parariWhen 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.

This is an excerpt from APDR. To read the full story click here.


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Kym Bergmann is the editor for Asia Pacific Defence Reporter (APDR) and Defence Review Asia (DRA). He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism and the defence industry. After graduating with honours from the Australian National University, he joined Capital 7 television, holding several positions including foreign news editor and chief political correspondent. During that time he also wrote for Business Review Weekly, undertaking analysis of various defence matters.After two years on the staff of a federal minister, he moved to the defence industry and held senior positions in several companies, including Blohm+Voss, Thales, Celsius and Saab. In 1997 he was one of two Australians selected for the Thomson CSF 'Preparation for Senior Management' MBA course. He has also worked as a consultant for a number of companies including Raytheon, Tenix and others. He has served on the boards of Thomson Sintra Pacific and Saab Pacific.


  1. If only France was a logical choice silver bullet. But the French nuclear submarine building sector is under the same limitations as those of the US and UK. That is limited, very difficult to train and find nuclear sub engineering employee resources. Also all 3 countries are fully committed with the new SSN and new SSBN building requirements of their own navies.

    In the case of France after 15 years 1 Barracuda SSN has been fully completed with 5 more to go – last being “Casabianca” maybe ready by 2031. Then 4 x 3rd generation SSBNs need to be fully designed, started and completed – typically a 15 year project – out to the mid-late 2040s.

    UUVs offer hope much sooner and cheaper, maybe for 80% of a submarine’s capabilities.

    A Christmas Island Base would of course need to be defended by resident aircraft and surface warships, all taking up limited space and perhaps with a support population of a Darwin sized city.

    • I certainly agree with on a number of points, especially the capacity (lack thereof) for anyone to suddenly be able to churn out nuclear submarines for Australia – or any other foreign customers, for that matter. Also about the enormous capabilities of UUVs. They are fairly impressive now and one can only speculate about how potent they will be in 20 years time. I think the issue for many defence planners is whether to defend Christmas Island at all – but it would be a superb peacetime facility.

  2. Pete

    France has a bit more spare capacity I think. They are now on a two year drumbeat for the Suffrens and finish the last in 2031. The second was launched last year. They then build the four SNLE 3G SSBNs on a five year drumbeat, with the first now in progress and commissioned in 2035 and the last in 2050. That leaves plenty of time in between.

    By comparison BAE UK is building Astutes till 2028, four Dreadnoughts on a two year drumbeat from now till 2038 and SSNRs starting around 2035. The USA is building 12 Columbias till 2041 plus 2 or 3 Virginias per year plus SSNXs starting around 2040.

    UUVs still need a “mothership” to be data linked to.

    • Thanks – that’s a useful summary of production. Regarding UUVs and the mothership concept – that is something that has always puzzled me. Why not pass the data back to a person back on land and leave the crewed submarine out of the equation completely?

      • Kym
        Sorry you are correct UUV data does not have to go back to a sub. It depends on the conops.

        Unless large the UUV does need something to launch it and/or recharge it.

        A lot of UUVs are tending to be deployed from subs.

  3. Hi Scott (your 06/11 comment)

    Unfortunately (regarding France’s SSN and SSBN programs, the opaque nature of a shortage of skilled labour and SSBN design schedule) we Australians suffer from a lack of access to clear information.

    From the last French SSN being finished in 2031 to the first French 3G SSBN being launched in (say) 2032 to permit “commissioned in 2035” this does not, in fact, “leave plenty of time in between.”

    But yes, after the late 2040s France might then have “plenty of time” to help Australia design a successor class to France’s current SSN class.

    • I wonder if the dynamic is improved by factoring in all of the work carried out on the Attack class – which was a nuclear-propelled Barracuda SSN down designed for Australian needs (at the time). I’m sure Naval Group are still licking their wounds but it would be interesting to find out how quickly they could construct a nuclear powered submarine in Australia.

      • Yes. Naval Group’s knowledge of Australia’s Combat System (sensors, weapons and database) needs for the Attack-class might possibly be carried over to an Aus Barracuda SSN build. Thus saving time and some costs if Barracuda SSNs were built in Australia.

    • I would agree that at this point there is no point the RAN going back to French SSKs. Apart from the political embarrassment, there is no advance in capability to justify the wasted years.

  4. The Guardian 17/9/21
    In the competitive evaluation process for the project, Naval Group (then DCNS) was pitching a conventional version of its existing nuclear submarines, but made it clear nuclear versions were on offer.
    Chief executive, Herve Guillou, said in 2016 that “if Australia wants a nuclear submarine, they can design a nuclear submarine”.
    Earlier reports suggested Australia could switch to nuclear as early as 2030, and that the French option was initially chosen because it could switch to a nuclear version.
    Peter Dutton said they had considered the French version alongside the US and the UK options, “We looked at what options were available to us. The French have a version which was not superior to that operated by the US and the UK,”
    Of course lest we forget, post election, Dutton claimed he could have secured two US SSN’s by 2030, a preposterous falsehood exposed by US Admiralty AND Republicans.
    Macron’s recent nuclear remarks were nothing more than cynical last poke at Morrison, buttering up Xi Jinping (and other regional opponents) during the G20.
    If the Albanese government was prepared to eat some more humble pie & weather the storm of acting in Australia’s best interests rather than America’s, Macron would sell Australia 8 nuclear Barracudas in a heartbeat.

    • Thank you for that – excellent post. It is also worth remembering that the Barracudas would be coming with a US combat system and US weapons – Mk 48 heavyweight torpedo, etc.

  5. Indeed, can’t fathom how it’s acceptable to fit classified US combat systems into foreign vessels, but not HEU reactors. China is on the cusp of seizing regional hegemony, while US, UK and French proprietary obstinance prevents the creation of an urgently needed allied SSN force multiplier.


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