Australia to Build Eight Nuclear Submarines Based on Virginia-class Block V

A rendered image of the Virginia-class Block V attack submarine, which is destined to change undersea warfare. Photo by General Dynamics Electric Boat.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced on Thursday morning that Australia would be ripping up its $90 billion contracts with the French shipbuilder Naval Group and sign a new deal with the US and UK to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.

Prime Minister Morrison said he had informed French defence contractor Naval Group and President of France Emmanuel Macron of the decision to discontinue the Attack-class program in Adelaide.

Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom have announced a new trilateral security alliance, including a joint effort to help the Australian military acquire eight nuclear-powered submarines, in an apparent attempt to counter China.

The leaders of all three countries unveiled the alliance – dubbed AUKUS – on Wednesday. They stressed that the submarines would be nuclear powered, not carrying nuclear weapons.

The surprise decision announced this morning means Australia will become only the second country (after the UK) to receive the technology from the US.

Naturally, the reaction to Thursday’s news has been divided, and while there are many questions remaining, here is an introductory guide to the basics of nuclear-powered submarines.

Virginia-class Submarine

Australia will build submarines based on the US navy’s latest design, the Virginia-class submarine. Manufactured by American defense company General Dynamics Electric Boat (GDEB), this submarine has gone through several iterations but is generally powered by a single nuclear reactor and can travel at more than 25 knots. Its crew includes 15 officers and 117 enlisted personnel, and the submarines are used both in anti-submarine warfare and intelligence gathering operations.

The vessel is powered by a 210MW pressurised water nuclear reactor, inside of which the enriched uranium fuel is sealed. The reactor does not have to be refuelled over its 30-year lifespan.

The Block V Virginia-class submarine will include the Virginia Payload Module, an 84-foot section of the boat that will serve as an undersea vertical launcher for missiles.

The modern Virginia-class subs coming off the lines can hold 12 Tomahawk missiles in a launcher on the bow. With the payload module section added amidships, each of the Virginia Payload Modules on Block V will have the capacity for 40 cruise missiles.

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Eight submarines will be built at a state-owned ASC Pty Limited shipyard in Adelaide, Australia. The US offers nuclear reactor, armaments, sonar suite, communications, data link and submarine hull to Australia and the UK to provide atomic fuel rods and associated facilities to support civil nuclear propulsion for Royal Australian Navy.

General Dynamics Electric Boat will be the prime contractor, but BAE Systems Australia, Lockheed Martin Australia, L3Harris, General Electric, Boeing Australia and Raytheon Australia will participate in the development of the complex submarine project.  

With advancements in hypersonic missile technology, Virginia’s larger launcher will be well suited to host them once they are deployable. The Virginia subs will also host the new version of the anti-ship Maritime Strike Tomahawk, part of the Block V upgrade that will begin being delivered to the service next week.

Advantages of the nuclear-powered submarine

Diesel-powered submarines, the kind that Australia was initially going to build in partnership with French company Naval Group, tend to be smaller and run more quietly. They can easily slip into shallow waters along coasts or in river estuaries where they are harder to detect.

While this has certain advantages, the main drawback is endurance. Diesel-powered submarines need to resurface regularly in order to take on oxygen, vent exhaust and charge their batteries. As a result, they can’t operate in the open ocean for long periods and careful thought needs to be given about where, when and how they can refuel.

Nuclear submarines, on the other hand, are built for endurance. With abundant power, some builds can run almost indefinitely, or at least until something breaks down or the crew runs out of tinned food. The only real limitations are the needs of the crew, who can only last so long in a confined space.

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