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Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines

USS Hyman G. Rickover (SSN 795), a Virginia-class submarine, seen prior to her christening ceremony at General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard facility in Groton, Connecticut. (U.S. Navy photo by John Narewski/RELEASED)

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on 16 September that Australia would acquire a fleet of at least eight nuclear-powered submarines. They will be built in Adelaide under the framework of a new tripartite security partnership involving the USA, UK and Australia – AUKUS.

The announcements by Morrison, US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson didn’t say whether the new Australian submarine would be based on the US Navy’s Virginia-class boats or the Royal Navy’s Astute-class boats. “Under AUKUS the three nations will focus immediately on identifying the optimal pathway to deliver at least eight nuclear-powered submarines for Australia,” said Defence Minister Peter Dutton.

Over the next 18 months, Australia, the UK and US will intensely examine the full suite of requirements that underpin nuclear stewardship and demonstrate a clear pathway to becoming a responsible and reliable steward of this sensitive technology. Australia will establish a Nuclear-Powered Submarine Taskforce in the Department of Defence to lead this work, he added.

The pursuit of nuclear-powered submarine technology means that Australia will no longer proceed with the Attack class conventional submarine program with French prime contractor Naval Group Australia, Dutton said.

The Australian government will now work with its government-owned shipbuilder ASC to manage and implement a new Sovereign Shipbuilding Talent Pool in an effort to maintain skills and workforce numbers and create new nuclear-related skills whilst the new project gets under way.

The PM’s announcement raised a number of questions, for which we may not have answers for 18 months:

  • Who will design the boats?
  • What will they cost?
  • When will they start to enter service?
  • Which design will they be based on?
  • Where will their nuclear reactors be built?
  • How will they be integrated into the submarines?
  • How will the RAN manage its nuclear-powered submarines as a sovereign, strategic force if it so dependent on other countries for support?

The Prime Minister’s announcement came during the annual AUSMIN talks between the Australian and US Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Defence and their US opposite numbers. At AUSMIN, held in Washington DC this year, the US and Australia signed a classified Statement of Intent on Strategic Capabilities Cooperation and Implementation and committed to cooperating on delivery of Australia’s planned sovereign Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordnance (GWEO) enterprise.

Further announcements from AUSMIN highlighted the potential for increased joint Research, Development Test and Evaluation (RDT&E), the expansion of Australia’s existing role within the US National Technology and Industrial Base (NITB) and the establishment of shared capabilities in Space Domain Awareness, Space Command and Control, Satellite Communications, and Positioning, Navigation, and Timing.

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