will all be put out of our misery – metaphorically speaking – on Tuesday, Australian time, when the “optimal pathway” for acquiring nuclear powered submarines will be revealed.  This will be in the U.S. west coast city of San Diego by President Joe Biden, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and our own Anthony Albanese, flying in after a visit to India.

The latest rumours have an air of consistency to them, namely that the pathway will somehow involve Australian participation in the next generation U.K. attack class submarine program, currently known as the SSN(R).  Given that this activity might produce a new nuclear-powered submarine by 2050, there are hints that the Royal Navy could sell the last two Astute submarines – yet to be completed – to Australia as gap fillers.

There are several things to be said about this, none of them especially positive.  The first is that the U.S. seems to have effectively pulled out of all of this, perhaps having studied the idea, concluding that there are far too many practical and political obstacles in the way of helping Australia develop its own submarine production capability – which was one of the foundational aims of AUKUS.  The U.S. industrial base is stretched to capacity – and the wisdom of transferring exceptionally sensitive military technology to a small nation with uncertain cyber security credentials is not universally accepted in the Pentagon.

By turning the practicalities over to the U.K. and Australia to work through is actually a win-win.  Washington relieves itself of a technically difficult, time-consuming undertaking – but at the same time President Biden can hold up the deal as evidence of Westminster and Canberra fully committing to the U.S. led anti-China alliance.

At some future point – a very distant one – Australia’s submarines might indeed have a lot of U.S. content in the form of weapons, combat system and sensors.  However, if Australia ends up with two Astutes, they will come with British weapons and electronics, unless they were to be retrofitted – a time consuming and very costly process – which would seem to negate the purpose of the deal.  They will also come with reactors no longer in production because of safety concerns about their design.

Nuclear-powered submarines – just like all other complex systems – require a lot of maintenance for safety and performance reasons.  If Australia has only two of them, it is likely that for some periods of time neither will be available, with the most likely scenario being that a single Astute will be able to put to sea at any given time.  Billions of dollars will need to be spent on a new east coast facility and crews will need to be trained.

If this scenario is correct, the huge winner will be the U.K.  Once again, the colonials – that’s us – will be spending a fortune on British technology, which former Defence Minister Peter Dutton has pointed out is not the best.  The media has reported Sunak jumping for joy and being dizzy with excitement about the announcement – which is hardly surprising given that Australia will be subsidising his deeply troubled budget and will provide some desperately needed retrospective justification for Brexit.

Other reporting has the U.S. also supplying Australia with Virginia class submarines in the 2030s.  However, why Washington would divert submarines intended for the USN is unclear, though if there is a massive ramping up of production capacity it might be possible.  The idea that we would operate two classes of SSNs from two different countries seems strange, to put it mildly.

Let’s hope that the rumours are incorrect because otherwise this is looking like a thoroughly bad deal for Australia.  As well as costing a vast amount of money – tens of billions of dollars – the effect on national security for the next 30 years will be minimal.  There might well be thousands of new jobs created in the U.K., but there will be none here, unless you count pouring concrete for the new base.


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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. Well, you (and others) got that one wrong. Credit where credit is due, 5 Virginias followed by the follow on of the Astute will ensure Australia will have a formidable deterrent in nuclear subs. As in WW2, where the British paid the Americans to keep their factories running 24-7 to ensure the Brits got what they needed, we will pay for the extra manpower (and probably export workers to America as well) to increase production of the Virginias.
    Normally I’m pretty critical of Labor defence policies but this illustrates things are indeed serious for Australia to eventually purchase two types of nuclear subs. Australian Labor government well done.

