Australia scraps existing French submarine deal in favour of new nuclear-powered submarines

Australia Future Submarine - Naval Group

In a move that surprised many, leaders from Australia, United Kingdom, and the United States announced a new trilateral security partnership called “AUKUS” on 15 September, with the first initiative being an ambitious plan to co-develop a nuclear-powered submarine fleet for Australia.

The nuclear submarine initiative signals an end to Australia’s contract with French shipbuilder Naval Group for 12 new Attack-class submarines – originally based on a bespoke diesel-electric powered version of the company’s Barracuda/Suffren-class nuclear submarine design customised to suit Australia’s unique operational requirements – to replace the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN’s) ageing Collins-class submarines.

“As the first initiative under AUKUS, recognising our common tradition as maritime democracies, we commit to a shared ambition to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy,” a White House joint leaders’ statement said.

The nuclear-powered submarine development project will start with an 18-month consultation period to assess every aspect of the effort which the leaders stressed will be outfitted with non-nuclear weaponry.

“Today, we embark on a trilateral effort of 18 months to seek an optimal pathway to deliver this capability,” the statement added. “We will leverage expertise from the United States and the United Kingdom, building on the two countries’ submarine programmes to bring an Australian capability into service at the earliest achievable date.”

The RAN issued its own statement on 16 September, describing the procurement of nuclear-powered submarines as one that would enable it to respond more rapidly to potential threats and better protect its interests and regional allies.

“Nuclear-powered submarines have superior characteristics of stealth, speed, manoeuvrability, survivability, and almost limitless endurance, when compared to conventional submarines,” the RAN said. “They can carry more advanced weapons systems and also no requirement for refuelling for the entirety of the boats’ life.”

“We must have the most capable technologies in order to respond to growing security challenges in our region, so that we can continue to contribute to our shared security objectives in the Indo-Pacific,” it added.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the new submarines will be built in Adelaide in close cooperation with the United Kingdom and the United States.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson noted that the UK, US, and Australia will be “joined even more closely together” as a result of being some of the few navies that are able to field such capabilities, adding that the project will create “hundreds of highly skilled jobs across the United Kingdom”

US President Joe Biden revealed that he has tasked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to direct the effort with the assistance of the US Department of Energy and State Department, with every detail scrutinised in the coming months to ensure that the necessary safeguards and measures in place for such technology to be applied safely and effectively.

However, the decision spells the end of ongoing efforts to build the 12 Attack-class diesel-electric submarines in Adelaide under a contract signed in 2016.

In March, Naval Group announced that it had committed to maximising Australian content the design and build of the Attack-class submarines under the existing Strategic Partnering Agreement. It had planned to increase its Australian workforce employed in Adelaide to 2,000 by the end of the decade and spend at least 60% of the contract value on local content. More than 120 Australian companies have already registered their interest with Naval Group to become tier-one capability partners in the programme.

Other international industry partners that would have worked on the submarines would have included Lockheed Martin (lead integrator), Babcock (weapon discharge) Jeumont Electric (main electric propulsion equipment design), Schneider Electric (main DC switchboards), and Thales (flank sonar array).

Meanwhile, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that Australia’s future nuclear-powered submarines will not be allowed to enter New Zealand waters, citing the country’s existing and long-standing ban on nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed vessels from using its ports or territorial waters.

by Jr Ng