Confirmation yesterday that as part of the AUKUS trilateral agreement between the USA, Australia and UK that the three nations will deliver a trilaterally developed submarine based on the UK’s next generation SSN submarine design, incorporating technology from all three AUKUS partner nations and that both the UK and Australia will build and operate, agreement in respect of the UK SSN-AUKUS based design being chosen is fantastic news for the many companies in the UK that will be involved in the years ahead and where the first SSN AUKUS nuclear submarines will be built. Construction is expected to start before the end of the current decade.
A conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine or ‘SSN’ – this next generation submarine design is to be based on the UK’s world-leading next generation submarine design and which had been marked in September 2021 by MOD awards to both BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce in order to begin the process of designing a new class of Hunter Killer submarines that will eventually take over from the current class of in-service/in-build Astute SSN submarines.
Designing what will be the most advanced submarine in the world takes time, investment and considerable effort and as I recall being said at the time of the initial contract award in 2021, – Designing and building submarines is one of the most complex and challenging feats of engineering that the maritime industry undertakes and it is essential that work on the next generation underwater capability should commence at the earliest opportunity. commences as early as possible.
BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce have considerable expertise in nuclear powered submarine design and propulsion systems – BAE Systems being responsible for design and construction of the next generation Aukus SSN and Rolls-Royce at Derby having responsibility for nuclear powered reactors.
What was announced in the US yesterday is also the next stage of what in September 2021 formed the basis of a trilateral agreement signed by the Governments of Australia, the USA and UK in order to support Australia acquire a conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine or ‘SSN’ – a partnership called AUKUS and that in respect of responding to the increasing level of challenges faced in order to secure long term peace and stability, will in my view be seen to be one of the enduring successes to have emerged from the current generation of allies.
Following an 18-month scoping period in order to establish the optimal pathway to Australia acquiring SSN (Ship Submersible Nuclear) propulsion capability, confirmation that the model chosen for the Australian Aukus SSN design will be based on the UK’s next generation design whilst also incorporating cutting-edge US submarine technology, is a huge win for all three nations involved.
For the UK – in particular for BAE Systems at Barrow in Furness, Rolls-Royce in Derby, the many thousands of highly skilled employees of both companies and supply chains will lead to the creation of many additional highly skilled jobs required in order to build the next generation AUKUS SSN’s for both the UK and Australia. The ability for industry to plan and see forward in submarine design and production over the next twenty-years is very important in ensuring the maintenance of the skill-set required. What took place in the US yesterday and was signed by the leaders of all three AUKUS members marks an extremely important moment in the industrial history of companies involved just as it also does for all three AUKUS signatory nations.
The plan outlined yesterday is based on both Australia and the UK building ‘SSN-AUKUS’ submarines with construction of the UK’s submarines for the Royal Navy taking place in Barrow-in-Furness. Separately, Australia will over the next decade build up its own sovereign submarine industrial base with the intention of building its SSN-AUKUS submarines in South Australia with some of the major components such as the nuclear reactors being manufactured in the UK by Rolls-Royce Submarines.
The first UK submarines for the Royal Navy built to the SSN AUKUS design are intended to be delivered in the late 2030s in order to replace the current Astute-Class vessels, the first of which had now been in service for ten years.
The first Australian SSN-AUKUS submarines will follow in the early 2040s. These submarines will be the largest, most advanced and most powerful attack submarines ever operated by the Royal Navy, combining world-leading sensors, design and weaponry in one vessel.
Of this important agreement Charles Woodburn, CEO of BAE Systems said;
“The AUKUS agreement will further enhance and deepen the relationship between the UK, US and Australia. The selection of the UK’s next generation submarine design is a significant development in that partnership and is a testament to the skills, commitment and ingenuity of everyone involved in both our submarine business and the wider UK submarine enterprise. We employ more than 10,000 people in our Barrow-in-Furness shipyard delivering the Astute and Dreadnought submarine programmes for the Royal Navy and we are extremely proud to be selected as a major partner in this historic endeavour which will ultimately enable Australia to acquire its own sovereign nuclear-powered submarine fleet. As a key player in the Australian maritime enterprise, we also look forward to working with the Australian government to explore how we could potentially provide additional support to this important tri-national programme through our business in Australia”.
This massive multilateral undertaking will create thousands of jobs in the UK in the decades ahead and it builds on more than 60 years of UK expertise designing, building and operating nuclear-powered SSN submarines. As the home of British submarine building, most of these jobs will be concentrated in Barrow-in-Furness with further roles created elsewhere along the supply chain, including Rolls-Royce in Derby.
