The Australians enquired if London, and possibly Washington, would be interested in helping the Australians build a fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines that would be faster, stealthier and with unlimited endurance than the planned conventional diesel-electric submarines the Australians were building in Adelaide under a 2016 contract with the French Naval Group. At the meeting the Australians said that endurance and the ability to undertake stealthy surveillance were particularly important capabilities for them to have. The Australians already had a close and trusted relationship with the British through the Five Eyes intelligence community and discussions were taken forward.
Thereafter, Sir Stephen Lovegrove, the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence in London, took over responsibility for dealing with the request (which was given the codename Operation Hookless). Hookless also had the full backing of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who wanted a much deeper strategic relationship to emerge from it (AUKUS). Such was the sensitivity of the negotiations that in London only ten people were kept in the loop. The British then approached the Americans. This delayed the negotiations somewhat as the request had to pass through the laborious Pentagon machine during a Washington election year. This delay caused concern in Canberra as the Australians were under growing time pressure as they were fast approaching a contract requirement which would see the costs of the French contract increase exponentially. Eventually, the new Biden administration agreed in principle to the pact, the final shape of which was agreed behind closed doors by Biden, Johnson and the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the June 2021 Carbis Bay G7 meeting in Cornwall.
The stuff of AUKUS
The three main elements of AUKUS are the strategic alignment of the US, UK and Australia in the Indo-Pacific, the building of eight new SSN for the Royal Australian Navy, and collaboration over future defence applications of artificial intelligence, machine-learning, quantum computing and cyber warfare (Australia already has a strong research base in such areas). The building of the eight RAN SSN will also be part of a new “special nuclear relationship”. Whilst the Australian Government will take the final decision on what specific system to purchase in 2023 the British seem to be best placed. Last week, the UK Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, committed £160 million to the development of the Submersible Ship Nuclear Replacement Programme (SSNR), including the award of two contracts to BAE Systems Maritime and Rolls Royce. The SSNR programme will begin to replace the current Astute class SSN starting in 2035, five years after the Australians were due to take delivery of the first Attack-class submarines. They will likely be driven by a variant of the new Rolls Royce PWR3 nuclear propulsion system under development for the British Dreadnought-class SSBN currently under construction. It is no coincidence that Australia is also planning to take possession of the first SSN in 2035.
By some measures (Naval Technology magazine in the US) the Astutes are the world’s most capable nuclear attack submarines, although they lack the vertical launch tubes on the Virginias. The Astutes also have a smaller weapons payload than the Virginias (but more torpedo/cruise missile tubes than the nuclear-propelled variant of the French Barracuda class). However, the crew per boat is a quarter less (98 versus 135) which will matter to the personnel-constrained RAN. The Astutes also have unlimited range and endurance (like the Virginias but unlike the Barracudas which need to be refuelled every ten years). The electronic countermeasures on the Astutes are also extremely capable, and they are faster underwater than the Virginias (30 knots versus 25 knots). The Astutes are also specifically designed for surveillance, infiltration and exfiltration operations which is high on the Australian wish-list. They will also give Australia access to advanced (and upgradable) American and British weapons systems.
Australia’s nuclear options
The Americans could offer a late block Virginia variant, but that is unlikely because the US Navy will need all 66 of them and block four Los Angeles class boats will be too old by 2035. The same applies to the British Trafalgar-class SSN the last two of which are beginning the decommissioning process. Although HMS Audacious, the latest of the seven Astute-class SSN, was commissioned into the Royal Navy last week, the Royal Navy does not have, and will not have, enough Astutes to hand any over to the Australians. The Americans are also unlikely to give even the Australians or British access to some of the black box technologies being developed for the planned SSN (X).
Ironically, it is the very troubled story of the early days of the Astute programme that may be indicative of the likely way ahead for the Australians, not least because Prime Minister Johnson directly linked AUKUS to highly skilled British jobs. In March 1997, the British Government signed a contract with what became BAE Systems and Rolls Royce to build the Astute-class. However, when work began in 1999 the design was incomplete and the 30,000 strong skilled workforce that had built the British Vanguard class SSBN over a decade before had been reduced to 3,000. In short, BAE Systems had overreached itself and it was only with the appointment of General Dynamics Electric Boat (together with an American programme director) as part of a US Navy contract that the Astute programme began to recover. Those problems have by and large been resolved, albeit at great cost to the British taxpayer. In other words, by joining SSNR the Australians would be buying into a well-established and up and running programme that combines both American and British expertise.
Therefore, the most likely solution for the Australians is to join the British SSNR programme with the caveat that their variants will have more US technology built into them than their British counterparts to ensure they are suitable for operations in the Indo-Pacific, as opposed to the North Atlantic or Mediterranean. The eight submarines will likely be built at the Osborne Naval Shipyard in Adelaide where the RAN variants of the new Type 26 Hunter-class frigates are also being built by a consortium led by BAE Systems and where the Attack-class submarines would have been completed. Unlike back in 1999 at the Devonshire Hall Barrow shipyard back where the Astutes are built, the Osborne yard already has a skilled workforce in place. The Australians are also used to co-operating with the British because the Type 26 frigates are also being built for the Royal Navy (Town-class) with the first three ships, HMS Glasgow, HMS Cardiff and HMS Belfast close to completion, as well as the Royal Canadian Navy as the Canadian Surface Combatant.
One final thought. Australia’s first nuclear powered submarines could well be named the Odin-class and the first two boats given the honour of carrying the same name as the country’s first two named submarines, HMAS Oxley and HMAS Otway.