Australia to get nuclear-powered submarines under AUKUS partnership: What is the deal?

Australia to get nuclear-powered submarines under AUKUS partnership: What is the deal?

Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States on Monday (March 13) unveiled plans to provide Australia with conventionally armed, nuclear-powered attack submarines in the early 2030s to counter China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific, Reuters reported. The arrangement was made through the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) enhanced security partnership.

Under this deal, the United States intends to sell Australia three US Virginia class nuclear-powered submarines built by General Dynamics in the early 2030s, with an option for Australia to buy two more if needed, a joint statement said.

However, the multi-stage project will culminate with British and Australian production and operation of a new submarine class – SSN-AUKUS – a trilaterally developed vessel with the best technologies and capabilities of all three countries.

Beijing has reacted strongly to the naval deal. Its foreign ministry on Tuesday accused the three nations of “walking further and further down the path of error and danger”, the BBC reported.

What is AUKUS?

AUKUS is a 2021 defence deal between Australia, the UK and the US, which was struck to help Australia deploy nuclear-powered submarines in the Pacific region. Officially, the deal was made to emphasise upon the countries’ “shared commitment to a free-and-open Indo-Pacific region”. In effect, it seeks to combat China’s ambitions in the region.

China has been an aggressive player in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, staking territorial claims across the resource-rich region which also hosts some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. China’s increasing aggression against Taiwan and in the South China Sea has been of particular note. While China’s territorial ambitions have elicited strong reactions from across the West, Australia, a traditional centre of influence in the Pacific, has been most directly impacted. Crucially, unlike Australia, China has multiple nuclear-capable submarines.

Thus, the AUKUS partnership was signed to bolster Australia’s naval heft in the region. The then Australian PM Scott Morisson, at the time, described AUKUS as a “partnership where our technology, our scientists, our industry, our defence forces are all working together to deliver a safer and more secure region that ultimately benefits all”.

What does the latest announcement say?

In a fact sheet released by the White House, an “optimal pathway” for Australia to acquire nuclear-power submarines, “while setting the highest nuclear non-proliferation” was outlined. The plan involves a phased approach which will culminate in the production and operation of SSN-AUKUS. The phases are,

  • Embedded Personnel and Port Visits. Beginning in 2023, the Australian military and civilian personnel will embed with the US Navy, the UK Royal Navy and within the countries’ submarine industrial bases. This will accelerate the training and development of Australian personnel to handle nuclear-powered submarines.
  • Submarine Rotational Forces. As early as 2027, the UK and the US plan to establish a rotational presence of one UK Astute class submarine and up to four US Virginia class submarines at HMAS Stirling near Perth, Western Australia.
  • Sale of US Virginia Class Submarines. Beginning in the early 2030s, the US intends to sell Australia three Virginia-class submarines, with the potential to sell two more if needed. This will not only give Australia much-needed experience in operating nuclear-powered submarines, it will also be a stop-gap measure to shore up Australia’s ageing fleet of conventional submarines till SSN-AUKUS is inducted by the 2040s.
  • SSN-AUKUS. With the combination of the UK’s submarine design and advanced United States technology, SSN-AUKUS will be the future attack submarine for both Australia and the UK. Both countries intend to build the sub in their domestic shipyards before the end of this decade with the UK expected to receive its first SSN-AUKUS in the late 2030s and Australia expected to receive the submarine in the early 2040s.

Notably, while Australia will receive nuclear-powered submarines, these will not be equipped with nuclear warheads. The newly announced deal includes “clear commitments” to the countries’ respective nuclear non-proliferation obligations, the White House fact sheet says. It also includes commitments to improve infrastructure and industrial capacities as well as provisions for greater integration of the countries’ submarine forces.

How will nuclear submarines help Australia?

Conventional diesel-engine submarines have batteries that keep and propel the vessel underwater. The life of these batteries can vary from a few hours to a few days. While newer Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) submarines have additional fuel cells that increase the submarine’s endurance, these are used only at strategic times and can only be replenished in port. Both conventional and AIP subs need to come to the surface to recharge their batteries using the diesel engine.

Nuclear-powered submarines, on the other hand, have an internal nuclear reactor, giving them near infinite endurance to operate and stay submerged – effectively, a nuclear submarine only needs to port/surface when it is out of food and other essential supplies for the crew. Typically, nuclear subs are also faster than conventional submarines.

This allows them to reach far out into the ocean and launch attacks on the enemy, an important capability for blue water navies. Virginia class submarines and SSN-AUKUS will give the Royal Australian Navy the capability to go into the South China Sea to protect its assets and conduct patrols, a capability which it currently does not possess.

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