Australia buys US submarines to fill gap with British boats

The US, Australia and the UK will unveil a multi-stage program to supply Canberra with nuclear submarines, culminating in the development of a next-generation British-designed boat.

Key elements of the so-called Aukus security pact, which will stretch for decades, include the delivery of US submarines to Australia while it builds its own fleet, according to four people familiar with the agreements.

President Joe Biden is set to meet with his Australian and British counterparts in San Diego on Monday to announce the deal, which spells out the terms of a pact signed in 2021 and paves the way for tens of billions of dollars in investment.

Australia wants nuclear-powered submarines to replace its current Collins-class fleet, which would give it more stealthy boats that are quieter and can travel longer distances without surfacing and revealing their position. The move is part of a strategic shift to help Australia and the US and other allies confront China in the Indo-Pacific.

Under the agreed plan, the US will first send several Virginia-class submarines to Australia to train Australian officers on how to operate sensitive nuclear-powered submarines. The US will later sell several Virginia-class boats to Australia to fill the capacity gap that will arise when its current fleet of Collins-class submarines is retired.

For a longer-term solution, the UK and Australia will jointly develop a ‘hybrid’ ship. This is based on the British next-generation submarine design, currently designated the SSN(R) and intended to replace the Astute class. Some people involved in the process have nicknamed the modified version “SSN Aukus”.

British industry, led by BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, has been working on the design, but industry insiders say it could still attract significant Australian input. According to the original schedule, the new fleet of attack boats was not supposed to enter service until the 2040s at the earliest.

Industry analysts say such a project would only make economic sense if the UK and Australia shared a common platform, although the weapons and combat systems could differ. The US is expected to supply much of the weapon systems for the submarine, in part because of the need to ensure interoperability with US boats.

Given the existing restrictions on shipbuilding, the deal will require significant investment from the UK government. It will also help bolster Britain’s submarine enterprise, which has been plagued by delays and cost overruns in the past.

Several people familiar with the Aukus discussions said the UK would play a bigger role than was envisioned as the three countries began discussing how to proceed with the September 2021 launch of Aukus.

“Britain would go along with this deal and pick up the pieces,” said one naval expert. “Now this will help solidify its position as a country with nuclear submarines.”

A person familiar with the agreement said Australia could provide money to increase the capacity of US submarine shipyards, addressing concerns in Congress that Aukus would increase the US Navy’s backlog of production.

In January, the top Democrat-Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee wrote to Biden to emphasize that Aukus should not bring the US submarine industrial base to a “point of stress” and create a “zero-sum game” for scarce resources as the US strengthens its ability to counter China.

The three allies are also working on a second pillar of Aukus, which includes hypersonic weapons, electronic warfare, and underwater capabilities.

While there is optimism that the US has found ways to overcome old limitations in sharing technology and sensitive information with allies to ensure the submarine program is a success, Washington has made much less headway in removing obstacles to made the second pillar.

London, Canberra and some US officials are concerned that a lack of progress on the second pillar will undermine Aukus by delaying work in areas that should yield earlier results while nations work on the decade-long submarine plan .

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