OPINION | “Australia’s sharpest minds” needed to pull off nuclear submarine plan
A multi-disciplinary taskforce is recruiting “Australia’s sharpest minds” to tackle the herculean task of providing the Royal Australian Navy with eight nuclear-powered submarines, acquiring the technical skills the nation doesn’t yet have to maintain them, and training highly specialised crews to drive them.
Given the immense complexity of this project revealed in September’s bombshell announcement by US President Joe Biden and Australian and UK prime ministers Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson, and the scale of Australia’s strategic shift, those sharp minds will have their work cut out.
Whatever promises have been made, the hardest part of this arrangement will be convincing the United States that, from close to a standing start, Australia is capable of assembling the skills to be trusted with the stewardship of America’s most precious and closely guarded military and nuclear secrets.
Hundreds of Australian sailors will need to develop nuclear engineering skills and a national infrastructure will have to be created to accommodate and service Australia’s nuclear-powered boats and those of its allies.
Building that sort of nuclear capability will take a decade or more. And whatever gaps in Australia’s submarine capability appear during this process will have to be filled.
The creation of a new trilateral security partnership—AUKUS—involving the US, United Kingdom and Australia with a first goal of providing those submarines was a remarkable turnround in the very few years since US representatives consistently declared that their naval nuclear technology wouldn’t be shared even with as close an ally as Australia. They’d only done that once before—with Britain in 1958, at the height of the Cold War.
After the unveiling of this closely held secret, the head of ASPI’s defence, strategy and national security program, Michael Shoebridge, was quick to note that this had all become possible because of the dramatic change in the global strategic situation wrought by an increasingly aggressive China.
As recently as 2016, Australia chose a conventional, diesel-powered submarine as its key undersea weapon, to be built in partnership with the French.
“A nuclear submarine was ruled out then because of the sensitivity of military nuclear technologies, the complexity and cost, and because we were told our strategic needs would be met by the diesel submarine,” Shoebridge said. “The sensitivity, complexity and cost remain. What’s changed is our security environment. That’s summed up in three words: China under Xi.”
“Over long years, trying to assemble a new fleet of submarines, Australia has badly upset the Swedes, the Germans, the Japanese and now the French.”
On the day of the announcement, White House officials briefed journalists on the importance of Australia having nuclear-powered submarines that were fast, discreet, with extremely long range and able to operate closely with the US undersea fleet. They stressed the complexity of the project and the difficulty of progressing it from its infancy. That would start with an 18-month effort by technical, strategic and navy teams from all three countries to work out how this can be done.
The decision followed months of high-level negotiations carried out in secrecy and would mark the biggest strategic step that Australia had taken in generations.
“This allows Australia to play at a much higher level and to augment American capabilities that will be similar. And this is about maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific,” the US officials said.
They made it clear that this greater strategic role would see Australia aligned increasingly closely with the US for decades to come. They said the deal was “huge” in Australia and negotiations were carried out with a high degree of discretion.
In a bid to make up two decades of lost time, the government, Australia’s defence establishment and naval shipbuilders in the US and Britain are fully alert to the massive scale of what they’ve embarked on.
Over long years, and diverse plans, trying to assemble a new fleet of submarines to ultimately replace the current fleet of Collins-class boats, Australia has badly upset the Swedes, the Germans, the Japanese and now the French.
In the US, Morrison said he made it very clear to the French months ago that a conventionally powered submarine would no longer meet Australia’s strategic requirements and what these boats would need to do.
“That had been communicated very clearly many months ago,” Morrison said. “We were working through those issues.”
If Morrison told French President Emmanuel Macron in June that Australia no longer required the Attack-class submarines, it appears that that information wasn’t passed on their builder, Naval Group. And if it had been, it’s likely that Naval Group would have assumed that it would be asked to provide Australia with the original nuclear-powered Barracuda that the Attack class was to be based on.
The first of the nuclear-powered Barracudas, the Suffren, was launched in Cherbourg in July 2019 with Australian naval representatives present.
After Morrison’s comments to Macron, the prospect of reversing the “build us a conventionally powered submarine based on the design of your nuclear-powered one” process would have made perfect sense to the French. A lot of design work had already been done to marry up Australia’s conventional version with the US combat system intended for it.
The bit about Australia going nuclear with the Americans and the British seems to have been lost in translation.
The genuine shock of the French when they learned that the contract would shift to the US or Britain, or both, couldn’t have been greater than their surprise when they were originally asked to build us a submarine similar to their nuclear Barracuda but with a diesel-electric system and a mass of batteries. In terms of performance, some have compared that with buying a Formula 1 racing car and replacing its engine with one from a small sedan—which is why the Attack class could no longer be considered a “regionally superior” design.
“The US officials declared that the nuclear submarines decision would mean much deeper interoperability among the US, UK and Australian navies and their nuclear infrastructures.”
Among the issues that remain unclear after the switch to the US and the UK under AUKUS is whether Australia will end up with an American nuclear-powered submarine or a British submarine that the Americans will help with. But the central source of the key technology is the US.
Morrison announced that the eight submarines will be built in Adelaide.
The American officials made it clear that the process of equipping the RAN with nuclear-powered submarines would be both challenging and important. “Australia does not have a nuclear domestic infrastructure. They’ve made a major commitment to go in this direction. This will be a sustained effort over years.”
Between February and September, Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead, now chief of the Nuclear-Powered Submarine Task Force, headed a “defence capability enhancement review” working out what was possible in terms of getting Australia a more effective submarine.
Now his multi-agency, whole-of-government taskforce has gathered well over 80 experts including nuclear energy specialists from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency.
“We are,” Mead told a Senate committee, “vigorously recruiting the sharpest minds in Australia to be part of the taskforce so we can deliver on the government’s commitment.”
The US officials frankly declared that the nuclear submarines decision would mean much deeper interoperability among the US, UK and Australian navies and their nuclear infrastructures. This decision would bind Australia to the US and the UK decisively for generations.
Defining the scale of this strategic development, Shoebridge said that Biden, Johnson and Morrison standing together (virtually) to announce AUKUS signalled a shift to a more robust deterrence of China by some of the world’s most powerful and activist democracies. This is the huge geostrategic news behind the announcement—and that will be understood in Beijing and the wider world.
“The long-term nature of the AUKUS partnership is the strongest possible statement that the challenge we face from China is equally long term—no change of tone or even the shrewdest diplomacy is likely to change Xi’s instinctive path and mindset of struggle. Deterrence by a growing set of powerful nations just might.”