  2. Reuters’ latest contribution to msm’s pin the tail on the AUKUS donkey circus…

    WASHINGTON, March 8 (Reuters) – Australia is expected to buy up to five U.S. Virginia class nuclear powered submarines in the 2030’s as part of a landmark defense agreement between Washington, Canberra and London, four U.S. officials said on Wednesday…

  3. Ironic AUKUS leak by ‘US officials’ after 18 months of published trepidation about Australia’s ability to keep US SSN technology secrets out of China’s hands

  4. I have to say, that we have been spoon fed America is flat out building for themselves and we definitely won’t get a guernsey “possibly “ until 2050.
    The Astutes are not in production after the contractual obligation for that class.
    We were also told that Australia, the UK and the Us would engage in a common platform, building greater numbers, better pricing and earlier delivery.
    How BS can a koala bear??????.

  5. I’m betting on 5 Virginia class submarines followed by British next generation submarines (not the astute class).

    • You might well be correct, but so far no one has been able to explain why the USN – which is short of SSNs by their own count – would give up a single production slot for Australia, let alone 5.

      • Well from what I’ve heard, US Congress as I understand it are holding up more funding to open up another ship building facility to build 3 or 4 nuclear subs a year – 18months that’s the reason of they’re own delay as what I’ve heard.
        Whether or not that’s actually correct or not, I dont know but I only heard about this I think 2months ago from US media.

        • I’ll see what I can dig up about funding. Opening up a new production line is a huge undertaking that will take many years to achieve. If Australia co-funds that I can’t see what the incentive would be for Electric Boat (or BAE Systems) to migrate that production line to Australia.

          • ASC remains owned by the Department of Finance and I don’t detect any enthusiasm from either Labor or the coalition to change its government-owned status.

          • Well my understanding of it is, Congress have been holding up funding for the 3rd production line since around 2010 if I heard correctly, if funding had been given the green light the USN would be on path to have an extra 5-10 boats in the water already, which we could have maybe used ourselves as well to build our own fleet.

            With these Next Generation Submarines after the Astute one’s, I would like to see them have less manpower in order to acquire more so we are more flexible and have more fire-power to make things a little more challenging for any adversary if at all possible and I only say that because we as a country are small in population and I also think we should cancel the South Korean defence contract to acquire self-propelled artillery and go with the American NLOS artillery for that same reason.

            Yea your right there on the ASC front in terms of both parties not having a little enthusiasm in changing the status both sides tend to lack that, but I didn’t know ASC was owned by the DOF that’s actually quite interesting.

          • Is there any information on who or what would open the additional production line? The current structure is a split build between Electric Boat and HII. Bringing in an additional player will not necessarily help because at the moment EB is the integrator, which is something of a bottleneck. Also manufacturing additional nuclear reactors is no easy task.

            On the Army artillery side of things, I’m a supporter of the K-9/AS-9 capability (the contract should have been signed in 2012, but that’s another long story) but feel free to share your thoughts.

  6. The UK and US both currently have problems keeping up with their own orders. Whilst they might well welcome technology licence fees for their subs, and whilst both countries would love to export subs to Australia, there is a limit as to whether they actually have the manpower to deliver subs to Australia in the short to medium term. Whatever route Australia goes down, a significant number of skilled Australian workers will have to be involved alongside their UK and US counterparts for the simple reason that both the UK and US have acute labour shortages in this area. The long term price of course for Australia is whilst the most skilled jobs may initially go to UK/US workers, Australian workers will be upskilled and in a decade of so, they may well be the people building subs for the US and UK Navies.

  7. Although the industrial and financial arrangements await clarification, the strategic issues appear to be met. The RAN will obtain and operate nuclear powered boats earlier than expected i.e. in the early 2030’s credibly avoiding a capability gap as Collins retire. Obtaining second hand Virginia’s already in service with the USN has the advantage of not depending on the production of new boats which can easily be delayed.

    • That’s correct – but I’m still waiting to hear what the strategic justification is as no one has been able to explain the benefits of being able to conduct extended patrols in the South China Sea. It’s also a looming disaster for Australian industry – I can see no reason whatsoever why either BAE Systems or Electric Boat would transfer construction to Australia at some remote future point.

