Two Thirds of Australia’s AUKUS Nuclear Attack Submarines Will Be Second Hand From America

Following confirmation that the Australian Defence Ministry would invest in acquiring nuclear powered attack submarines with support from the United States and Britain as part of the AUKUS strategic partnership in September 2021, it has been revealed that the Royal Australian Navy will receive three Virginia Class attacks submarines from the United States. Of these two will be provided second hand from the U.S. Navy. Head of Australia’s Nuclear Powered Submarine Task Force Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead informed the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Trade Legislation Committee panel regarding these plans: “Two Virginias would be transferred to us [Australian Navy] and then we buy one off the production line… The exact allocations of submarines that would be transferred to Australia is still to be determined by Australia and the U.S. But we are looking at those submarines having over 20 years of service life.” A third Virginia Class ship will be “bought off the production line.” American shipyards are reportedly set to build 66 Virginia Class submarines, although since construction began in 2000 only 22 of the ships have been completed with six more currently under being built. This has raised questions regarding how selling on two of its older Virginia Class ships will affect the combat potential of the U.S. Navy itself until these can be replaced. The ship class began development in the late Cold War years to bridge performance gaps with new generations of Soviet submarines. 

Provision of nuclear powered attack submarines to Australia, which has also considered acquiring American B-21 Raider strategic bombers, has been widely seen as a measure to strengthen the country’s ability to contribute to Western Bloc efforts to militarily contain China and North Korea. The ships will have significantly greater endurances than diesel electric ships such as the indigenous Australia Collins Class, allowing them to operate for considerably longer periods at a time in the South China Sea or in Northeast Asia. They will by some estimates allow the Royal Australian Navy to maintain deployments in Southeast Asia for 77 days at a time compared to just 11 days for diesel electric submarines. The partnership has raised widespread concerns in Beijing and Pyongyang as well as across much of Southeast Asia, with speculation widespread that Australia could eventually enter into a nuclear sharing agreement to provide the submarines with an offensive nuclear strike capability. Submarines are seen as a valuable asymmetric asset to tackle larger more sophisticated surface navies, and are thus considered an optimal asset for Australia and the United States which are both at serious risk of being tremendously outgunned in a potential conflict in East Asia.