In a tripartite deal with the US and the UK, Australia has unveiled a plan to acquire a fleet of up to eight nuclear-powered submarines, forecast to cost up to $368bn between now and the mid-2050s. Australia will spend $9bn over the next four years.
From this year Australian military and civilian personnel will embed with US and UK navies, including within both countries’ submarine industrial bases. From 2027 the UK and the US plan to rotate their nuclear-powered submarines through HMAS Stirling near Perth as part of a push to step up training of Australians.
Increased Chinese naval power and assertiveness – particularly in the South China Sea – has convinced the Australian government that it requires submarines capable of operating far from home bases, both as a deterrent and for attack capability in the event of a crisis. The current fleet of Collins class conventional submarines are expected to lose their edge from the 2030s.
Nuclear-powered submarines have a distinct advantage over the diesel-electric boats of Australia’s fleet because they don’t need to surface to “snort” to recharge their batteries. Nuclear subs can leave port and stay underwater for weeks, avoiding detection.
Embedded personnel and port visits: Australian military and civilian personnel will embed with the the allies’ navies. US nuclear-powered submarines will increase their visits to Australian ports, with Australian sailors joining US crews for training.
Submarine rotations: From 2027 the UK and the US plan to rotate one UK Astute class submarine and up to four US Virginia class submarines through HMAS Stirling.
Sale of US Virginia-class submarines: From the early 2030s – pending approval by Congress – the US intends to sell Australia three Virginia-class submarines, with a potential option for two more if required.
SSN-Aukus: A combination of UK submarine design and US defence technology will contribute to the development of the new SSN-Aukus submarine – intended as the future attack submarine for both the UK and Australia. Both Australia and the UK intend to start building SSN-Aukus submarines in their domestic shipyards before the end of this decade. The first such boat may enter into UK service in the late 2030s, but the Australian navy will receive its first Australian-built SSN-Aukus submarine in the early 2040s.
Australia will begin construction works on the shipyard required to build nuclear-powered submarines in Osborne, South Australia, this year.
Joe Biden said the three nations stood at an “inflection point in history” argued that in “forging this new partnership, we’re showing again how democracies can deliver, how our own security and prosperity and not just for us, but for the entire world”.
The US president stressed – repeatedly – that the submarines that will be part of the Aukus deal will be “nuclear-powered, not nuclear-armed”.
“Australia is a proud non-nuclear weapons state and it’s committed to stay that way. These boats will not have any nuclear weapons of any kind on them.”
Australia’s prime minister said the Aukus plan marked “a new chapter” in the relationship between Australia, the US and the UK.
“The Aukus agreement we confirm here in San Diego represents the biggest single investment in Australia’s defence capability in our history,” Anthony Albanese said.
Without directly naming China as a source of concern, Albanese said the plan reflected a shared determination to ensure all countries could “act in their sovereign interests free from coercion”.
China responded to the announcement by saying the nuclear submarine cooperation plan was “a blatant act that constitutes serious nuclear proliferation risks, undermines international non-proliferation system, fuels arms races, and hurts peace and stability in the region”.
“The irony of Aukus is that two nuclear weapons states who claim to uphold the highest nuclear non-proliferation standard are transferring tons of weapons-grade enriched uranium to a non-nuclear-weapon state, clearly violating the object and purpose of the NPT [non-proliferation treaty],” China’s mission to the UN tweeted.
The nuclear reactors that will power the SSN-Aukus submarines will not be built in Australia. They will arrive from either the UK or US in a welded power unit and will not require refuelling during their expected lifetime.
Australia has said it will not enrich uranium or reprocess any spent fuel from the submarines. But it has committed to managing all of the radioactive waste generated by the submarines within Australia.
“This includes radioactive waste with lower levels of radioactivity generated by day-to-day submarine operations and maintenance,” a government fact sheet says. “And radioactive waste with higher levels of radioactivity, including spent fuel, which is produced when submarines are decommissioned at the end of their service life.”
No decision has been made on the location yet.
Nuclear non-proliferation concerns
The Aukus scheme is the first time a provision in the 1968 nuclear non-proliferation treaty has been used to transfer fissile material and nuclear technology from a nuclear weapons state to a non-weapons state.
Paragraph 14 allows fissile material utilised for non-explosive military use, like naval propulsion, to be exempt from inspections and monitoring by the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. It makes arms controls experts nervous because it sets a precedent that could be used by others to hide highly enriched uranium, or plutonium – the core of a nuclear weapon – from international oversight.
James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said there was “real and concrete harm done” to the non-proliferation regime.
“My fear was never that Australia would misuse that fuel, but that other countries would invoke Aukus as a precedent for removing nuclear fuel from safeguards.”
The Winner of the 2017 Nobel peace prize, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said Australia’s decision to buy and build nuclear-powered submarines was both a major proliferation risk and could be seen internationally as a precursor to Australia acquiring nuclear weapons.
Ican urged Australia to sign the UN treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons: the ban Ican has championed and to which 68 states around the world are now a party. The Australian government counters that it has no intention of seeking nuclear weapons, and adds: “The nuclear fuel Australia receives cannot be used in nuclear weapons without further chemical processing, requiring facilities that Australia does not have and will not seek.”
The Australian government estimates the nuclear submarine program will need 20,000 jobs over the next 30 years, within the ADF, the domestic ship-building industry and the public service. The government forecasts 8,500 will be directly employed in Australia’s building and servicing of the submarines, including scientists, engineers, project managers, construction workers, electricians, fitters and builders.
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