With plans of a growing US and Royal Navy presence in the Indo-Pacific, increased numbers of nuclear-powered vessels will be standard for Australian port visits and forward deployed force rotations – recognising this and the limitation and vulnerability of existing suitable infrastructure in the region presents an interesting opportunity for allied collaboration.
Prompted by increased dialogue between respective counterparts, Australia, the US and UK have sought to focus the 'special relationship' on developing greater levels of interoperability and burden sharing in tactically and strategically sensitive regions of the world.
This relationship has seen Australian, American and British forces fight side-by-side in virtually ever major conflict of the 20th century – beginning in the Middle East and southern Europe, through to combating the threats of communism during the early years of the Cold War.
The triumvirate Australia, US, UK relationship has also proved critical to the development of Australia's defence capability throughout the years, with key technologies and platforms operated by both nations forming a critical part of the Commonwealth's unified defence capability.
This focus on interoperability is driven largely by shared platform acquisition, dominated by conversations about the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Boeing E-7A Wedgetail and Aegis combat systems each providing the allies with a growing level of tactical and strategic interoperability and commonality at the most intrinsic levels.
Despite this, the rapidly shifting geo-political, strategic and economic paradigm – driven by the emergence of China as a still tentatively 'peaceful' hegemon has prompted a major realignment for the three nations, with both the US and UK beginning to transition their focus towards countering peer and near-peer competitors from the large asymmetrical focus of the last 20 years.
Key points of this shift are exemplified by the renewed and reinvigorated US 'Pacific Pivot', first introduced by then president Barrack Obama in 2013, and statements made by the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and former UK defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, which articulate a renewed push for a greater UK global presence, with the Indo-Pacific serving as the primary focal point.
Forward deployment as 'burden sharing'
For Australia, a continent and nation at the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific, supporting greater interoperability and enhancing the 'special relationship' alliance with both the US and UK is a critical component of the nation's long-term defence and strategic posture – promoting increased forward deployment of major tactical and strategic force multipliers like carrier strike groups and fast attack submarine squadrons in Australia is a central part of supporting these efforts.
There has been significant conversation in recent decades about the permanent basing and development of supporting infrastructure to accommodate a US Navy carrier strike group in Fremantle, with additional debate stimulated by the likes of venerable strategic policy expert Ross Babbage regarding the Australian lease of Virginia Class fast attack submarines.
"I remain strongly of the view that the best submarines for Australia for the coming 40 years would be 10-12 leased or bought Virginia or Astute Class boats. The Virginia Class boats, in particular, are well sorted and reliable, they have low risk, they have known costs, they never need to be refuelled and they could be acquired with associated training programs and system upgrade pathways...," Babbage is quoted.
"However, all other things being equal, if the US government were open to the idea, it would seem more sensible for Australia to opt for the Virginia Class. Australian boats of this class would be operating in very close co-operation with US boats in Pacific and Indian Ocean waters. There are likely to be substantial advantages flowing to both countries from joint basing, logistic support, training and many other aspects."
This last point has gained further traction within the US as the global superpower seeks to balance the rising peer or near-peer capabilities of the Chinese and Russian navies, respectively, resulting in a reduced unit cost associated with acquiring the necessary fast attack submarines and supporting greater interoperability – with Australia firming as a key focus of such capabilities.
Domestically, there has been significant debate about Australia's nuclear energy potential, with much of the debate being dominated to the costs and time frame associated with developing such energy production, the idea of permanently basing forward deployed carrier strike groups and nuclear powered fast attack submarines provides two interesting options:
- An option for embedding Australian enlisted, non-commissioned and submarine officers into both Royal and US Navy fast attack submarines forward deployed to key facilities to better develop such a capability domestically; and
- To share the costs associated with developing a the infrastructure necessary to support nuclear powered vessels with flow-on benefits for the Australian economy and local development of a viable, world-leading nuclear energy industry.
Spreading the infrastructure costs
Australia's relative isolation from potential attack when compared to the likes of Guam, Yokosuka and Honolulu presents Australian, US and UK strategic leaders with an attractive alternative to jointly develop the infrastructure necessary to sustain, maintain, repair and overhaul nuclear powered vessels.
However, simply developing a single iteration of the infrastructure required, ranging from dry docking facilities through to the refuelling and complex overhaul support and containment facilities required, would provide limited benefit to supporting the vessels and the concurrent development of Australia's own domestic nuclear power industry.
Accordingly, two locations serve as ideal possibilities, namely Fremantle, which has long been proposed as a potential facility to accommodate major US naval forces, and Osborne, the hub of Australia's submarine and naval shipbuilding enterprise and within close proximity to potential radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel storage facilities.
Further supporting the attractiveness of the nuclear option is the apparent safety record of US Navy nuclear technology and by extension that of the Royal Navy, something Babbage articulates: "While nuclear safety is an important consideration, US nuclear-powered submarines have a perfect safety record, having travelled more than 240 million kilometres without a single reactor incident and visited Australian bases since 1960 without any problems. Moreover, submarine reactors are a fraction of the size of a nuclear power plant and much less dangerous.
"Critics cite reliance on foreign support as a reason why Australia shouldn’t operate nuclear-powered submarines. These concerns are spurious. In reality, Australia already relies heavily for the development and sustainment of its platforms on foreign defence forces and foreign defence companies, and their Australian subsidiaries."
Spreading the costs for developing the critical infrastructure across the three nations provides each with incalculable benefits, ranging from increased tactical and strategic availability and presence, through to greater levels of interoperability and independent capability of allied forces and economic independence.
For all three nations, the path forward in the increasingly challenging contemporary geo-political, economic and strategic environment is murky and subject to change as technology, regional and global challenges and both state and non-state actors continue to directly impact the broader security of both Australia and the UK – this evolving environment will require nuance and collaboration to navigate safely.
As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea-lines-of-communication in the 21st century.