Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the origins of a propulsion system, which will include American and British technology.
WASHINGTON — It will take two decades for Australia to operate the nuclear-powered submarines designed and built under a new arrangement with the United States and the United Kingdom, unveiled six months ago.
Even so, a flurry of activity meant to get the undertaking off the ground has already begun, and experts say it’s critical to the program’s long-term timeline that the three countries meet these initial goals.
Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. — or AUKUS — have begun overhauling a submarine-industrial base in Western Australia; designing Australia’s future attack submarine SSN-AUKUS, that will incorporate American and Australian technology into a British attack sub design; and eyeing investments in all three countries’ submarine-industrial bases meant to make them more resilient and tightly interwoven.
“That’s very much the vision,” said Capt. Lincoln Reifsteck, the AUKUS integration and acquisition program manager, “that all three countries become stronger militarily, that we become stronger industrially, that all of us move forward together, and that those partnerships, those alliances, make us all better.”
The countries in March laid out a three-phase plan to achieve these goals. Australia will host American and British submarines out of a base in Western Australia in 2027, helping maintainers there learn to support nuclear-powered vessels. The U.S. will then sell Australia three to five Virginia-class attack submarines in the early 2030s, allowing Australia to start crewing and operating its own interim fleet. Finally, Australia will field a fleet of attack subs specifically under AUKUS in the early 2040s.
“These are aggressive timelines. They should be aggressive timelines; if you’re going to provide your close partners a game-changing capability, you should do this as fast as possible and work as hard as possible to do that,” Reifsteck told Defense News.
Two experts explained to Defense News these aggressive timelines are achievable, but said political pushback is likely the most significant potential obstacle.
Here’s a look at the status of each phase, as well as how Congress is backing the trilateral effort.
Australia is renovating facilities at its HMAS Stirling submarine base to ensure it’s ready to host foreign subs by 2027.
As many as four American Virginia-class subs and one British Astute-class sub will form Submarine Rotational Force-West. They will operate out of Stirling for several years at a time, and their crews will include Australian sailors.
Reifsteck said U.S. Indo-Pacific Command previously committed to sending American attack submarines to port visits in Australia once a year. With AUKUS in place, that will increase to two or more port calls to Stirling each year.
As Australian maintainers become qualified in U.S. Navy standards and procedures, they’ll increasingly use the port visits to participate in small pierside maintenance activities, Reifsteck said.
And as new facilities go up at Stirling to support the nuclear-powered Virginia-class and future AUKUS-class submarines, the port visits will allow for beta tests of the new facilities.
Reifsteck said the port visits can include drills for fires, hazardous material leaks and natural disasters.
As the piers, maintenance facilities and training facilities get built, the workforce at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard in Hawaii will begin training their counterparts at Stirling on American procedures for maintenance and test events.
Bryan Clark, director of the Center for Defense Concepts and Technology at Hudson Institute think tank, said training Australia’s workforce on U.S. nuclear and submarine safety standards by 2027 would be a challenge, but noted there are ways to mitigate this to stay on schedule.
If needed, Australian workers could start with repair tasks unrelated to the nuclear propulsion plant or so-called SUBSAFE components. These more sensitive repairs could be done by American workers in Australia, at repair facilities in Guam or Pearl Harbor, or using a submarine tender sent to Australia until the workforce at Stirling is fully trained.
The U.S. Navy will sell three to five Virginia-class submarines to Australia to give the ally an interim capability while the SSN-AUKUS undergoes construction.
But the state of America’s submarine-industrial base has left some lawmakers uneasy about this piece of AUKUS. The U.S. Navy already has a shortfall of attack submarines, with 49 in the fleet instead of the 66 to 72 required by a 2021 force structure assessment. Those attack subs are also less prepared than the Navy wants, with 33% of the fleet undergoing or awaiting maintenance instead of the 20% the service expects.
The submarine-industrial base plays a role in both problems. Suppliers are struggling to deliver parts on time, and delayed parts can throw off delicate production line schedules as well as delay maintenance for the in-service fleet.
The U.S. government has invested $2.3 billion to strengthen the submarine-industrial base and has committed to spending $1.6 billion more — in addition to a $2.4 billion pledge specifically to bolster submarine sustainment. These combined efforts are flooding suppliers with money and workload, allowing them to invest in the people, facilities and processes to more efficiently produce more parts.
Rep. Joe Courtney, a Democrat whose Connecticut district includes the General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard, wrote a July 27 memo to convince his colleagues that previous investments are making a difference and that continued spending will ensure the submarine sale to Australia won’t hurt the American fleet.
Still, Clark said, this phase is the most at risk of being skipped over.
“It is an open question whether Australia will still want to spend [$3 billion or more] per submarine on SSNs in that time frame, and the U.S. Congress may resist selling ships out of a small inventory of ready boats,” he noted, saying it’s possible the allies may ultimately bypass this interim fleet and wait for the arrival of SSN-AUKUS if both governments cannot overcome the political hurdles.
