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Australia’s nuclear submarine program will cost up to $368 billion over the next three decades, with confirmation that the federal government will buy at least three American-manufactured nuclear submarines and contribute "significant additional resources" to US shipyards.

The Australian government will take three, potentially second-hand Virginia-class submarines early next decade, pending the approval of the US Congress.

There will also be an option to purchase another two under the landmark AUKUS defence and security pact, announced in San Diego this morning.

In the meantime, design and development work will continue on a brand new submarine, known as the SSN-AUKUS, "leveraging” work the British have already been doing to replace their Astute-class submarines.

That submarine — which will form the AUKUS class — would eventually be operated by both the UK and Australia, using American combat systems.

One submarine will be built every two years from the early 2040s through to the late 2050s, with five SSN-AUKUS boats delivered to the Royal Australian Navy by the middle of the 2050s.

Eventually, the fleet would include eight Australian submarines built in Adelaide into the 2060s, but the federal government is leaving open the option of taking some from British shipyards if strategic circumstances change.

Meanwhile, the federal government estimates the cost of the submarine program will be between $268 billion and $368 billion over the next 30 years.

As part of that figure, $8 billion will be spent on upgrading the naval base HMAS Stirling in Western Australia.

From as early as 2027, four US and one UK submarine will start rotating through Western Australia, to be known as the Submarine Rotational Forces West.

No decision has been made on a future east coast base for submarines, although Port Kembla has firmed as the most likely location.

Standing alongside Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, US President Joe Biden spoke of the strength of the alliance already.

"Today, as we stand at the inflection point in history, where the hard work of announcing deterrence and enhancing stability is going to reflect peace and stability for decades to come, the United States can ask for no better partners in the Indo-Pacific where so much of our shared future will be written," Mr Biden said.

During the announcement, President Biden flagged that, from this year, Australian navy personnel would embed with both US and UK crew on submarines and at their shipyards.

"In fact, as we speak, the nuclear-powered sub, is making a port call in Perth and later this year, there will be a rotational presence of nuclear-powered subs to Australia to help develop the workforce it will need to build," he said

Mr Albanese confirmed that Australian submariners were already undergoing nuclear power training in the US.

"I am proud to confirm that they are all in the top 30 per cent of their class," he said.

"This will be an Australian sovereign capability, commanded by the Royal Australian Navy and sustained by Australians in Australian shipyards, with construction to begin within this decade."

Australia’s nuclear-powered, conventionally armed submarines will be of a new British design, but their reactors, combat systems and heavyweight torpedoes will all be American.

After 18 months of intense consultations, details of this massive joint project to produce SSN AUKUS were announced today by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the US naval base in San Diego. A stated objective is to enable the three nations ‘to grow the size of our combined submarine forces’.

Albanese said this was ‘the biggest single investment in Australia’s defence capability’ in the country’s history and would require a whole-of-nation effort.

Throughout the process there’s been a strong focus on very visibly setting the highest standards of nuclear stewardship to ease concerns that have been raised about the possibility of the tri-national project driving nuclear proliferation in the Indo-Pacific.

The program is comprehensive and carefully stepped to build up a potentially lethal submarine deterrent in the region and to get formidable attack submarines into the hands of Australian sailors as quickly as possible.

Australia has declared that it will not seek to acquire nuclear weapons and will not enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel as part of this program. And while Australia is a major global source of uranium, it has undertaken not to produce the fuel for its submarines.

The reactors will not need to be refuelled in the submarines’ lifetime, and the UK and US will provide Australia with nuclear material in units that are welded shut.

While the reactors to be fitted to the new submarines will contain high-grade nuclear material, it cannot be used to make nuclear weapons without further chemical processing, which Australia says it will not seek.

The whole endeavour will proceed within the framework of Australia’s comprehensive safeguards agreement and its additional protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency. The three nations have consulted closely with the agency on the AUKUS program.

Rather than adding to the complexity of the project, using the US combat system and Mark 48 heavyweight torpedoes in a British-designed submarine will provide Australia with opportunities. The combat system and torpedoes will be evolved versions of those already used in Australia’s Collins-class submarines. Australia was involved in the development of both and will have a key role to play in incorporating them into the British design.