      • I have “ vivid memories” of good old Turnbull, espousing the merits of Australian ship building entering a “ship building renaissance “, no longer will we have “Valleys of Death” for Australian. Ah, ah yeah, right. It’s hard to believe the past 9 years have been described as the worst political term in living memory.

  8. I’m still a long way from convinced that this will happen at all.
    I see the most likely outcome of this whole story being the upgrading of our infrastructure and the basing of US boats in Australian ports.

  9. I’m with you Kym.

    Reports from various media outlets support my prediction [hyperlinked elsewhere] that Australia will be buying UK SSN(R)s and will build small portions of them in Adelaide, Australia.

    But no one predicted an Australian intention, real or politically imagined, to first buy from 3 to 5 Virginia’s during the 2030s purportedly as “submarine capability gap” fillers. It wasn’t predicted due to all the problems and unlikelyhoods I detail below.

    Australia operating two distinct SSN types may add A$100 Billion (especially in training, spare parts, basing and maintainence complications) to what I already calculated as a A$500 Billion Australian SSN program over 35 years (2023-2058).

    Yesterday’s organised US and UK leaks blaze the PR trial for what President Biden and PMs Sunak and especially our own Albanese will claim at the AUKUS summit in San Diego, on Tuesday, March 14th (Australian time).

    But there are too many problems with a “quick solution” to buy Virginias.

    A good intention to sell Australia Virginias in 10 or more years is a long time in AUKUS politics, where political continuity is essential, but unlikely. Biden will not be President in the 2030s.

    Even before the 2030s there is uncertainty over Biden being re-elected in November 2024. Might a Republican President (at worst the alliance downgrader Trump?) have different priorities, which might include bowing to already expressed USN pressure not to sell Virginias to Australia?

    Biden has simply made a promise he cannot possibly honour during his sitting presidential term.

    The USN being a parent navy that is already reluctant to spare Virginia’s for Australian use spells big problems down the line. The USN, industry and Congressmen have said the US has too few submarines to handle Russia and the increasing commitments against rising Chinese and North Korean submarine threats. Nuclear novice Australian crewman being trained in the USN system might also be seen by the USN as a resource problem.

    The USN already has a long backlog of nuclear subs that need deep maintenance. Australian Virginia’s with major problems like training accident eg. damage from seafloor collisions that are more likely in very fast subs the RAN is unfamiliar with, are likely to languish at the back of the queue, behind USN Virginias that need major work.

    Analysts have already reported it would take 15 years to train a whole Australian nuclear submarine crew. Also a Virginia needs a vastly larger crew of 135 compared to a likely 100 in SSN(R)s and only 58 in our present Collins subs. Even if we bought Virginia’s in 2033 we could not majority crew them with Australians until 2038. This all points to years of reliance on US officers and crewman – something the USN wouldn’t be happy about unless the USN remained de facto owners of “Australia’s” Virginias.

    Another concern is the irrationality of Australia operating US and UK designed SSNs simultaneously. It may well be that after Australia buys 5 Virginias it would make more sense to buy 3 additional Virginias to makeup the complete and final fleet of 8.

    The alternative of building 3 UK SSN(R)s in Adelaide, to make up the 8, just doesn’t make financial, training or operational sense.

    Early Virginias are an Intentionally Unworkable Non-Solution

    It is as if the federal Australian Government, Biden, the USN and US nuclear sub industry have intentionally come up with a solution that the whole submarine building industry in Australia (not only in Adelaide) won’t accept. It is taken as given the US won’t allow Virginias to be built in Australia. But “Build our submarines in Australia”, from the Collins onwards, has always been the essentail requirement for our Australia-wide shipbuilding interests.

    Australian shipbuilding industry and South Australian State Government resistance to Australia buying already built Virginias from US shipyards will be such that Albanese can then honestly claim “Oh well! Then we’ll need to wait for SSN(R)s to be fully designed and built”.

