When the creation of AUKUS was announced a little more than a year ago on September 15, 2021, we were told the pathway to acquiring a nuclear propelled submarine would be conceptually straightforward. Most importantly, there was an early ‘in principle’ decision that this would not be a bespoke design but rather a simple choice between the US Virginia class or smaller Astute SSNs from the UK.
As numerous people have written, but which the Australian nuclear submarine task force has not acknowledged – at least not publicly – is that it is likely to be neither. The one that can definitively be ruled out is the Astute. As the British themselves have stated, after the delivery of the seventh and final vessel – at a date yet to be decided – that’s it. No more Astute class, particularly since their PWR2 reactor went out of production more than ten years ago partly because of safety concerns about the design.
The situation with the USN Virginia class production line is somewhat clearer, but that doesn’t necessarily help Australia. The program of record is for 66 of them to be constructed, but the actual number is likely to be less than that as the USN transitions to the as yet unnamed SSN(X) is in the 2030s. Because of the complexity of introducing a submarine into service, even if construction of the new class begins in 2035 it is unlikely to enter service before the early 2040s.
To date 22 Virginias, which need a crew of 132 officers and sailors, have been delivered by two shipyards – Electric Boat (EB) in Connecticut and Huntington Ingalls (HI) in Virginia. The first of class, USS Virginia, was built by lead yard EB and launched in August 2003. Since then, production been staggered with submarines delivered at a rate of one or two per year. The design has progressively updated and the current configuration is the Block V variant, the first of which is still under construction.
The US industrial system seems fully loaded and it is not at all clear how capacity could be found to build additional Virginia class submarines for Australia – let alone transfer the technology and provide the necessary supervision for constructing them at Osborn in Adelaide. For complex things such as submarines, long lead time items – for example the nuclear reactors – are often ordered a decade in advance.