The US will immediately increase the number of submarine visits to Australian ports and the UK will make regular visits from 2026. While that will establish a nuclear submarine presence, it will also provide increasing opportunities for Australia to begin building the industrial capability to service and maintain the boats during their visits. The three leaders said that would increase capacity in peacetime ‘and meet operational needs in time of crisis’.

By 2027, the intention is for the US and UK to begin formally rotating submarines through the HMAS Stirling naval base in Western Australia under a formal process to be designated Submarine Rotational Force—West.

The base will be expanded to support the scale of infrastructure required for nuclear-powered submarines—both visitors and those that will belong to Australia. The UK is expected to provide one of its Astute-class submarines for these rotations and the US up to four Virginia-class SSNs. The partners stressed that this arrangement would not constitute basing, noting: ‘This rotational presence will comply fully with Australia’s longstanding position of no foreign bases on its territory’.

Apart from bringing strategic weight, that will also increase opportunities for Australian personnel to serve aboard the submarines of both allies. Biden said that would help ‘jump-start’ Australia’s capability.

Pending congressional approval, the US has committed to selling three of its Virginia-class ‘hunter-killer’ submarines to Australia in the next decade and it will provide up to five if required.

The three leaders said Australia and the UK intended to start building the submarines in their domestic shipyards before the end of this decade. The UK plans to deliver its first boats to the Royal Navy in the late 2030s. Australia’s boats will be built in Adelaide and the goal is to deliver the first locally built SSN to the Royal Australian Navy in the early 2040s. The three leaders stressed that the highest nuclear non-proliferation standards will be applied to each phase of this program.

Estimates of the total cost over the life of the program range from $268 to $368 billion. That includes running and maintaining the boats.

From 2023–24 to 2026–27, the program will cost an estimated $9 billion. Of that, $6 billion will come from funding that had been allocated to the since cancelled French Attack class conventionally powered submarine program.

Over the 10 years to 2032–33, it’s estimated that Australia’s spending on the AUKUS nuclear boats will rise to between $50 and $58 billion. Of that, $24 billion will come from the Attack-class program.

In the longer term, until 2054–55, the government estimates that the SSN program will absorb about 0.15% of Australia’s GDP on average.

The money will include an Australian contribution to the cost of the expansion of the American submarine industry base to enable the US to provide the additional Virginia-class boats for the RAN.

Having industrial capability in all three AUKUS nations will strengthen supply chains and make them more resilient, the leaders said.

The British company Rolls Royce will build the reactors to an American design.

A major hurdle will be finding and training the large numbers of specialised engineers and technicians required to build and maintain nuclear-powered submarines. And each of the new boats will require a crew of about 100. The Collins-class submarines currently operated by the RAN have crews of around 65.

Albanese said the submarine project would create around 20,000 direct jobs for Australians, including engineers, scientists, technicians, submariners, administrators and tradespeople. ‘[T]his investment will be a catalyst for innovation and research breakthroughs that will reverberate right throughout the Australian economy and across every state and territory, not just in one design element, not just in one field, but right across our advanced manufacturing and technology sectors, creating jobs and growing businesses right around Australia, inspiring and rewarding innovation, and educating young Australians today for the opportunities of tomorrow,’ he said.

The process of building up workforce numbers and skills has already begun. Australian naval personnel and civilian specialists are embedded with the US Navy and the Royal Navy and with relevant industrial bases in both countries. Australian submariners joined US nuclear-propulsion training programs last year.

The US Congress has passed a bipartisan provision allowing Australian naval officers to train at Naval Nuclear Power Training Command in South Carolina and eventually to serve on US submarines. The UK is also training some Australian officers on such courses.

Australian personnel already train aboard US and UK submarines and their numbers and seniority will increase as the program progresses.

Australia will send hundreds of workers to US and UK shipyards and scientists and technicians to US and UK technical facilities for specialised training and to gain the experience they’ll need to build and sustain nuclear-powered submarines.

It’s understood that regional nations have been extensively briefed on the AUKUS developments in recent weeks. Australias nuclear submarine program

Last week, US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced the pathway for AUKUS that will deliver nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. Canberra will purchase three to five Virginia-class SSNs from the United States before buying eight newly designed, UK- and Australian-built ‘SSN AUKUS’ subs. The deal outlines new docking, training and rotation agreements that will provide the US with a more robust strategic hub in the Indo-Pacific.

