MELBOURNE, Australia — The Australian government has established a Future Nuclear Submarine Task Force which will work with U.K. and U.S. counterparts over the next twelve to eighteen months to determine the best way to acquire the boats.
While a specific type of nuclear submarine is yet to be determined, likely candidates would appear to be either Britain’s Astute-class attack submarine or the U.S. Virginia-class vessel. Construction is slated to take place locally at Osborne in South Australia.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, U.S. President Joe Biden and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson jointly announced the formation of a new tripartite alliance known as AUKUS on Thursday (local time), under which the first initiative will to build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy.
Morrison also announced that a previous $90 billion (US$65.88 billion) contract Australia holds with France’s Naval Group for the construction of 12 conventional submarines, which were to have been known as the Attack class in Royal Australian Navy’s service, has been terminated.
A decision on the final number of new submarines is expected to be made by Canberra during the upcoming analysis phase.
“We intend to build these submarines in Adelaide, Australia in close cooperation with the United Kingdom and the United States,” Morrison said, “But let me be clear: Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability and we will continue of meet all our nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”
The change to a nuclear-powered boat in lieu of the conventional submarine Australia was designing in conjunction with Naval Group and Lockheed Martin Australia (for the Combat System) was made as a result of the meeting between the three leaders at the G7 Summit held in the UK in June, during which the AUKUS alliance concept was formulated.
The decision is understood to have been brought about by the deteriorating security environment and rapidly evolving military technologies in the Indo-Pacific region, and it is enabled by new technology which allows Australia to build nuclear-powered boats that do not require a supporting civil nuclear industry.
Australia has spent around AU$2.4 billion (U.S. $1.76 billion) on the Attack-class design so far, but the additional cost of terminating the current contract is yet to be negotiated. The projected cost of the new future nuclear submarine has also yet to be determined or announced.
In a statement following Thursday’s announcement, Naval Group described the Australian decision a “major” disappointment. “Naval Group was offering Australia a regionally superior conventional submarine with exceptional performances. A sovereign submarine capability making unrivaled commitments in terms of technology transfer, jobs and local content,” the company said.
“For five years, Naval Group teams, both in France and in Australia, as well as our partners, have given their best and Naval Group has delivered on all its commitments.”
The company said an analysis of the consequences of the decision will be conducted with the Commonwealth of Australia in the coming days.
The deputy secretary for the national naval shipbuilding program, Tony Dalton, told Defense News that “the decision to not proceed with the Attack Class Submarine Program was driven by a consideration of the strategic circumstances and the impact this has on Australia’s submarine capability requirements.”
“It was not related to the performance of Naval Group or Lockheed Martin,” Dalton added. “Over the coming months, the Department will conduct negotiations with both Naval Group Australia and Lockheed Martin Australia to reach a fair and equitable agreement to wind up the Attack class submarine program. "
The change of heart is likely to mean the Royal Australian Navy’s Collins-class submarines will now remain in service, in diminishing numbers, until the late 2040s. The six Collins boats will cycle through a further Full Cycle Docking (FSD) activity and Life of Type Extension (LOTE) program to ensure their effectiveness until withdrawal. The scope of the LOTE upgrade has not been made public, but an announcement by South Australian Premier Steven Marshal Thursday revealed the work will also be done at Osborne.
Nigel Pittaway is the Australia correspondent for Defense News.