What is AUKUS?
The UK began its concept phase of the Astute class replacement in 2018, and the government committed to funding the project, then called SSNR, in 2021. Its purpose was to build upon developments in the Astute, which had been designed in 2001 and was nearing the end of its lifecycle. One major addition is the planned use of a vertical launch system for land-attack missiles, making it the first British nuclear submarine to do so.
The program was renamed in March 2023 when it was announced the US and Australia were joining. In short, the submarines would incorporate American technology, and Australia plans to acquire and build eight of them as part of the plan. Like the Astute class, its Collins class submarines are nearing the end of their lifecycle.
Currently, it’s planned that the first model will be built in the late 2030s, with delivery planned for the early 2040s. The timeline covers one delivery every three years, meaning the final submarine will be built by 2063.
The UK’s Role in AUKUS
The UK’s role in the project is fairly significant. The SSN-AUKUS submarine will feature a Rolls-Royce pressurised water reactor and will be built (in the UK, at least) by BAE Systems in Barrow-in-Furness. BAE is also involved in the development and construction of the Dreadnought class and won an £85 million contract for the Astute’s replacement.
Australia is a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency but is a non-nuclear weapon state. This means it won’t produce nuclear fuel for its submarines. Instead, the UK and the US will provide nuclear fuel in ready-welded units that won’t need to be refuelled within their lifetimes.
While the concern surrounding Australia’s use of nuclear fuel is low, this is an important point to state because of international nuclear agreements. The sealed units mean the fuel can’t be accessed and also reduces the amount of spent fuel produced and fresh fuel stockpiled, which is a common environmental concern.
Alongside work on the actual submarines, the UK will provide naval training to Australian submariners. Australian military personnel will embed themselves in the Royal and US navies to prepare them for the future rollout of the SSN-AUKUS.
Starting in 2027, too, the UK and US will rotate their current fleet through HMAS Stirling, an Australian naval base located in the Indian Ocean. Again, the main purpose will be training, but these submarines will likely serve as visual deterrents too. By the time the first SSN-AUKUS submarines are commissioned in the 2040s, Australia should have highly trained personnel ready to crew them.
What Does This Mean for the UK?
From an economic perspective, the AUKUS deal will obviously be a great benefit to the UK. Although Australia’s submarines will be built at its base, the UK will benefit from contracts and training.
But more importantly, the deal means far more clearly defined relationships with some of the UK’s closest allies. In the face of potentially greater international threats, this will be far more valuable than money.