Navy veteran and defence industry analyst Christopher Skinner responds to a recent editorial published in The Australian, which laments the delivery timeline for nuclear-powered submarines promised under the AUKUS arrangement.
The Australian editorial, 'Dilemmas over nuclear subs flow from AUKUS pact', and the Weekend Australian article 'Not easy to float our boat' by Cameron Stewart, both contain simplistic flaws in overlooking the positive potential for avoidance of any gap in Australian submarine capability and achievement of nuclear capability including infrastructure and workforce earlier than the conservative timeline announced on 16 September.
Stewart's sub-heading is even more of a worry when he says, "The AUKUS agreement gives us more problems than solutions with our nation's defence at stake." Truly a glass half empty!
The issues start from treating the timeline as something carved in stone when this is merely an initial stab at what the Nuclear-Powered Submarine Taskforce will be working to improve upon. Secondl, the constant muttering about the Collins Class life-of-type-extension is all old news.
Whatever will arise out of the scrupulously performed work by ASC and SAAB will be the best result that is certified safe for operations for a further decade. So, there is no more need for discussion on Collins.
What is uncertain is how quickly we can acquire the trained workforce to operate the nuclear submarines when we acquire them – no matter which of the two primary designs we select, nor by how that choice is made.
The critical path – the so-called longest pole in the tent – is building the workforce. And this provides the ideal solution to the continuity challenge also.
Rather than talking about leasing a bare boat as they say, we should discuss leasing a commissioned submarine from either the UK or US, complete with command and other key crew members to operate out of Fleet Base West but with a significant number of crew berths for Australian submariners to learn on the job and achieve the certification of the source navy.
This avoids any capability gap, achieves the progressive qualification of the Australian workforce such that by the end of the lease period full Australian command, operation and sustainment is in place.
In summary then the leasing is essential but is of one or more operational submarines that operate under Australian operational control with source navy crew until they are relieved by qualified and authorised Australian Navy people.
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The other egregious error in The Australian editorial is to state "... domestic defence manufacturing capability is a sovereign advantage, but the purpose of investing in military equipment is defence not local job creation". Wrong again.
Like it or not, the creation of jobs is essential because those same workers are essential for the sustainment of that same equipment. This may not be obvious to many but recent debates and analyses have concluded the fundamental role of industry in sovereign defence and that means industrial jobs do matter to create career paths and provide gainful employment.
What would be a useful discussion is how do we apply those defence industry workers to produce material for export.
Christopher Skinner served 30 years in the Australian Navy as a weapons and electrical engineer officer in six surface warships. His interest in nuclear power for submarines is more recent and is reflected in his membership of the Engineers Australia, Sydney Division Nuclear Engineering Panel, the Australian Nuclear Association and the American Nuclear Society. He is also associated with several other organisations and institutes engaged in geopolitics, technology and submarine matters. The views expressed above are entirely those of the author and are not endorsed by any of the organisations of which he is a member.