By Peter Roberts
The nature of the final arrangements to be announced in March for the construction of Australian nuclear submarines is becoming clearer.
As envisaged by the original Aukus agreement between Australia, the UK and the US, the programme will likely be a genuine three-nation effort to boost submarine capability in all three nations, with the three contributing to each other’s production.
There is still an intention to build nuclear submarines in Adelaide, with the Osborne naval shipyard ramping up to build an existing design, or a new, joint Australia, UK and US submarine design.
Defence minister Richard Marles has been hinting at this future during a visit to the United States.
He is reported to have said: “It really is, is a genuinely trilateral effort to see both the UK and the US provide Australia with a nuclear-powered submarine capability.”
And far from Australia begging the US to supply us with the vessels, industry capability will be developed here which adds to the net capabilities of the three closely allied nations.
He said: “I think what’s actually expected of us by both the US and the UK, is that we make a contribution to the net industrial base of the three countries, by developing the capacity in Australia to build a nuclear-powered submarine.”
Of course the path to achieving this is not going to be easy, especially as both Coalition and Labor governments have failed to make timely decisions on replacing our ageing Collins class submarine fleet.
In a sense the technical issues are not the most important thing as they can be worked through in time, but as Marles admitted: “The people side of that equation is a massive challenge.
“It is one of the real challenges that we face and we’re going to have to do a lot of work to get this right.”
Finding enough skilled people in Australia for a programme of this magnitude has always loomed as a problem, as it has for the existing submarine construction programme in the US.
Finally the fact the decision has been so delayed raises the issue of what Australia can rely on when the Collins vessels reach the end of their lives.
Ideas abound – from stationing US or UK vessels in Australia, to leasing vessels, buying stopgap submarines off the shelf, or evolving the Collins ourselves.
None is ideal – but they represent the reality that indecisive politicians have left us with.