The U.S. Navy acknowledges AUKUS will put additional strain on the industrial base. Still, it estimates the vendor base will be back on track building American submarines by 2028 and will have additional capacity in the 2030s when it sells submarines to Australia.
Reifsteck said Australia has very sophisticated manufacturing capabilities for certain kinds of parts and could take on work for the collective AUKUS nuclear sub supply system. The three navies are in talks with their sectors to match interests and needs as well as identify the best opportunities for Australian involvement in the collective supply base.
“We’ve started working with the Australians on how we certify our vendors, how we do our quality control, how we certify that a part can go onto our submarine, so that we can quickly identify where the best pilot activities are going to be,” he said, with a goal to “get those parts into Virginia [submarines] immediately and have that industrial base revved up” to support Australia’s Virginia-class and SSN-AUKUS subs.
By the end of this decade, he added, Australian workers at HMAS Stirling could perform maintenance on American submarines and install Australian-made repair parts, as the two countries merge their supply systems.
A brand new boat
Though the first SSN-AUKUS boats won’t hit the water for another 15 years, the design must be done by next year.
A U.K. team is designing SSN-AUKUS. Boats built in the U.K. by BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce will replace the Royal Navy’s Astute-class submarines. Boats built in Australia, with some manufacturing assistance from companies in the U.K., will form the next-generation undersea fleet for the Royal Australian Navy.
The nuclear propulsion system will leverage both British and American technology.
And the combat system and weapons systems will feature much American technology. In some cases, such as the MK 48 heavyweight torpedo, the Australian naval force already uses the American weapon and is familiar with its fire control system, making it an easy decision to include these in the SSN-AUKUS design.
Reifsteck said the British designers are still weighing a few major decisions about which technology to use from which country, seeking to pick the “best of breed” from across their inventories.
Then the U.K. will begin building its first boat later this decade. Australia will follow “very shortly thereafter,” he added.
The U.K. production line will stay a bit ahead of its Australian counterpart, allowing the more experienced workforce to learn lessons about building this new class and share those with the Australian production line. The first U.K. boat should deliver in the late 2030s, and the first Australian boat in the early 2040s.
Despite the early activity, roadblocks remain, particularly for lawmakers to address.
Courtney told Defense News a package of legislative proposals from the Defense and State departments have “really given Congress a to-do list in terms of making AUKUS work.”
The House Foreign Affairs Committee voted 48-0 in late July to support the sale of Virginia-class submarines to Australia. Despite the unanimous vote, there are lingering concerns about further shrinking the size of the American fleet due to this sale — though Courtney said he’s optimistic the measure will be passed into law this year.
There’s also a change to the Defense Production Act that would allow suppliers in the U.K. and Australia to be considered “domestic sources” of materials in the U.S. — a designation from which Canada benefits.
And then there’s the U.S. export control policy, International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR.
“The good news is that the State Department actually did come forward with an ITAR reform plan,” Courtney said, though the House Foreign Affairs Committee narrowly passed a version of this reform along party lines. Courtney called on lawmakers and the State Department to remain engaged and get the reforms passed this year.
Reifsteck said the ITAR reform is primarily important for AUKUS’ second pillar — an agreement for the three countries to share high-end technologies like quantum computing, artificial intelligence, hypersonics, unmanned systems and more — but also has some implications for the submarine collaboration in the first pillar.
Between 1,000 and 2,500 Australian ship maintenance workers will need to come to the U.S. and learn to work on nuclear-powered boats. Several of the legislative proposals, including the ITAR reform and the submarine sale authority, must pass so Australian nationals can train in the U.S. and repair Virginia-class submarines here and in Australia.
Lauren Kahn, a senior research analyst with the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University, praised the AUKUS plan’s consideration of how to “speed up a partner’s preparedness to deal with these capabilities” by focusing on “all the things they can do in the meantime before they have the physical capabilities,” such as building up the workforce, the infrastructure and a cadre of nuclear-trained sailors.
But she also noted the challenge of bureaucracy. Beyond passing ITAR and Defense Production Act reforms, she said there are several ways Congress and the Defense Department need to open up the flow of information and the sharing of technology so the allied navies can seamlessly operate together at sea once the hardware arrives.
Courtney said Congress, even as the AUKUS details were being finalized, passed a measure last year allowing Australian sailors to attend the U.S. Navy’s Nuclear Power School in South Carolina, setting a precedent of Congress allowing Australia access to closely held nuclear propulsion technology. The first three Australian naval officers graduated from the program in July; six more are enrolled, and more were selected to attend the school soon.
Kevin Rudd, the Australian ambassador to the U.S., said during a recent visit to HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding submarine construction yard that AUKUS would be a “very large transformation” with equally large challenges.
Rudd noted the three governments are working “to turn the vision into reality. And that reality requires legislation through the Congress; it also requires active collaboration with the United States submarine-industrial base.”
“These are large undertakings, but our cause is large as well: to sustain the peace and stability of our wider region” in the Pacific, he added.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.