Derby based Rolls-Royce submarines which will provide the reactors for Australia’s nuclear- powered submarine said that the agreement will see thousands of jobs created by Rolls-Royce and across the UK supply chain. The company already employs more than 4,000 people and designs, manufactures and provides in-service support to the pressurised water reactors that power every boat in the Royal Navy’s submarine fleet.
Steve Carlier, President of Rolls-Royce Submarines said:
“We are delighted to be asked to play our part in delivering this element of the AUKUS Agreement and are well prepared to support through our nuclear expertise and engineering excellence. For over 60 years we have provided the power to the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarines and we are proud to be playing a critical role in helping Australia acquire their own nuclear propulsion submarine capability. This is great news for Rolls-Royce and for the country as a whole with the creation of more UK jobs and an opportunity to showcase British innovation and expertise on the world stage. Rolls-Royce is currently supporting the existing Astute and Dreadnought boat build programmes through the delivery of reactor plant and associated components. Additionally, it provides frontline support across the world for reactor plant equipment from its Operations Centre in Derby and supports the submarines when in the Barrow-in-Furness shipyard and the naval bases at Devonport and Faslane. To ensure a steady pipeline of future talent into the industry, Rolls-Royce last year opened a new Nuclear Skills Academy in Derby, which will provide 200 apprenticeships each year for at least the next decade”.
Choosing an interoperable submarine design will also allow the Royal Navy, with its Australian and US navy counterparts, to work very closely together in order to meet shared threats and deter aggression. This includes in the Indo-Pacific and where yesterday’s announced ‘Integrated Review Refresh’ confirmed that the Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ was now a permanent pillar of the UK’s international [defence and security] policy.
Of the AUKUS SSN submarine agreement UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak said:
“The AUKUS partnership, and the submarines we are building in British shipyards, are a tangible demonstration of our commitment to global security. The partnership was founded on the bedrock of our shared values and resolute focus on upholding stability in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. And I am hugely pleased that the plans we have announced today will see pioneering British design expertise protect our people and our allies for generations to come.”
As I had mentioned in yesterday’s ‘Commentary’, in announcing the Integrated Review Refresh the Foreign Secretary confirmed that an additional £5 billion will be provided to the MOD over the next two years in order to fund and support a number of areas including modernising the UK’s nuclear enterprise and funding the next phase of the AUKUS submarine programme. This will be followed by sustained funding over the next decade to support the SSN-AUKUS programme and will build on the £2bn invested last year in the UK’s Dreadnought-class submarine SSBN programme and that will replace the four current Vanguard class submarines that currently form and operate the UK’s ‘Continuous At Sea Nuclear Deterrent’ capability.
Construction of the UK’s SNN-AUKUS submarines is expected to start towards the end of the current decade. Decisions about how many submarines the UK requires [in order to replace the currently in operation or build 7 Astute class submarines] will be made in the coming years and will, we are told, be based on the strategic level of threat envisaged at that time.
As already mentioned, the UK’s SSN-AUKUS submarines will be built by BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce. Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace added “Supporting thousands of jobs across the UK, with many in the north-west of England, this endeavour will boost prosperity across our country and showcase the prowess of British industry to our allies and partners.”
In respect of other detail announce to accompany yesterday’s AUKUS SSN agreement signing, in order to deliver the new submarines by the earliest possible date, Royal Australian Navy personnel will be embedded with both the Royal Navy and US Navy, and – subject to necessary arrangements, by the end of this year at both British and US submarine industrial bases. This process will accelerate the training of Australian personnel required for them to operate a submarine fleet.
The importance of members of all three US, UK and Australian armed forces training and working together is nothing new but it remains a vital part of interoperability-based strategies. Having prematurely stood down Nimrod capability and in order to maintain our ability to operate a multi role maritime patrol aircraft capability ahead of receiving Poseidon MRA1 capability here in the UK, Royal Air Force personnel were for many years deployed to the US Navy to operate on their Poseidon capability. The same is also true of RAF personnel currently working with members of the Royal Australian Air Force on their E-7 Wedgetail aircraft and which the UK is currently acquiring in order to replace the prematurely withdrawn Sentry E-3D capability that had formed the UK’s Airborne Early Warning and Control capability since 1992.
US submarines will also increase port visits to Australia from this year whilst it is intended that the UK will now increase the number of SSN submarine visits to Australia 2026. UK and US SSNs will also make longer term deployments to Australia from as early as 2027 in order to accelerate the development of Australia’s workforce, infrastructure and regulatory system.
As part of the agreement, to fulfil Australia’s need for a nuclear-powered submarine until the SSN-AUKUS is operational, the US intends to sell Australia a number of Virginia-Class submarines in the 2030s.
The approach that has and is being taken by all three AUKUS partners has included extensive engagement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, with all countries committed to developing an approach which protects classified information and strengthens the global non-proliferation regime.
CHW (London – 14th March 2023)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785