A new trilateral security partnership between Australia, the UK and the US (AUKUS) was announced yesterday. As part of this new alliance, the US and UK will assist with the construction of up to 8 nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs). In this brief commentary, we outline some of the implications.
The new alliance has been largely driven by the increasing threat from China. Australian relations with the Chinese have deteriorated considerably and the rapidly expanding PLA Navy poses a growing threat that would most effectively be countered by a powerful submarine force. With a shared language, history and value system, AUKUS makes sense and is an extension of the existing ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing agreement. At this time there is not, however, an equivalent of NATO’s Article Five that specifically commits each nation to send military forces to protect the other in event of an attack by a third party. Should China continue its rate of military expansion it is possible that it may drive Indo-Pacific nations to form a more committed NATO-like alliance with AUKUS at its heart.
AUKUS is another step for post-Brexit Britain, becoming more closely aligned with its traditional allies in the Anglosphere as it distances from former EU partners. There is also the potential of economic benefits for the UK at the expense of the French, at a time when Macron is increasingly unloved by London.
The Royal Australian Navy needs to replace its conventional Collins class (SSK) boats and under its SEA 1000 project, in April 2016 signed a A$50 billion contract with the French Naval Group to build up to 12 Shortfin Barracuda Block 1A boats. Any submarine construction project needs strong political and financial backing as well as talented managers and leaders to deliver successfully. It is one of the most difficult engineering challenges that any nation can undertake, given the complexities of design and the skills and infrastructure needed to build maintain and operate them. Even Spain, with a history of submarine building has struggled to deliver their S-80 AIP SSK and despite the UK’s strong naval heritage, encountered major problems and delays to the Astute class.
The “Attack class” project was always going to be problematic compared to those counties with existing domestic submarine programmes. Effectively the Attack programme added 3 extra hurdles: Converting the French Barracuda-class SSN design to a conventionally powered version, replacing the French combat systems with a new US/Aus designed option and a major technology and skills transfer from France to Australia. HMAS attack was supposed to have been laid down in 2023 and be the first of 3 batches of boats built over a 25-year period. The estimated cost of the programme had risen to A$80bn by 2020 and tension began to increase with Naval Group as the true scale of the task emerged.
The decision to build SSNs has not eliminated these issues, and in fact the cost and complexity of the task is magnified by the need to acquire supporting nuclear infrastructure. Australia has no civil nuclear industry to draw upon (nuclear power was formally banned by legislation in 1998). Historically it has adopted an anti-nuclear stance that included preventing warships from entering port if they were either nuclear powered or possibly carrying nuclear weapons.
SSNs obviously have the great advantage of unlimited range which is a particular issue in the vastness of the Pacific and when faced by an adversary also equipped with SSNs. The Japanese Sōryū-class SSKs (which were originally a contender for the SEA 1000 competition) have good range for conventional boats and their cutting edge Lithium-Ion battery technology gives exceptionally good underwater endurance for an SSK. The Soryu is inferior to the SSN in most scenarios but from a purely cost, industrial and timescale perspective would seem to make much more sense than ‘reaching for the stars’ by starting a nuclear submarine programme from scratch.
The Australian Government says they plan to build at least 8 SSNs in Adelaide but will take the next 18 months to consider “safety, design, construction, operation, maintenance, disposal, regulation, training, environmental protection, installations and infrastructure, basing, workforce and force structure”. The key decision will be around the design. For the sake of simplicity buying an existing and proven design based on the US Virginia class or British Astute-class would save time and cost. An entirely new design will obviously be more expensive and time-consuming but could be cutting edge and customised to Australian requirements. The RN is currently in the conceptual phase of the SSN(R) project which will define the requirements for the eventual replacement of the Astutes and there could potentially be a shared UK-AUS design effort.
This development offers some tantalising opportunities for UK industry but in reality, there is limited extra capacity within the nuclear submarine enterprise for additional demands. Completing the Astute programme and the early phases of the giant Dreadnought programme almost fully occupies the available supply chain. Although the nuclear aspects are complex, the UK does have many submarine components and systems that could be exported. In particular the British submarine sonars and the Spearfish torpedo and regarded as better than the US options.
There is a shortage of nuclear engineers and skilled engineering staff in general, with few people available to be seconded to Australia. The RN is also struggling to find and retain enough nuclear-trained watch-keepers for its modest submarine fleet. The RN should however be able to offer personnel exchanges, mentoring and advice to the RAN on its road to force generation. The US obviously has considerably more industrial capacity than the UK but is also not short of work, aiming to increase production of its Virginia class and about to commence the Columbia class SSBN programme.
Geo-politically the new AUKUS defence relationship makes sense on many levels and has potential benefits for the UK, further building on the export success of the Type 26 frigate. While SSNs are the desired apex predator of the seas, it would appear the Australians have committed to an even more costly, lengthy and demanding route to rebuilding their submarine force than before.