The Virginia-class fast-attack submarine USS New Hampshire (SSN 778) returns to port at Naval Station Norfolk, May 7, 2021.

The Virginia-class fast-attack submarine USS New Hampshire (SSN 778) returns to port at Naval Station Norfolk, May 7, 2021. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Alfred A. Coffield

Biden Unveils Plans for New Australian-US-UK Submarine

The plan also calls for Australia to buy three American-made Virginia-class submarines, with options for two more.

Updated: 5:05 p.m. March 13.

Australia will buy at least three American-made nuclear-powered submarines and co-develop a new class of submarine with the United Kingdom under what is being called one the most significant military pacts in a generation.

Monday’s announcement by President Biden adds detail to the 2021 AUKUS agreement between Australia, United Kingdom, and United States. The moves, officials say are not just aimed at countering China’s military buildup and attempts to restrict ship movements in international waters, but also North Korea and Russia.

“It will involve a level of sensitive sophisticated technological cooperation that is almost without precedent,” a senior administration official said ahead of the announcement.

So far, the U.S. has only shared submarine technology with the United Kingdom. Under AUKUS, Australia will purchase three Virginia-class submarines, with options for two more. The subs are manufactured by General Dynamics’ Electric Boat and HII’s Newport New Shipbuilding.

At the same time, Australia and the UK will develop a new submarine, called SSN AUKUS, that “will be a state-of-the-art platform that uses the best of U.S., UK, and Australian technologies,” according to another senior administration official. “SSN AUKUS will be based on the United Kingdom design for its next-generation nuclear-powered attack submarine and it will incorporate critical cutting-edge Virginia-class technologies from the United States.”

If everything remains on schedule, the U.K. will build and deliver its first SSN AUKUS to the Royal Navy by the late 2030s, the second official said. Australia would finish building its first submarine in the early 2040s. None of Australia’s submarines will carry nuclear weapons.

The orders will test submarine makers who in recent years have dealt with a fragile supply chain and struggle to attract and train workers for bespoke specialty jobs that require years of specialized training.

“This is going to require significant improvements in industrial bases in all three countries,” the second official said.

In late 2021, the Biden administration authorized use of the Defense Production Act to help get workers and parts to build Virginia-class submarines. The Pentagon’s 2024 budget proposal, sent to Congress on Monday, includes money to shore up the submarine suppliers. 

The U.S. Navy’s portion would include $4.6 billion “for production and for maintenance over the next five years in our submarine industrial base,” a third senior administration official said.

Australia will be “making a substantial contribution to the U.S. submarine industrial base,” the official said.

In addition to the submarine purchases, U.S. and UK submarines will increase their port visits to Australia beginning this year. Australian sailors will increasingly embed on U.S. and UK submarines, as well as attend nuclear-propulsion schools. Australian workers will soon be in U.S. shipyards. Australia this year will also be building submarine infrastructure to house its own submarines and the visiting American and British ones.

The plan is that by 2027, U.S. and UK submarines will establish a formal arrangement for such operations, to be called Rotational Forces West.

“This rotational force will help build Australia's stewardship,” the second official said. “It will also bolster deterrence with more U.S. and UK submarines forward in the Indo-Pacific.”

AUKUS “will increase the trust and confidence of the other nations in the region regarding the U.S. and U.K. commitment—especially the US commitment,” said David Berteau, a former Pentagon official who is now CEO of the Professional Services Council. The increased U.S. and UK port visits is significant, said Berteau who, while at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2012, co-authored a report calling for bringing Australia into the nuclear attack submarine business. “It complicates Chinese thinking, which has a huge deterrent effect, it helps prevent war,” he said.

As well, he said, having the U.S. and UK rotating submarines through Australia regularly reduces the pressure to deliver Australia’s first submarine.