Will Australia’s nuclear submarine procurement program fundamentally reshape the RAN’s identity?
A fleet of at least eight nuclear-powered submarines have been promised under the AUKUS partnership between Australia, the UK and the US.
Late last year, the Commonwealth government co-signed the Exchange of Naval Nuclear Propulsion Information Agreement – a legally-binding arrangement granting Australia access to advanced nuclear technology from partner states.
The agreement establishes a framework for the disclosure and use of information related to naval nuclear propulsion.
However, Defence is yet to select a platform, with the UK’s Astute Class and the US’ Virginia Class submarines proposed as options.
A Nuclear-Powered Submarine Taskforce was established to work with US and UK stakeholders over an 18 month-period to determine a procurement pathway for Australia.
The group’s considerations include requirements for design, construction, maintenance, infrastructure, industry capacity, nuclear safety, environmental protection, crewing and training.
The taskforce is also expected to advise on building timeframes, costs and supply needs.
But what will be the lasting impacts of Australia’s nuclear-powered submarine procurement plan?
Richard Dunley, history lecturer at the UNSW Canberra, draws on the United States and the United Kingdom’s own experiences to offer insight into the “transformative” consequences of Australia’s nuclear transition.
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He cites First Sea Lord Caspar John of the British military, who in 1962 described the British Polaris project as a millstone, which “hung round our necks” and “potential wreckers of the real navy”.
“While it may be questioned whether or not Admiral John’s fears proved well founded, it is indisputable that the decision of the British government to pursue nuclear submarines and a continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent, or CASD, came at a considerable opportunity cost for the Royal Navy,” Dunley writes in ASPI’s The Strategist.
The lecturer observes that the British government’s assurances the CASD would not weigh on broader Royal Navy funding “naturally slipped”, leading to “bitter interservice fighting”.
“By the early 1980s senior naval leaders were describing the CASD as the ‘cuckoo in the nest’ because of the way the costly programs were funded at the expense of traditional surface-fleet capabilities,” Dunley continues.
Dunley notes similar assurances to provide full funding support for Australia’s nuclear submarine program were made by the former Morrison government, but adds that given the multi-decade delivery timeline, it is unlikely successive governments would continue to offer a “blank cheque”.
As such, future RAN leaders may need to sacrifice funding for other maritime capabilities to sustain the nuclear submarine program.
“The current relatively benign financial situation has also served to limit opposition to this extraordinarily costly project from the other services,” he adds.
“If we see tighter defence budgets this is almost certain to change, further driving pressure on the navy to make cuts elsewhere.”
However, financial constraints are not the only opportunity costs associated with the AUKUS project, Dunley continues.
The UNSW lecturer flags the impact of “massive technological acquisitions” on human resources, as has been highlighted by Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead.
“The Nuclear-Powered Submarine Taskforce he heads has already spawned at least seven divisions, nine high level trilateral working groups and numbers more than 200 people,” Dunley writes.
“To support this, it has pulled in talent from across the Navy, Defence and wider government.
“This concentration of personnel is essential to get a project as complex as this one off the ground, but in what are relatively small organisations, such efforts come at the cost of diverting people from other areas.”
Dunley reflects on the Cold War period, during which the US Navy Special Projects Office drained the Navy of its technical talent and diverted resources from other key projects.
The success of the UK’s Polaris program may also have come at the expense of other capabilities, including surface-to-air missiles.
“Given the small talent pool in Australia, the risk of similar problems occurring with the submarine taskforce is extremely high,” Dunley warns.
“The AUKUS submarine project comes with an additional layer of complexity in the form of the regulatory and legislative changes necessary to allow Australia to safely and legally acquire, build and run nuclear submarines.
“Although much of this might lie outside the direct purview of the navy, it is still going to be a huge endeavour that will take up a considerable chunk of Defence’s ‘bandwidth’, with resultant impacts elsewhere.”
However, according to Dunley, the greatest impact of the AUKUS program is its potential to “significantly and permanently alter the culture and identity of the RAN”.
Again, drawing from the US and British experience, he notes the construction of the first nuclear submarines and the subsequent development of Polaris was a “huge undertaking”, which “changed the nature” of those organisations.
“Admiral Hyman Rickover’s influence on the US Navy is well known, but in Britain as well, many of the officers associated with these projects went on to significant leadership positions,” he writes.
“The exciting nature of the technology served as a draw for talented young officers, and the prominence afforded to submarines by the Cold War ensured that the identities of both the USN and the RN were rapidly reshaped, with submarines at their heart and, increasingly, submariners at the helm.”
He observes that Since HMAS Melbourne was decommissioned in 1982, the RAN has primarily been a surface navy.
The “route to the top” has mostly been reserved for command of surface combatants.
“Between 1982 and 2008 seven of the eight officers who served as chief of the naval staff or chief of navy had commanded a guided missile destroyer, a pattern that has broadly continued with other surface combatants,” he writes.
“Although it is going to be a very long time before one of the commanders of an AUKUS submarine goes on to lead the RAN, the program seems certain to reshape the service long before then.”
Dunley concludes: “The relative weight and significance of the project, and its role as a magnet for talented officers, will ensure that it will shape the careers of many of the service’s future leaders.
“The primacy of the surface navy seems likely to be challenged, and with it the very identity of the RAN.”