The senior commanders of the Royal Australian Navy have disclosed the hard details related to Australia’s trilateral AUKUS nuclear acquisition deal on submarines with the US and the UK.
These details, which came up under stringent questioning in parliamentary defence budget hearings, have ramifications for the US Navy’s submarine capability.
Nearly two years after the unexpected September 2021 trilateral declaration that the US and the UK would collaborate to assist Australia in acquiring and field a next-gen nuclear-powered submarine fleet, major plans for this program have come up in a Senate Estimates hearing in the Australian capital of Canberra on 30 and 31 May.
Under very intense and often hostile interrogation from Jacquie Lambi, the upper-house, cross-bencher Senator, the Australian head of the Nuclear Powered Submarine Task Force of the Royal Australian Navy disclosed several ‘known unknowns’ of Australia’s AUKUS nuclear submarine mission.
This included the timings and configurations for the introduction of the initial three attack submarines of the Virginia class, the number of follow-ons nuclear-attack AUKUS-class submarines to be developed in a co-development contract with the UK, and the intended strength of Australia’s future nuclear submarine fleet.
Two Virginias would be transferred to the Royal Australian Navy. Then, they would purchase one off the production line, Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead, the Head of Nuclear Powered Submarine Task Force, Australia, informed the panel of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Legislation Committee in formal evidence following repeated interrogations from Senator Lambi.
The allocations of submarines to be transferred to Australia are yet to be chalked out by the US and Australia, Vice Admiral Mead mentioned in response to questions.
However, they are looking at submarines with more than 20 years of service life.
The “20 years of service life” refers to the submarines’ potential operational hull life following their transfer from the US Navy to the RAN around 2032, as disclosed in a joint statement in March by US President Joe Biden, British PM Rishi Sunak, and the Australian PM Anthony Albanese.
Armed with Mead’s revelation of the 20 years’ of service life of the first-ever transferred Virginia, the reactor service life, and the US Navy’s published Virginia class entry and build into the service timeline, Senator Lambi was pressing the commander regarding which Virginia-class configuration block was Australia in constant negotiation with the US Department of Defense for transfer from the US Navy.
Mead responded that they are looking at the Virginia Blocks III or IV. Mead’s identification of the Virginia class Block III/Block IV as the production configuration of the two SSNs that are expected to be transferred to the Royal Australian Navy appears to reduce the targeted US Navy submarines to one, possibly two, SSN-774 Block III boats (SSN-791 USS Delaware that was commissioned in April 2020, and relatively less likely SSN-790 USS South Dakota that was commissioned in Feb 2019) and 10 Block IV boats, of which, only three have been in service since April 2020. Seven additional Block IV Virginias are currently at different stages of production or in US Navy or contractor sea trials much ahead of entering service. This is based on the info available now and is subject to change.
Mead presented all the information in a hearing before the Australian Senate but was silent on some of the topics that would be termed confidential. Per experts, the US and Australia may agree to stay silent on which two boats from which Blocks would be getting transferred to Canberra.
These are the things Mead decided to disclose to the Senate. However, there are unclear things that trouble the general public. For instance – until now, both the US and Australia believed that the Virginia-class submarines should establish Australia’s capability once it decommissioned its eight AUKUS-class submarines and Collins-class fleet were built. Yes, but no.
Per Mead, Australia will develop eight nuclear submarines, three of which will be the Virginia class, meaning that Australia will not construct eight submarines belonging to the AUKUS class but five.
For now, until one more claim emerges. And it did appear.
Per sources, if Australia can’t build the AUKUS-class submarines, and if the planning reflects that they cannot be ready operationally by 2050, the US will sell more Virginia-class submarines to Australia. It is unclear how many submarines of the AUKUS class Australia will eventually come up with. An Amazon deal for the local economy is being squeezed through the fingers of Australia’s government.
Such a possibility exists since the current government cannot make each decision right now. Mead emphasized the same — how many submarines will be supplied by the US and how many will be constructed in Australia is a crucial decision that the future governments will make.
The 2021 cancellation
BulgarianMilitary.com recalls that Australia cancelled back in 2021 the deal with France for constructing submarines worth $40 billion, one of the main reasons for Australia’s desire to produce components, parts, and configurations for them.
However, following the statements before the Senate, this is likely not working out in the new AUKUS deal.
Among the general public, the AUKUS alliance started being referred to as the NATO ver.2.0. Even earlier in 2023, Britain sent out a proposal that Japan and India be part of the AUKUS alliance, taking into consideration the expanding fleet of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy.
The proposal came from Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the defence committee of the British Parliament. The agreement, which aims to empower Australia to build its nuclear submarine fleet with technology transfer from the UK and the US, was signed in 2021 on 16 September. Even though China wasn’t mentioned in the deal, the three countries’ emphasis on rising regional security concerns has resulted in comments that the cooperation is a deal that aims at balancing the military power of Beijing in the region.
References: Yahoo! News, The Drive, Bulgarian Military
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