23 March 2024

ASC and BAE Systems confirmed to build and sustain Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines

| Andrew McLaughlin
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Schapps & Marles

UK Defence Secretary Grant Schapps and his Australian counterpart Richard Marles in Canberra for the AUKMIN talks yesterday. Photo: ADF.

ASC and BAE Systems have been chosen as Australia’s Sovereign Submarine Build Partner and ASC will be its Sovereign Submarine Sustainment Partner for the nuclear-powered Virginia class and follow-on SSN-AUKUS submarines.

The announcement of the build and sustainment partners is described as a critical step in Australia’s nuclear-powered submarine ambitions.

Australia will initially operate between three and five US-built Virginia class submarines from 2032, before switching to the next generation of British-designed but Australian-built SSN-AUKUS submarines from the early 2040s.

The SSN-AUKUS submarines will be built in a new purpose-designed shipyard at Osborne in Adelaide, with up to 5500 workers directly employed on the build program. The nuclear reactors will be built in the UK by Rolls-Royce, and shipped to Australia for installation on the SSN-AUKUS boats at Osborne.

Sustainment of both classes will be conducted at Osborne and at HMAS Stirling in Western Australia, including for UK and US submarines through the Submarine Rotational Force-West arrangement in the AUKUS construct.

READ ALSO US budget and industrial capacity woes threaten Australia’s AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine ambitions

ASC and BAE Systems will initially form a collaborative arrangement ahead of a longer term incorporated Joint Venture to build the submarines.

A Defence statement says this Joint Venture will establish an enduring partnership between ASC and BAE Systems to bring together and leverage the unique and complementary capabilities, skills, expertise and resources of the two partners to deliver Australia’s SSN-AUKUS submarines.

BAE already has extensive experience in building nuclear submarines for the UK’s Royal Navy and will transfer that knowledge and expertise to Australia. ASC built and currently sustains Australia’s six Collins class submarines.

The Commonwealth will hold sovereign protection rights in relation to the governance of the Joint Venture to preserve Australia’s national interest in the build program.

On top of the $4.53 billion Australia will invest in US submarine shipyards to bolster their workforces and supply chains, Australia will also invest a further $4.6 billion in the UK’s shipyards and nuclear rector production facilities to solve similar issues there.

SSN AUKUS submarine

The next-generation SSN-AUKUS submarines will be built by an ASC-BAE Systems joint venture at Osborne in Adelaide. Image: ADF.

Like the US’s problems building sufficient Virginia and Columbia class boats, both the UK’s current Astute attack submarine and Dreadnought nuclear missile submarine programs have also suffered from delays due to supply chain issues in recent years.

The Sustainment Partner decision recognises ASC’s long history and expertise in the sustainment of submarines in Australia, and leverages its established workforce and supply chain network.

The passage of the US’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) through Congress in December 2023 effectively allowed the transfer of technology, skills and knowledge to Australian industry for the sustainment of nuclear-powered submarines, and also authorised Australian workers to sustain US submarines.

Australian workers from ASC and other companies will be embedded within the US Navy’s Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard to train on sustainment of US submarines, and will also provide sustainment support for UK and US submarines through Submarine Rotational Force-West from 2027.

READ ALSO New strategy aims to build sovereign defence industrial base

Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles said significant progress has been made in the past 12 months under AUKUS.

“Today’s announcement is another step forward by the Albanese Government to deliver Australia’s conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines,” he said.

“At the heart of today’s announcement are Australian jobs and a pipeline of work for local Australian industry as we deliver on the commitment to build and sustain submarines here in Australia – and create a sovereign industry and workforce.

“In establishing a joint venture between ASC and BAE to build Australia’s future nuclear-powered submarines, it places the Australian government and the Australian public around that table in an enduring way and an unprecedented way,” Mr Marles added.

“It reflects the fact that this is not a normal procurement. We are not going off to a shop to buy an item. This is a partnership between three governments which is intended to last forever.”

The UK’s Defence Secretary Grant Schapps – currently in Australia with UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron for the annual AUKMIN talks – said the AUKUS submarines were going to be an important part of Indo-Pacific security.

“Nuclear-powered submarines are not cheap, but we live in a much more dangerous world, where we are seeing a much more assertive region with China, a much more dangerous world all around with what is happening in the Middle East and Europe,” he said.

“Countries need to invest in making sure that adversaries see we are serious about our security, defending freedom of navigation for example.”

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