AUKUS plan details: a triumph of hope over experience

Fundamental issues with the trilateral US-UK-Australian AUKUS submarine agreement remain unaddressed, following announcement of the details in a joint press conference in San Diego by the leaders of the three countries on 13th March. The details were worked out during an 18 month trilateral scoping exercise, following the initial public announcement of the partnership in September 2021.

Even at the time of the original announcement it was clear that neither the UK nor the US had any spare capacity to build additional numbers of the current generation of SSNs (submarines that are nuclear powered, but not nuclear armed). This means Australia will not be able to receive any new AUKUS submarines when its current Collins-class submarines begin to leave service in the 2030s.

The proposed solution is for the US to sell Australia between three and five Virginia-class submarines. These will shore up the Australian submarine force until the next generation of UK SSNs come into service. Australia will partner with the UK in building this new submarine design, which was previously known as the SSN(R) but has now been renamed SSN-AUKUS. It is not currently clear whether the Virginia-class submarines sold to Australia will be newly made, or second hand, and it may be that this detail is yet to be decided.

The deal also involves Australian submariners training on US and UK submarines in 2023, and a rotating permanent force of one UK Astute and up to four US Virginia submarines in Western Australia from 2027.

Where will the submarines be built?

The agreement fulfils a major objective for the UK Government, in that the building of additional submarines and reactors will help to support the UK nuclear enterprise. Although the agreement includes a plan for Australia to develop the capacity to build its own SSN-AUKUS fleet, many of the components will be manufactured in the UK. Despite conflicting early reports, partly caused by a mistranscription in the parliamentary record, it now appears definite that all the submarines destined for the Australian fleet are intended to be assembled in Australia.

Crucially, however, the SSN-AUKUS submarines will be powered by the PWR-3 nuclear reactor design that is being used for the nuclear-armed Dreadnought fleet, and will be built by Rolls-Royce Submarines at Raynesway in Derby. As stated in previous analysis by Nuclear Information Service and others, obtaining additional financial support for the submarine reactor supply chain is a strategic goal within the UK nuclear enterprise, and contracts to supply PWR-3 reactors for both the UK and Australian Navy’s SSN-AUKUS fleet will help to ensure that this part of the enterprise is sustained well into the second half of the 21st century.

Interoperability between the submarine fleets of three AUKUS partners appears to be a key goal of the plan, and this will necessarily mean that much of the technology integrated into the SSN-AUKUS will be identical to that used on US submarines, such as the planned SSN(X). Given informed speculation that the SSN-AUKUS will be built with vertical launch tubes to fire conventionally-armed missiles, a US-made fire control system would be a likely candidate for a common component across all three Navies. The Dreadnought-class already shares a common fire control system with the US Columbia-class, built by General Dynamics.

Proliferation issues

Much of the reaction to the initial AUKUS announcement focussed on the challenges to the international nuclear non-proliferation regime. Under standard agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), states that do not possess nuclear weapons are allowed to remove nuclear material from the oversight system run by the agency if it is to be used to fuel a naval submarine reactor. Australia will not be the first state without nuclear weapons to develop nuclear powered submarines, as Brazil has an ongoing SSN programme. However, the PWR-3 reactor design is powered by Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU), which contains enough uranium 235 to qualify as weapons grade. Understandably, the role of the UK and US in facilitating the acquisition of this technology has been controversial.

The AUKUS partners have taken steps to reduce the impact of the deal on non-proliferation norms. Embedding Australian submariners with US and UK crews for training means that there is no need for a training reactor to be hosted in Australia, and the manufacture of assembled reactors in the UK means that Australia will not have custody of the HEU fuel itself. The partners have stated that reactors will be “complete, welded power units that will not require refueling during their lifetime”. Australia has promised not to pursue the chemical separation technology that would be needed to process the fuel so that it could be repurposed into a nuclear weapon.

However, Australia will be responsible for the nuclear waste from the reactors, which could still present proliferation challenges. The AUKUS partners also appear to have baulked at allowing the IAEA access to their submarines. Although concessions have been made to counter-proliferation norms, measures that boil down to good-faith assurances are not a model for credible arms control. The fact remains that the UK and US are overturning previous norms in service of their own political and strategic expediency, and the future consequences of setting this precedent cannot be foreseen.

Realism and timings

Prior to pursuing AUKUS, Australia were planning to build a new generation of diesel-electric submarines with French assistance, and delays to that endeavour prompted them to consider other options. While the announced plan probably represents the most viable possibility of marrying the AUKUS partnership’s aims with the reality of submarine production in the US and UK, Australia is unlikely to be in possession of a new generation of submarines any earlier than it would have under the French partnership.

The UK government’s announcement of the deal says that the first SSN-AUKUS submarine will be delivered to the Royal Navy in the ‘late 2030s’, with the Australian submarines following in the ‘early 2040s’. Given that the Dreadnought fleet will need to be built first, this is not a realistic prediction. In 2015 the official £31bn budget for the Dreadnought programme was for a 35-year project, which would have meant it finishing in 2046. Even if the timeline has been changed, the first Dreadnought submarine is officially planned to be in service in the ‘early 2030s’. Producing the remainder of the Dreadnought class and the first SSN-AUKUS before the end of that decade would require a rate of submarine production at Barrow which stretches credulity.

Although the UK announcement said the size of the UK’s SSN-AUKUS fleet was yet to be decided, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) appear to have been briefing journalists that as many as 19 or 20 submarines could be built. This would be nearly three times the size of the full Astute submarine fleet and would almost certainly cost tens of billions of pounds more than maintaining current SSN numbers. The fact that numbers like this are being bandied around, even in off-the-record briefings, suggest the MOD is more comfortable indulging in unrealistic fantasies about future force sizes than in confronting the practical realities of delivering on its plans.

In truth, while the announced AUKUS plan is more realistic than the other options that were on the table, it simply defers the difficult issue of submarine production capacity in the hope that it can be resolved in the future. The US is clearly taking the least risk, with a substantial Australian investment in its submarine-building infrastructure, and the option to sell either new or old Virginia submarines in the future, depending on which best suits its priorities. Either way, even five submarines sold to Australia would only be a relatively small proportion of its SSN force. As construction of the Australian SSN-AUKUS fleet will take place in Australia, the UK will not be held solely responsible for any delays, but it is still embarking on a joint submarine-building programme with a timetable that appears to be wholly unrealistic.

It is unclear how much credence the Australian government gives to that timetable, but they are by far the most exposed by the plan. With programme cost estimates in the hundreds of billions of Australian dollars, it may that the timetable is intended to placate critics of the programme and is expected to slip. If not, the SSN-AUKUS programme is likely to put the UK-Australian diplomatic relationship under some strain.

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