• Credit: BAE Systems
    Credit: BAE Systems

The Australian government has announced a joint venture between the Commonwealth-owned ASC and BAE Systems Australia to build nuclear submarines for the Royal Australian Navy.

The start of construction is well over a decade away but Defence Minister Richard Marles said he saw long lead time components for Australia’s first SSN-AUKUS under construction during a recent visit to the Rolls Royce reactor plant at Darby, UK.

Under the deal set to be announced in Adelaide on Friday morning, ASC – previously the Australian Submarine Corporation – and BAE Systems Australia will build the first of the new SSN AUKUS nuclear attack submarines in Osborne, South Australia, beginning in the late 2030s.

As well, ASC will be the government’s nuclear-powered submarine sustainment partner, developing a skilled workforce to support visiting US and UK nuclear submarines which will rotate through Western Australia from 2027.

ASC will also support Australian Virginia-class nuclear submarines acquired from the US when they enter Australian service early next decade.

The Australian Submarine Agency said selecting ASC as the sovereign sustainment partner would ensure our industrial base could lift and expend to meet existing Collins sustainment requirement and prepare for sustaining nuclear powered submarines.

In a joint media statement, Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles, UK Secretary of State for Defence Grant Shapps and US secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin said formation of these strategic industry partnerships was a significant milestone in the AUKUS endeavour.

“SSN-AUKUS is being trilaterally developed, based on the United Kingdom’s next generation design and incorporating technology from all three nations, including cutting edge United States submarine technologies,” they said.

BAE is the UK’s longstanding submarine constructor, building Astute-class nuclear attack submarines and Dreadnought-class nuclear missile boats for the Royal Navy.

Last October, the UK government announced that BAE, along with Rolls Royce and Babcock would build SSN-AUKUS boats for the RN.

So it’s little surprise that BAE Systems Australia would be selected to build SSN-AUKUS for the RAN.

BAE Systems Australia is currently building Hunter-class frigates for the RAN. The company also owns ASC Shipbuilding which was separated from ASC in 2018.

ASC built Australia’s six Collins-class submarines over the period 1990-2003 and has since sustained the Collins boats in service.

The UK submarine programs are running well behind schedule, raising questions about their ability to deliver on the AUKUS agreement.

Shapps said after the end of the Cold War, the world moved into a much more relaxed state, with falling defence spending in the UK and elsewhere.

“You can’t carry on doing that. We recognised that a number of years ago and we have been increasing our defence budget,” he told reporters at a press conference following the signing of the new Australia-UK security agreement,

“We are now committed to raising it to 2.5 pr cent. We have started to recapitalise. We are recapitalising on submarine production in a very big way.”

Shapps said the Rolls Royce plant at Derby which produces reactors for UK and Australian submarines would be doubled in size while there would be a huge investment in BAE shipyards at Barrow.

He said the Dreadnoughts was the UK’s most significant national program “bar nothing.”

“We absolutely are putting the time, energy and a lot of money into that now. Working with partners is also a great way to also help. You get the pressure to get it done,” he said.

Marles said the first SSN-AUKUS would completed in the early 2040s.

 “Some people look at that as being a long way into the future but it is a challenging timeframe and we are really mindful that every day between now and then counts,” he said.

Marles said the government was aware of the stretched industrial base in the UK and US and that was why Australia agreed to make a financial contribution to the industrial bases in both countries.

To that end, Australia is making a GBP2.4 billion contribution over 10 years to expand production at the reactor factory in Derby to meet Australian requirements.

Marles and Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy said a strong defence industry and workforce was important not just for Australia but for building more robust and resilient supply chains for AUKUS partners.

To that end, the government launched the Defence Industry Vendor Qualification Program was launched in January to prepare local companies to contribute products to US and UK submarine supply chains.

In the first wave, 26 companies, comprising primes and SMEs, are working towards producing products across four families for the US supply chain.  The second wave, starting mid-year will aim to qualify suppliers for the US and UK supply chains.

The government also announced new pilot initiatives through the Skills and Training Academy with traineeships in non-destructive testing, welding aptitude testing and short term trainer placements in the US to develop an understanding of training requirements.

With the passage of the US Defense Authorization Act, restriction on presence of non-US nationals in their shipyards have eased, opening new opportunities  for training of Australians in the US.

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