The prospect of the Royal Australian Navy’s promised nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) being built in Australia is firming up, along with a determination that they will be of a design shared with the United States or the United Kingdom and not a uniquely Australian “orphan”.
Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles has left no doubt that the government strongly backs the submarine project—including development of the massive industrial base and highly trained workforce required—and the need for Australia to have potent military capabilities.
“We need a highly capable defence force which has the rest of the world take us seriously and enables us to do all the normal peaceful activities that are so important for our economy,” Marles said while briefing journalists on the progress of the AUKUS program launched a year ago by Australia, the UK and the US.
A flow of goods was fundamental to an island trading nation, he said, so ensuring freedom of navigation of the seas and of the air above them was central to the economy.
The 300-strong taskforce examining how Australia will acquire its submarines is to make its recommendations to the government in March next year.
That will include what submarine design should be chosen and how these complex boats will be crewed and maintained.
Options include the US Virginia-class and British Astute-class boats. But The Strategist understands that planned new generation of submarines, the American SSN(X) and the British SSN(R), will be considered.
ASPI has released its second update on the AUKUS defence and technology-sharing agreement and makes the case that its focus should be on developing new capabilities that can be acquired rapidly and will significantly boost deterrence. It stresses that need is more pressing even than 12 months ago given the steady deterioration in the strategic environment illustrated by the behaviour of Moscow and Beijing.
It states that while much of the focus has been on the development of SSNs, the other areas of technology cooperation, such as cyber, hypersonics, undersea capabilities, electronic warfare, artificial intelligence and quantum technologies, will be vital in the coming years.
“Beyond the SSNs, the immediate priority should be long-range strike and deploying critical and emerging technologies to counter Beijing’s own rapidly developing capabilities. Achieving that may require making some difficult choices and trade-offs in the Defence Strategic Review in March,” the ASPI report says.
It concludes that while innovation and information-sharing as stated areas of technology collaboration sound hackneyed, they are in fact critical for overturning traditional Defence mindsets about research and procurement in order to obtain much-needed capabilities more quickly—an issue that has been identified particularly acutely in Australia.
“Australia is unlikely to end up with a unique SSN design of its own.”
At his media briefing, Marles said the work of the SSN taskforce task was on track for an announcement early next year and “there is a power of work being done to meet that timeframe”.
The optimal pathway was taking shape, Marles said. “We can now begin to see it.”
The minister made it clear that Australia is unlikely to end up with a unique SSN design of its own. “It’s obviously much better if you are operating a platform which other countries operate as there is a shared experience and a shared industrial base to sustain it.”
And he said all three nations in the partnership are likely to be involved. “While the outcome it is yet to be determined, it would be better if we’re in a position where what we’re doing is genuinely a trilateral effort.”
Marles stressed that there was much more to AUKUS and the advanced technology it could produce than submarines. “With AUKUS there’s a really huge opportunity beyond submarines of pursuing a greater and more ambitious agenda. This is a large part of what I did in July when I was in the US and subsequently when I was in the UK. We’re very hopeful about the potential that AUKUS represents in respect of that.”
On the issue of how Australia produces the expertise to build, sustain and crew the submarines, Marles said that would involve creating pathways to a workforce with those skills.
“To that end, it’s really clear that we will have to develop the capacity in Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines. Sovereign capability is part of the story, but so is building up our workforce and industrial base.”
To rely solely on the US and the UK for this work would delay the submarines’ arrival, he said, and he conceded that it would “be a while before we get them”.
“That is why, in terms of getting these submarines sooner, we need to develop our own contribution to an industrial base here at home.” That would mean the RAN would get its submarines sooner, and it would also provide economic benefits in terms of workforce and productivity.
“A significant industrial base is going to need to be built here, skills need to be acquired, and so there’s a human dimension to all of that and a workforce which needs to be built up.”
“AUKUS would not only deliver SSNs for Australia, but also guide the development of trilateral initiatives where they would have most impact—both for deterrence and operational effectiveness.”
Marles said the goal would be for AUKUS to help develop a genuinely seamless defence industrial base across the US, the UK and Australia.
He said AUKUS would not only deliver SSNs for Australia, but also guide the development of trilateral initiatives where they would have most impact—both for deterrence and operational effectiveness.
“AUKUS partners are working together to pursue near- and longer-term initiatives that will align our respective priorities and amplify our collective strength, to support a safe and secure Indo-Pacific region.”
In addition to the previously announced AUKUS quantum arrangements and the undersea robotics autonomous systems project, Marles said efforts were focused on artificial intelligence and autonomy, advanced cyber, hypersonics and counter-hypersonics, and electronic warfare. “These efforts are being augmented with work on information sharing and innovation to significantly enhance pathways for joint capability development by AUKUS partners.”
Taskforce chief Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead said that in the 12 months since the AUKUS announcement, the resolve of Australia, the UK and the US had strengthened as the strategic environment continued to deteriorate.
“This is truly a trilateral partnership. We have a shared mission, further confirmed by a very significant delegation here in Australia this week from the UK and US,” Mead said. “We continue our work together towards the decisions that need to be made as part of the optimal pathway for the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines.”
AUKUS partners were not just focusing on the submarine, he said. “Our work to identify the optimal pathway includes many elements that all need to come together to deliver the capability needed to protect Australia and the sea lanes our economy relies so heavily upon.”
Mead said the taskforce was addressing workforce needs from an already strong base because Australia had been operating conventional submarines since the 1960s. “Our partners are helping us to understand the discrete skills and workforce numbers required to build, operate, sustain, regulate and safely steward nuclear-powered submarines.”
That will involve developing career pathways for Australia’s submariners that include attendance at UK and US nuclear schools, experience operating UK and US nuclear-powered submarines and secondments in UK and US nuclear agencies.
“The exchange of these personnel will be both ways and won’t just involve our submariners. Exchanges will also include personnel in headquarters, technical labs, shipyards and sustainment sheds,” Mead said.
Brendan Nicholson is defence editor of The Strategist.