The three leaders have promised that the submarine project will create jobs, educational opportunities and investment for all three countries. While the announcement is welcome in its bold strategic vision, it remains scant on details and does not address the elephant in the room: the weakness in the combined defence industrial capacity to produce so many boats in so little time with so few resources.

Recent discussions about a lack of industrial capacity to support the AUKUS submarine project highlight the continuing difficulties facing the trilateral technology security agreement. Leaders in Washington, Canberra and London all express the will to make nuclear attack submarines a reality for the Australian Defence Force in order to deter China in the Indo-Pacific. But the hard work of building submarines doesn’t happen in the national capitals. Regional, state and local politics and markets—including debates about sourcing of raw materials and development of skilled labour pools—require attention.

Public pressure is the force necessary to untangle the Byzantine knot of regulations frustrating the sharing of classified and otherwise sensitive know-how, and will make or break the program. While platitudes around mateship and the strength and history of the US–Australia alliance sound comforting, the fundamental groundwork to make AUKUS a success will require previously unimagined levels of political and financial investment in the locales where SSNs are designed, constructed and maintained.

As ASPI DC Director Mark Watson noted recently, ‘regardless of the strongly stated political and military support for AUKUS, members of Congress could begin to take a more ambivalent view if it comes at the expense of US operational readiness’, even when the strategic logic is compelling. Moreover, if policymakers don’t provide incentives and benefits—jobs, educational opportunities or tax breaks—to get rank-and-file voters onboard, the American, British and Australian publics will be unlikely to make the necessary sacrifices and investments to see the deal through.

Failure to seek public support among key populations and to explain why AUKUS matters beyond the strategic area of the Indo-Pacific reveals a misunderstanding of what is required. For example, while US congressional committees and Oval Office staffers make key decisions on the future of nuclear submarines for Australia, American taxpayers will, at some point, demand evidence of a return on their investment.

Without that dividend, Australia’s requirement for a long-range submarine capability will remain unmet. And American interests in linking industrial bases and integrating defence supply chains to share the burden of countering China through ‘collective efforts over the next decade’ will founder. US officials, Australian and British diplomats, and supportive strategists and researchers must make these arguments now.

The term ‘subnational diplomacy’ refers to the engagement of non-central governments in international relations and can include the foreign policy efforts of states and cities. We’ve seen negative publicity regarding subnational diplomacy in Australia in the case of the Victorian government’s aborted agreement with China on a proposed Belt and Road Initiative project in 2019. But for countries such as Australia and the US, these sorts of relations are commonplace and generally constructive. As Washington’s prime characteristics are partisanship and a short attention span, it’s no wonder that many promising bipartisan projects falter when campaign seasons begin or when other pressing foreign or domestic issues distract policymakers from following through. A subnational campaign to drive home the importance of AUKUS could help overcome these perennial structural problems.

For starters, entrenching the US–Australia alliance and particular projects associated with AUKUS at a state level can ensure Australia sells the importance of its interests to American voters. Australia has proposed investing $3 billion, mostly in America’s shipyards to expand and expedite production of the Virginia-class submarines. Australian policymakers will need to visit more than just Washington to discover the people who will be front and centre for AUKUS and who will help Australia meet its needs. Sending delegations that include officials and industry representatives from Australian states to boat-building cities in Connecticut and Virginia is a necessary next step.

Engaging on the ground means learning about and dealing with local politicians and community leaders. It also means dealing with labour unions, fabrication companies and the manufacturers of components beyond the nuclear technology that garners so much attention among DC tongue-waggers. State governments hold the purse strings on building new and refurbishing old shipyards or creating tax conditions and tax breaks for AUKUS-related investments. Collaborating with state governments, county officials and mayors will promote a smoother process of getting submarines quickly into the hands of Australian defence personnel. Moreover, robust subnational outreach opens the door to new investment opportunities for American companies and for Australian companies in the US to invest in Australia.

The demand for full-society cooperation and coordination is even more important for the second pillar of AUKUS, which promises cooperation on advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, cyber, quantum computing and undersea capabilities—and in which states such as Arizona, Michigan and Utah may play prominent roles. In these various fields, the private sector is often the lead innovator—and the lead investor. Commercial players working in conjunction with state and local governments is the way to fast-track the development of dual-use technologies and avoid ponderous federal bureaucracies and partisan DC politics.

