from the Australian 8-boat class. Canada has a long standing desirement for SSNs to assert sovereignty in the far North, and may well see this as a unique opportunity to join the SSN club.
The six units of the Collins-class SSK will undergo a multi-billion dollar Life of Type Extension (LOTE) beginning in 2026 that will extend the service life of these boats into the 2040s. While the Morrison Government was eager to acquire a near-term nuclear submarine capability to respond to Chinese provocations, Australia did not confront a "submarine gap" due to the retirement of the Collins SSKs. The 2016 Defence White Paper had noted "The acquisition of the 12 future submarines will commence in 2016 with the first submarines likely to begin entering service in the early 2030s. Construction of the 12 new submarines will extend into the late 2040s to 2050 timeframe."
Leasing nuclear-powered vessels from AUKUS allies could be a stop-gap solution until Australia takes delivery of its own submarines. The finance minister, Simon Birmingham, and the defence minister, Peter Dutton, confirmed in separate interviews on 19 September 2021 that leasing submarines from the AUKUS allies could be a stop-gap solution until Australia takes delivery of its own – potentially in the 2040s. “The short answer is yes,” Dutton said when asked on Sky News about leasing vessels. Birmingham said leasing arrangements would not necessarily “increase the number of submarines and the capability across all of the partner nations” but would help with training and information sharing.
“Doing so may provide opportunities for us to train our sailors, provide the skills and knowledge in terms of how we operate,” Birmingham told the ABC. It would help “ provide the platforms for us to upgrade the infrastructure in Perth, that will be necessary for the operation of these submarines. I expect we will see … lease arrangements or greater joint operations between our navies in the future that sees our sailors working more closely and indeed, potentially on UK and US vessels to get that skills and training and knowledge.”
Over the years, Russia has leased nuclear powered submarines to India, so this practice is not without precedent. The source of lease or purchase would have to be the US Navy, since the Royal Navy is extending the life of Trafalgar class boats to reflect delays in the new Astute class. The US Navy had about 20 Virginia class boats in service as of late 2021, and might be able to spare one or two for a close ally. This would ensure a smooth transition to boats of this class built in Australia.
In the event the US Navy was unprepared to spare a few of their shiniest new toys for "that fellow down-under", as of late 2021 the US Navy retained 28 of the earlier SSN-688 Los Angeles boats. While some of these would be retired within the next few years, these submarines serve for 33-37 years. So the newest of these boats could remain in service through the year 2031 if not later. While these boats may lack the new car smell of the Virginia boats, they are potent warships, and should prove more than adequate to familiarize Australian crews with the discipline of underway under nuclear power.
The federal opposition leader and former defence minister Peter Dutton on09 June 2022 threw his support behind the acquisition of US-designed Virginia Class submarines for the Royal Australian Navy under the AUKUS agreement. According to Dutton, the Virginia Class submarine — under consideration by the Nuclear-Powered Submarine Task Force, along with the UK’s Astute Class platforms — became the “obvious” choice. The federal opposition leader made particular note of the platform’s capability benefits.
“It is capable of launching missiles vertically, and is a mature design,” he wrote in a piece published by The Australian. Unlike the UK’s Astute Class, he added, construction of the Virginia Class would involve fewer modifications. “The British option would have involved a new design, which is problematic in any ship build because time and cost blowouts and design faults are inevitable,” he observed.
Dutton touted the possibility of an off-the-shelf purchase of two Virginia Class submarines before 2030. “I believed it possible to negotiate with the Americans to acquire, say, the first two submarines off the production line out of Connecticut,” he wrote. “This wouldn’t mean waiting until 2038 for the first submarine to be built here in Australia. The two initial submarines would be in addition to a further eight vessels built in South Australia, taking the total size of the prospective RAN fleet to 10.
Newly appointed defence minister Richard Marles, told the ABC addressing the capability gap is his “number one priority”. The minister said “…It’s important to state upfront that there is no more important platform that Australia has in terms of shaping its strategic circumstances than having a capable long-range submarine... It's why making sure that we have the successor to Collins in place as quickly as possible in a form which is highly capable is critically important.”
Minister Marles said the 2040s delivery timeline for the nuclear-powered submarines is “too far away”. “I feel confident that within that period we can make substantive decisions which advance the whole question of where we go with submarines, how we get our capability sooner and how we deal with the capability gap,” he added.
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