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AUKUS is a defence and security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, announced in September 2021.

A major part of the agreement (pillar 1) is to support Australia in acquiring its first conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarine fleet. It does not involve the transfer of nuclear weapons to Australia.

Delivery of the AUKUS submarine programme 

In a Joint Statement on 13 March 2023 the AUKUS nations set out how pillar 1 of the agreement would be achieved:

  • SSN-AUKUS (also recently referred to as SSN-A in the UK) will be based on the UK’s next-generation submarine design. That design will incorporate technologies from all three nations, including cutting edge US submarine technologies.
  • The submarines will be built in the UK and Australia and work will begin by 2030, with a view to entering service toward the end of the 2030s (UK) and the early 2040s (Australia). In the interim, the US will transfer Australia three Virginia-class SSN, with potential for the sale of a further two.
  • The UK and Australia will both operate the SSN-AUKUS as their conventionally armed attack submarine, equipped for intelligence, surveillance, undersea warfare and strike missions.

How does AUKUS-SSN fit with the UK’s other submarine programmes? 

The UK currently has two submarine programmes underway: the Astute class SSN and the Dreadnought class SSBN, which will provide the platform for the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent from the early 2030s. The last of the Astute class SSN is expected into service by 2026; while construction on the Dreadnought class is expected to continue well into the 2030s.

SSN-AUKUS will be the next generation successor to the current Astute-class SSN. A decision on how many submarines the UK will require is expected to be made in the coming years and based on the strategic threat assessment at the time.

How much will it cost?

An estimated cost of the programme has not been provided by the government.

However, the government has announced significant new funding (£3 billion) to underpin the SSN-AUKUS programme, and the wider Defence Nuclear Enterprise (DNE), over the next two years.

Impact on UK industry

As with the current Astute and Dreadnought programmes, the UK’s submarines will be built by BAE Systems at Barrow-in-Furness and the nuclear propulsion units at Rolls Royce in Derby. Rolls Royce will also build all the nuclear reactors for Australia’s submarines.

The programme is expected to create thousands of jobs in the UK.

Concerns over non-proliferation

The AUKUS agreement is concerned solely with naval nuclear propulsion and as such does not contravene the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or Australia’s obligations under the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty.

However, there are concerns that it will set a bad precedent for nuclear non-proliferation efforts more broadly. To address those concerns the AUKUS nations have committed to ensuring the highest non-proliferation standards.

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