Selling governors and mayors on the benefits of AUKUS investment—things they already want—coupled with a national security message is smart. Subnational engagement will pay dividends when the time comes for Australia to develop maintenance facilities for the new SSNs or to create new industrial hubs to support integrated AUKUS shipbuilding that combines the industrial bases of all three partners. Australia, too, will need workers, high-tech fabrication yards and access to vital materials. Standard-setting across shops and opportunities for cross-training workers—including apprenticeships connecting specialists in Groton and Newport News and experts in Barrow-in-Furness with trainees in Perth and Adelaide—will be important.

The all-of-country approach needed to meet the strategic challenges facing the US, the UK and Australia is an ‘integrated industrial base’ that benefits all three societies. The SSN AUKUS deal is a welcome step in the right direction. However, if the partners are serious about deterring China, subnational engagement—from the politician to the welder—is imperative. the Washington beltway for why AUKUS matters

When I was Australia’s ambassador to the United States, I visited General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut, one of two yards constructing the Virginia-class submarines. A Virginia was the backdrop in San Diego last month for the three AUKUS leaders’ announcement of Australia’s path to acquiring nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs).

Electric Boat plans increase its workforce by some 6,000, doubling the number of shifts. Hundreds of Australians will join them. Their training will be invaluable to the creation of a sovereign workforce to build and sustain our SSN AUKUS fleet and sustain our Virginias as we receive three to five of them in the 2030s.

As I entered USS Missouri’s control room, the captain asked if I recognised anything. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I am standing in the control room of a Collins-class submarine.’ He revealed that his last sea post had been as an exchange officer in Australia on a Collins. ‘Best I’ve served on,’ he said (obviously, a certain amount of hyperbole for a guest, but a moment of pride for me).

As ambassador it was my job to request US support for our replacement boat. We’d been looking at a Japanese drive system for the Collins, so I sought assistance from the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the chief of the US Navy and the US defense secretary. They were, however, not the go-to authorities for submarines. That was Admiral James Caldwell, director of the naval nuclear propulsion program in the US Department of Energy. The first director was Admiral Hyman G. Rickover (1949 to 1982).

I experienced some testiness from the Americans along the lines of, ‘Get on with it’. They emphatically didn’t want us in the nuclear program and liked having allies with a conventional capability. They were particularly enamoured of the Collins, despite criticism in Australia, and found it virtually impossible to detect on exercises. But their overwhelming concern was to limit access to the nuclear technologies in which they enjoyed global superiority. Over Rickover’s screaming objections, they shared that technology with the British 65 years ago, and wanted to spread it no further. The AUKUS arrangement is strongly supported in the US but runs very much against their nature. Technology transfers will require congressional approval and there will be much work for the embassy.

There’s been a lot of discussion about threats to our sovereignty once we acquire the US-made Virginia SSNs. The Americans have made clear that all facets of their deployment will be under our control. In accordance with the nuclear non-proliferation processes thus far endorsed by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the reactors’ fuelling will be handled by the Americans. Any decision to go to war, or not to, will be solely a matter for Australia’s government.

Until Australia receives its SSNs, British and American boats operating from here will be designated Submarine Rotational Forces—West and will have their own lines of authority. That’s been the case with submarines that have made nearly 300 visits to HMAS Stirling since the early 1980s.

The US–Australia alliance is critical to our survival, and ensuring its effectiveness involves intense work on commonality of systems. We acquire the best of our ally’s equipment. The Australian Defence Force’s strike, intercepting, surveillance and transport aircraft are virtually all American, including the F-35 Lightning IIs, Superhornets, Growlers, Wedgetails, P-8 Poseidons, C-17 Globemasters, C-130 Hercules, Chinooks and Black Hawks. Hardly commented on but huge is the acquisition of 200 Tomahawk missiles likely to be deployed from our submarines and destroyers. In addition, we’ll receive the HIMARS missile system. A sovereign missile capability is being developed through the guided weapons and explosive ordnance enterprise. Exposure of threats in our region is much assisted by our joint intelligence-gathering facilities. Our navy’s sensing and weapon systems are largely American. We don’t feel our sovereign decision-making is curtailed by our need to acquire these weapons and spares. If origin equals sovereignty, we lost it long ago. But of course, it doesn’t.

