For all the fanfare surrounding the announcement of AUKUS in September 2021, there are many questions left to answer. For Australia to get the most out of the trilateral security pact decisive steps must be taken immediately.
As Australia’s new Minister of Defence Richard Marles soon learned after inheriting the portfolio from Peter Dutton, AUKUS was essentially a political tool to help win the Liberal-National Coalition the 2022 Federal Election based on “national security.” It was never a well-thought-out plan to ink a new multipurpose trilateral security arrangement or acquire nuclear-powered submarines. Although it was meant to address those issues, AUKUS, under Morrison, was hastily conceived and based on assumptions that Australia could rapidly develop legal, operational, and logistical mechanisms to maintain nuclear-powered vessels.
After the collapse of the conventional-powered Attack class submarine deal with the French Morrison was far too optimistic, perhaps, even naïve, in his belief that Australia could simply purchase nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). Morrison expected the submarines to be delivered in 2030, bought “off-the-shelf” like a car or an aircraft. The reality, however, is very different: boats of this technical magnitude will not hit the water until the 2040s. They will require significant onshore infrastructure to enable their through-life programme from the design and build phase throughout their operational life until their ultimate disposal and scrapping.
To his credit, Morrison did put in place a “plan-B”: the Life-of-Type-Extension (LOTE) of Australia’s existing six Collins class submarines. But even this was short-sighted, since if their nuclear spin-offs were delayed for any reason these boats would be expected to last beyond their operational lives. Indeed, Australia might find itself without a submarine capability if the Collins developed unanticipated technical and design problems.
So grave was the problem AUKUS poses to the Albanese government that Marles said the former Morrison government had opened up a 20-year capability gap regarding the country’s ability to operate submarines. The RAN is currently halfway through its 18-month assessment of nuclear-powered boat designs. Leading “the pack,” the American Virginia class, followed by the British Astute class. This assessment is apparently on track to meet Morrison’s deadline. However, little has been said about whether any of these submarines will be built in Adelaide, fulfilling one of Morrison’s national sovereign capability requirements.
AUKUS Remains Underexplained
Apart from some broad political statements issued by the Albanese government in support of AUKUS in the local media, little has been said about how AUKUS as a broad trilateral security arrangement would work. Is it just a programme to cover submarine acquisition, or will it include intelligence acquired by these submarine patrols? Will it supersede Australia’s critical bilateral tie to the United States, the ANZUS Treaty? What about the extant Five Eyes Intelligence agreement? Would it be rated as more significant than the Quad? What are the arrangements for sharing sensitive military technologies between America, Australia, and the UK on defence, space, and cyber? In what way is AUKUS different from established bilateral Australia-US and Australia-UK ties? Do they improve Australia’s access to strategic-level technologies over and above these bilateral ties, and if so, how?
Starting with the AUKUS submarine deal, whichever design Australia chooses, American or British, the RAN will need to support them locally. What does this mean? Australia will need to develop considerable skills in nuclear engineering — not just for the navy personnel who will operate these submarines at sea but also for the extensive support and maintenance teams, the nuclear regulatory authorities to oversee the operation of the nuclear power plants and the emergency teams to support the regulatory bodies in the event of a nuclear accident. National universities will need to establish nuclear engineering centres to meet the demand, including sending a cadre of RAN officers and ratings to the US and UK to study submarine nuclear systems. They will also need to create a nuclear engineering hub in Australia catering for the highly skilled capabilities needed for nuclear submarine repair including, for example, nuclear welding and the testing of the subsequent welds. While Australia will not be building the nuclear power plants that drive the submarines, sailors will nonetheless need to be able to maintain the power plants at sea or in foreign ports should anything go wrong with them. There is no use calling the Americans or the British to fix Australian submarine problems should they arise unless they are hybridised elements of the Australian fleet, primarily manned by American or British personnel with this foreign personnel component legally obliged to assist in hands-on maintenance and repairs.
The Royal Navy (RN) and the US Navy (USN) have very different operating models: the Americans train all their submarine officers as in-depth nuclear engineers, whereas the British only train those employed in specific nuclear engineering roles. In contrast to the USN, in the RN, other seamanship specialists have less rigorous engineering training. The USN approach demands a more significant number of highly trained officers and ratings.
Not a Done Deal
Should the new boats be fully or partially built in Adelaide, the federal and state governments must develop the means by which nuclear materials can travel freely in Australia ‒ on land or sea ‒ and be worked on safely. For many years, lobbyists have fought hard to keep the Australian government from entertaining the notion of developing civil or military nuclear power. This political situation might change in time owing to the uncertain supply of international fossil fuels or the existential risks of climate change. However, this is by no means a “done deal” politically. The Australian community is by and large uneducated in the use and benefits of nuclear energy since there have been no attempts by any political party to lead the electorate in this matter.
Another practical problem that needs addressing is the development of AUKUS standard operating procedures (SOPs) regarding the use of nuclear-powered submarines. If AUKUS is meant to be a proper functioning trilateral arrangement, then in the Indo-Pacific theatre, those member-states operating nuclear-powered submarines should develop the means to leverage each other’s submarine assets for the greatest effect. This form of cooperation would undoubtedly make sense for Australia as it is likely that whichever design is settled on, a US design might come with British componentry, or a British design might come with American componentry.
The Next Steps
More work needs to be done on the appropriateness of the Collins LOTE. As a stop-gap measure before the RAN’s nuclear boats become operational, it is questionable whether the hulls’ seals and interior architecture will stand up to the high-pressure forces placed on them for the time necessary for the nuclear sub programme to be completed. Perhaps purchasing a batch of four late-model Japanese conventional submarines, modified in Adelaide, would be a more cost-effective way to keep Australian submarine crews engaged while they await their nuclear subs.
Whatever plans are developed for the new nuclear submarine programme, a number of consequential activities need to be planned as soon as possible. These include nuclear engineering training, initially in the US or UK but brought in-house at Australian universities or technical colleges. These institutes will need to recruit suitable tutors, engineers, and academics. In addition, the Federal Government will need to establish a nuclear regulatory framework, possibly along the existing lines found in both the US and UK.
Nuclear submarines are the best way for the RAN to meet its mission to defend Australia: they have effectively unlimited endurance, range widely in areas of interest, are available for long periods of undetected patrol, and are ready for attack or collection of intelligence. However, nuclear boats require significant supporting infrastructure, including training, to operate effectively. With these in place, the RAN can serve alongside the maritime technological elite, the US Navy, and the Royal Navy in patrolling the waters of the Indo-Pacific.
SAGE International is an Adelaide-based, independent, privately operated NFP geopolitical think-tank and consultancy estd. in 2008. Areas of expertise include Indo-Pacific strategy, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, defence procurement, Australian defence & security and global maritime security and technological trends.
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