    Therefore Australia’s only real option is to wait until the UK, following its Dreadnought-class SSBN build (which will dominate UK resources until the late 2030s) is ready to build SSN(R)s in the UK and in Australia. For that we are talking much mid-2030s design work, then one or two SSN(R)s laid down in the the UK in about 2039 and maybe the first Australian one laid down in Adelaide in 2042. Commissioning of that first Australian SSN(R) may be 2047.

    These are time spans so distant that the Albanese government cannot be held to account during the current Parliament and even the next. The Albanese government will be long gone before about 2035 when Australia will need to start tooling up for SSN(R) production.

    • Thank you for that very detailed contribution. Everything that you have written is perfectly logical. I’ll add on a quick hypothetical – in 2032 (or whenever) if the Head of the Joint Chiefs says to the US President “we need all of the submarines under construction for our national survival”, does anyone believe for a second that the ones Australia has paid a fortune for would actually be handed over?

    • What I find fascinating about this response (and others) is what is the alternative? If you read between the lines that both major political parties are embracing nuclear subs should surely illustrate that maybe they know something that others don’t. That is, the threat from China and other instabilities is far worse than imagined. Both sides of politics have the same view which is Australia cannot afford to wait 20 years for a British submarine that isn’t even on the drawing board.
      A line in the sand has been crossed and decisions have been made that the Anglo countries (aside from Canada and New Zealand) have decided to form an alliance to threats that are not imaginary or delusional. Whilst everyone (including the author of this article) can contemplate how, why, what and when Australia and her allies will meet a clearly aggressive China with a more robust defence force, something needs to be done and quick. Sitting around navel gazing or singing “Kumbayah” is no longer an option.

      • I’m not at all opposed to an increase in Defence spending – on the contrary – but there’s nothing wrong with a healthy debate about the best way to spend hundreds of billions of dollars. I’ve written this numerous times over several years but even now no one can give me the justification for being able to carry out extended operations in the South China Sea. Submarines? Sure – the more, the better. But there are plenty of other ways to employ them than just off the coast of China, which by 2040 are likely to be total no no areas because of sea floor sonar arrays, Chinese UUVs and so on.

  10. As Australia’s fate collides with the stratospheric costs of SSN fleet diversity in the AUKUS HEU Twilight Zone, the allegedly insurmountable issues spat at the LEU reactor of French Barracudas (state of the art vessels, extensively automated to require almost identical crew size to the Collins) fade into obscurity.
    I wonder if the potential peril of sustained, deep belly laughter has necessitated the wearing of incontinence aids in China yet…

  11. We must no lose sight of what the prize really is, and that is for Australia being able to design and build submarines. Australia needs the technology pathways,training and infrastructure which is obviously what is proposed. ASC is more than capable of designing subs for Australia. The accommodation of nuclear propulsion will possibly be a separate entity yet to be incorporated into the digital shipyard.

    • ASC should be supported 100% by Govt and be the Australian partner, and not subsidiary of any deal moving forward. Only then will we be able to stand on our own two feet and contribute evenly down the line.

  12. There is also another country who can build very good nuclear submarines and were ok to share technologies and knowledge with Australian.
    Oh yeah.. France.

    • No they can’t and the fact you need to pull them out of the water every 10 years to refurbish their nuclear reactors adds another layer of what is already going to be a challenge.

      • And ? Routine overhauls pull EVERY submarine out the water for lenthy spells. U.S. SSN require several periods of intensive maintenance during their service life. The US Navy’s 4 shipyards are experiencing long delays—sometimes as long as several years—in performing maintenance on subs. Overhauled Virginias have returned to operations almost nine months later than expected, on average; Los Angeles class have taken four and a half months longer than scheduled, on average, to return to the fleet. As a result, subs miss deployments alltogether or have their deployments shortened. These ongoing delays have reduced the number of subs the US can put to sea.
        Condemning the few weeks it takes France to refuel the Barracuda’s LEU reactor (or 2-4 months when coupled with deep maintenance) is patently absurd in light of the US Navy’s chronic refit issues destined to affect Australia.

