UK splashes £4B to dive into next-gen nuclear submarines

Detailed design and long lead contracts signed off for SSN-AUKUS project

The UK government has signed off on contracts worth £4 billion ($4.8 billion) to start the design and long lead phase for building the next generation of nuclear-powered attack submarines.

According to the government, the deal represents a significant milestone for the UK and the AUKUS program. It will progress the design, prototyping, and purchase of long-lead components for the first UK submarines.

Construction is expected to begin in the next few years, with the first submarines entering service in the late 2030s, replacing the Astute-class vessels. The first Australian submarines will follow in the early 2040s.

AUKUS is a technology-sharing pact signed by Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It was signed off in 2021, and a substantial chunk of the pact is help for Australia from the US and UK to build nuclear-powered submarines.

The Astute-Class submarines were constructed at Barrow-in-Furness, and the UK's SSN-AUKUS submarines will follow suit. Over the coming years, infrastructure at the UK's Barrow-in-Furness submarine shipyard will be developed and expanded to meet the program's requirements.

The nuclear reactors powering the submarines for the UK and Australia will be constructed at Rolls Royce's Raynesway site in Derby. Australia is expected to build up its submarine industrial base over the coming decade before making its own boats.

Ministry beancounters will be fervently hoping to avoid seeing a repeat of the delays and cost overruns that plagued the Astute class during the early part of the construction phase. A report [PDF] from the House of Commons Defence Committee in 2010 put the cost of boats 1-3 of the Astute Class at £1.355 billion ($1.636 billion) over budget and delayed by 57 months.

It has been a while since the UK last had a crack at building nuclear-powered submarines. The predecessor of the Astute class was the Trafalgar class, designed during the 1970s, with the final boat completed in 1991. At the time of writing, the last Astute class submarines have yet to be commissioned.

So there's a silver lining to all the delays endured by the previous generation. At least there won't be quite the same gap before construction of the first AUKUS class submarine in the UK, and we're sure plenty of lessons will be fresh in the memory of BAE Systems.

Perhaps this time the trend for these projects to experience cost overruns and delays will be bucked. Or perhaps not. ®

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