With AUKUS nuclear submarines, Australia joins the exclusive club

  • The United States, United Kingdom and Australia recently announced a pact designed to strengthen the ties and capabilities of their armies.
  • A central element of the pact is the commitment of the United States and the United Kingdom to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines.
  • These submarines will take years to arrive, but when they do, Australia will be one of the few countries to have them.

In September, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States announced a trilateral security pact aimed at strengthening their defense ties. Their leaders stressed that it was not aimed at another country, but that it is widely seen as a way to counter China.

The central element of this pact is the sharing of advanced technologies and cooperation in the development and procurement of weapons. What does stand out, however, is the commitment of the United States and the United Kingdom to help Australia acquire eight nuclear-powered submarines.

The move is historic. The United States has only shared nuclear propulsion technology once – with the United Kingdom in 1958. This will also place Australia in a very exclusive military club.

Only six other countries operate nuclear powered submarines. The US, UK, France, India, Russia, and China have built their fleets for decades and now include a number of classes with distinct missions.

Nuclear-powered missile submarines

Sailors on the deck of the Navy submarine USS Alabama

Sailors on the deck of the US Navy guided-missile submarine USS Alabama in the Pacific Ocean, June 17, 2021

US Navy / Petty Officer Josue Escobosa

The largest and most feared submarines today are nuclear ballistic missile-launching submarines, classified as SSBN.

They can sail deeper and faster than conventionally powered submarines. They also carry large nuclear payloads and stay submerged for months, making them effective second strike weapons.

The US, UK, France, and India each operate a single class of SSBN.

The 14 of the US Navy Ohio class SSBNs can carry 24 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), while the Royal Navy’s four missiles Vanguard class can carry 16.

Both Marines use the Trident II SLBM. Each Trident II has a range of 4,600 miles and can carry multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), dramatically increasing the number of warheads on each missile.

The four French navies Triumphant class boats carry 16 M45 Where M51 SLBMs, which can carry up to six and 10 MIRVs, respectively. The range of the M45 is approximately 3,700 miles and that of the M51 is 4,900 miles.

Russian ballistic missile submarine Borei Yury Dolgoruky

Russian Navy Borei-A-class ballistic missile submarine Knyaz Vladimir arrives in Gadzhiyevo on July 3, 2020.

Lev Fedoseyev TASS via Getty Images

india Arihant class has four silos capable of launching, i.e. 12 K-15 Short-range or eight-to-medium range SLBMs K-4 SLBM. The K-15 has a range of 460 miles, while the K-4 has a range of 2,170 miles.

India plans to have a total of four Arihant SSBNs by 2030. One is in service and the second is expected to be in service next year.

the four of China Type 094-class boats can carry 12 JL-2 SLBM. Each of these missiles can carry three to eight MIRVs and would have a range of between 4,500 and 5,500 miles. Two more Type 094s are under construction, the US Department of Defense said in 2020. China also has a former Type 092 SSBN, although it’s probably only used for testing.

The Russian Navy has the most diverse SSBN fleet: a Typhoon class, a Delta Class III, six Delta IV, and four of the new Borei class.

Each Borei-class submarine can shoot 16 RSM-56 Boulava SLBMs, which can carry up to 10 MIRVS and are said to have a range of around 5,000 miles. Russia plans to have 10 Boreis in service by the end of the decade.

Nuclear attack submarines and cruise missiles

Ohio Navy Submarine Conversion SSGN

The USS Ohio is converted to a guided-missile submarine at the Puget Sound Shipyard in Washington, March 15, 2004.

US Navy / Wendy Hallmark

Nuclear-powered attack and cruise submarines – designated SSN and SSGN respectively – cannot carry ballistic missiles, but they are just as important.

SSNs can hunt and kill enemy ships and submarines, and both types can attack targets deep inland with cruise missiles.

US Navy operates three types of SSN: the Los Angeles, Seawolf and Virginia classes.

The Los Angeles class is the oldest, and 28 are still active. They have four torpedo tubes, and later versions come with 12 vertical launch systems (VLS) for cruise missiles.

The Seawolf class was developed at the end of the Cold War and is designed for sensitive missions. It is also heavily armed, carrying up to 50 torpedoes or cruise missiles that it can fire from its eight torpedo tubes.

The Virginia class is the newest and 19 are now active. They have four torpedo tubes and 12 VLS tubes for 37 torpedo-sized weapons. Future BlovskV Virginias will have even more VLS tubes, increasing their armament to 65 torpedo-sized weapons.

Four of the US Navy’s Ohio-class SSBNs were converted to SSGN in the 2000s. Each can now carry up to 154 cruise missiles.

British Royal Navy submarine HMS Triumph

A submariner affixes the HMS Triumph nameplate as the Trafalgar-class submarine returns to Devonport on April 2, 2011.

Royal Navy / PO (Phot) Angie Pearce

Both of the Royal Navy Trafalgar Class attack submarines have five torpedo tubes, while the newer Smart class the boats, four in number, have six tubes. Both can fire torpedoes and cruise missiles and can carry 30 and 38 torpedo-sized weapons, respectively.

The five of France Ruby class and single Suffren class SSNs also rely on their torpedo tubes – four and eight of them, respectively – to launch torpedoes and missiles.

The Chinese six Type 093-class SSNs each have six tubes capable of firing torpedoes and cruise missiles. They are considered the most powerful attack submarines in China, and some can now be fitted with VLS tubes.

Like its SSBN fleet, Russia’s SSN and SSGN fleet is large and diverse, comprising two Sierra Class, Three Class Victor III, and 10 Akula class SSN, as well as eight Oscar II class and two Yasen class SSGNs.

In 2019, India OK to rent one of the Russian Akula-class SSNs for $ 3 billion. It will be the third Russian SSN leased by India and is expected to be delivered by 2026.

The Australian nuclear submarine

Royal Australian Navy submarine HMAS Collins

Australian lawmakers during a boat transfer to the Collins-class submarine HMAS Collins on September 8, 2021.

Royal Australian Navy / CPOIS Damian Pawlenko

Australia’s future nuclear-powered submarines will not be SSBNs, but not much else is known about them.

Australia can select one of the existing American or British models – most likely the Virginia class or the Astute class. Adopting an existing design would allow construction to start relatively early.

Australia could also wait for the British SSN (R) or US SSN (X) programs to develop and adopt any of these models, although it will take more than a decade for either to hit water.

Australia can also pursue a completely new concept, developed at the national level, with only the technical help of the British and the Americans.

Canberra has made it clear that it wants most of its future submarines to be built in Australia. It was a reason Australia’s sub-deal with France failed.

But it’s unclear how much of the work the US and UK will cede to Australia, or whether Australia can develop and build such a complicated system at the national level. The six Australians Collins Class submarines were designed in Sweden, and some were partially built there.

Regardless of how they’re built, new submarines will take a decade or more. Admiral at the head of the country’s nuclear submarine task force Recount lawmakers in October that he wants “at least one boat” in the water by 2040.

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