          • 3-4 months to refuel a French LEU SSN Reactor, including deep maintenance? Not remotely true unfortunately Gents.
            On average, all of the RN SSN’s, Valiants, Churchills, Swiftsures and Trafalgars would be in Dockyard hands for approximately two and a half years whilst undergoing Deep Refit/Refuel at Devonport, Plymouth, in the UK (same for Chatham and Rosyth). I know, because I worked there as a Fitter/Turner for over twenty years, including a stint in the Reactor Section carrying out shorter refit period work. I couldn’t even begin to describe adequately how time consuming and complex the overall process is. And that is not even taking into account the actual manufacture of the replacement core components, hugely complex in itself.
            You make it sound as easy as popping into Supercheap-Auto, picking up a 5L carton of LEU, before whipping off the filler cap and pouring it in.
            To be fair of course, I have not worked in a French yard, but what do you reckon, 3-4 months still sounding feasible?

          • Thank you for the information – it’s great to hear from someone who has worked on a nuclear-powered submarine. I’ve been on board a couple, but have never had the opportunity to poke around in the innards.

            I’m glad you qualified your comments about not having worked on a French submarine because their process for LEU refuelling is said (by them) to be highly automated and it takes only a couple of weeks – which I realise sounds stunning but that’s what Naval Group and others associated with the process say. I have been trying to get more detail on that but it’s all very hush-hush. However, you are absolutely correct that a lot of other things are done at the same time and the refuelling + other maintenance realistically is about 6 months duration. That’s still a big improvement on the 2 years (and more) that you mention for early generation submarines. I have a great deal of respect for French engineering and when you combine all of their civil and military expertise they know what they are talking about. Unlike the British, they developed their own solutions and decided some time ago to focus on LEU for propulsion. China is following the same technology pathway.

        • A few weeks, wow! That is impressive but including that they will need to go onto the other side of the planet every time they need a “top up” as I said adds another layer to what is already a complicated process. In conclusion, what I stated in the first piece I wrote appears to be the way that the AUKUS alliance has decided to move so the conjecture on what will occur is now final.

          • Rubbish, Australia can refuel LEU reactors today, our abundant supply of uranium means not only could Australia have built the Barracuda, we could’ve developed the industry to refuel its LEU reactors, the technology of which is forecast to deliver identical life cycles to that of weapons grade HEU reactors by the 2040s.This outcome would not only have quelled the legitimate concerns of regional neighbours like Indonesia & Malaysia, but sunk China’s proliferation hypocrisy.

            Official Reports to Congress on HEU Fuel Alternatives
            In a July 2016 report to Congress, the Office of Naval Reactors stated that, “Having the option to use an LEU fuel system could have positive implications from a national security standpoint by creating a practical alternative to HEU reactors…The advanced LEU fuel system concept has the potential to satisfy the energy requirements of an aircraft carrier without affecting the number of refuelings.”
            In a November 2016 report, the JASON science advisory panel added that it might be possible to use LEU fuel also in future attack and ballistic missile submarines, stating that, “This scenario achieves the nonproliferation goal of eliminating use of HEU, and it could do so in the 2040 time frame.”