Despite the US government overriding Rickover’s objections, the British didn’t feel obliged to join the allies in Vietnam. Indeed, until that war the Royal Australian Navy flew the Royal Navy’s ensign. The British objected because they didn’t want our ships mistaken as British. They had an active trade with North Vietnam. Without access to the best American equipment ,we would have virtually no affordable defence. The SSNs will be in continuation.

I strongly support the government’s SSN decision. Ironically, if Sweden’s Saab, which now owns the company that designed the Collins, had been allowed to bid for the Collins replacement, it may well have beaten the French and we wouldn’t be having this discussion. We are fortunate that this opportunity has arisen. Courtesy of Rickover, the nuclear boats are very safe. He was almost paranoid about safety and believed that any accident, particularly in port, would end his program. Our sailors and workers will be trained to the highest level, and the boats will likewise be built to that standard.

Conventional boats are quiet and difficult to detect. Nuclear boats are not as quiet, but they are quiet. The conventional boats are deft lurkers, but they have discretion issues as radars and other detection systems improve. Our Collins boats have two to three days submerged before they must ‘snort’, raising a mast to take in air to drive their diesel engines and recharge their batteries. As they do that, they can be detected. Air-independent propulsion could extend their time deeply submerged, but in a conflict that remains a vulnerability.

When a submarine discharges a weapon, it is exposed. SSNs are fast and can depart very quickly. Conventional boats are not so fast, and they are slow to reach their station. Diesel–electric conventional boats must vacate the deployment area to refuel, and an enemy knows where they do it. Nuclear boats, not so. Their deployment time is influenced by crew endurance and food. Speed gives the nuclear boats advantages in open waters and in discretion close to shore.

As retired Rear Admiral David Oliver, who has operated both types of boats, told the Lowy Institute: ‘Nuclear submarines [close in] have such inherent advantages, in that the ocean is so noisy and layered that sounds pursue odd paths.’ He also argues: ‘Nuclear-powered submarines will give Australia invulnerability. There is no nation or system that can prevent a determined attack by a nuclear submarine.’ The Chinese know this, too, and as they attack the AUKUS program, they are building SSNs at pace.

Our nuclear boats will be expensive—up to $368 billion—which will increase the defence budget by 0.15%. The government has said it hopes to make savings towards them. I would argue that lifting defence’s share of GDP from 2% to 2.15% would be fine. In my day it was 2.3% to 2.5%. We can’t make this long-term program the enemy of what must be done now. This is a government of cautious financial management, but it has prioritised national security. Defence spending is massively outweighed by what we spend on social programs. The National Disability Insurance Scheme, for example, will cost at least four or five times that $368 billion over the same 30-year period.

It will probably take a decade to get our first Virginia-class boat and slightly less than two decades for our first British–Australian-designed boat incorporating much American capability. But it’s a major deterrent. The rotation of allied boats will be much sooner, and that helps. Deterrence, not war, is the government’s objective. Its diplomacy is clearly directed towards that. The suggestion that our sovereignty is impinged on by this, when our total program is considered, is untrue. A massive lift in our military effectiveness is assured. submarines are vital to Australias defence
US Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth said Australia's contribution to the three-way AUKUS agreement, which includes Britain, "doesn't always have to be dollars".

The pact was signed in late 2021 and is seen as a way of countering China's growing clout in the Asia-Pacific region.

Work under AUKUS has so far focused on supplying Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, a fleet capable of travelling stealthily over vast distances and striking foes at long range.

But the pact is increasingly focused on developing advanced capabilities such as long-range precision firing, artificial intelligence and hypersonic weapons.

Wormuth said Australia could be a proving ground for these weapons.

"One thing Australia has in spades is long distances and relatively unpopulated land," she told AFP in a telephone interview from Washington.

"A challenge for us in the United States when it comes to hypersonics or even some of our things like the precision strike missile -- which is not a hypersonic weapon but has very long ranges in some of its increments -- for us to find open spaces in the United States where we can actually test these weapons, it's a challenge.

"Australia obviously has a tremendous amount of territory where that testing is a little bit more doable -- so I think that's a unique thing, as an example, that the Australians bring to the table."

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