  13. There’s certainly been a wide range of extrapolation on ‘leaks’ that have surfaced over the last several days. My thoughts are a little closer to making sense of what has been said rather than expanding on what hasn’t.
    In order to achieve an operational capability in the earlier part of the 2030’s Australia will need to source boats from somewhere else. I think we’re all on agreement that Australia can’t build its own in that time.
    The UK are approaching the end of the Astute build with no option in extending it. They have Dreadnought underway. So the only other option apart from the French is the Virginia.
    One thing with the Virginia that many have said is that it is too big and holds a different mix of capabilities to those that Australia is likely seeking. I.e. the US are packing the newer build Virginia’s full of strike capability, likely much more than Australia and even the UK are seeking. Enter one of the most recent leaks, that Australia will acquire ‘up to’ 5 in service older block Virginia’s. Given they are smaller and don’t have the full raft of capabilities of the soon to be built blocks, this probably suits Australia more. They will be cheaper, especially for an interim capability, come with the familiar combat and weapon systems, and for the US, they will be replaced by the newer, bigger and more capable later blocks versions. Linking this to the leak regarding Australia contributing to the US production line upgrade tells me that that extra boat per year that the US may be able to build, will hopefully/likely offset the older boats the US may sell to Australia.
    Given the larger crews of the Virginia, you obviously would not be able to crew 8 straight up, so then don’t buy that many at first. As the SSNR comes online and depending how it’s been planned, the Virginia’s would likely return to the US for decommissioning and recycling if they are by then at the end of their lives. The transition between Virginia and SSNR would be no different, but maybe smoother than the transition from Collins to an SSN.
    Moving on to the SSN(R). I think people are over speculating that we will eventually operate Astute. Let’s move on from that in that the next UK boat is the SSN R. Based on commentary to date, the Astute is smaller and more aligned to a hunter killer than the newer block Virginia’s. My take is this is far closer to what Australia likely wants. With Australian participation in the UK program, we will likely puch to ensure that it has a strike capability better than current Astutes, but short of the massive Virginia. It will also make the new class more feasible, especially if the UK can be convinced to adopt the US combat system and maybe weapons, or at least new common designs.
    Moving to SSNR production, I would ecpt that first of class would be built in the UK, like the Type 26, but with the ability for all Australia’s boats to be built in Adelaide. What would be beneficial is that a joint supply chain split between both countries supporting each other and the two production lines. Building Australian boats in the UK would likely upset the drumbeat the UK has where they build a batch of attack boats before switching back to boomers and so forth.
    The US contribution to all of this will be powerplant tech, combat system, weapon systems, maybe raft of other systems, crew training, build training and the likelyhood of establishing maintenance facilities in Australia that could serve Australian boats and well as US and UK boats for ad-hoc maintenance and potentially deeper work that the US is struggling with. This would help make the Aukus sub program a multi faceted capability spread across two classes with common attributes.
    I would hope out of all of that is that Australia becomes a significant 3rd member of a SSN alliance where design production, training and maintenance aspects are all as common as possible.

    • Thanks for that detailed post – I can’t fault your logic. However, a couple of things continue to bother me – apart from the truly gigantic cost of this undertaking is: a) the absence of any strategic justification that I can see; and b) what happens if a reactor has a fault? We won’t have the expertise to fix it. Does the submarine stay tied up until a team from the U.K. and/or the U.S. arrives with the necessary equipment to fix it? If so, that looks like an enormous strategic risk.

      I fear that our politicians, along with big sections of the media, are dazzled because nuclear submarines are awesome. Their speed is awesome. Their range is awesome. They can stay submerged until all of the food has gone and the crew start to eat each other. I don’t see a great deal of thought being put into this.

  14. My prediction. RAN will buy the unwanted final 2 Astute class with hired RN-heavy crews, and run down the Collins in order to crew them, then get in line for the new RN boats. USN will announce short-term basing of Virginia class in Australia until the new boats are ready. UK will increase production facilities to make their new SSBN and joint SSN. No Australian local content other than the food the crews will eat. And everyone will pat themselves on the back.

    • Something along those lines wouldn’t surprise me either. It’s hard to believe that the U.S. will sell Australia any of the Virginia class because they don’t seem to have any spare, and their operational demands are increasing. That only makes sense if they massively increase production capability – perhaps partially funded by Australia – but that will take many years to achieve.


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