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Pathway to Australia’s nuclear powered submarine capability: one year on

14 March, 2024

Dr Ian Langford, Executive Director of Security & Defence PLuS, reflects on the one-year anniversary of the AUKUS ‘optimal pathway’ announcement. He delves into the challenges faced by the member nations and highlights their commitments as Australia embarks on its journey towards nuclear-powered submarine capability.

This week marks the one-year anniversary since the three AUKUS member nations – the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia – agreed to an ‘optimal pathway’ designed to deliver Australia a nuclear powered, conventionally armed fleet of submarines from the early 2030s. 

Importantly, the pathway expands this initiative beyond sub-surface platforms only by signalling the critical need to elevate the industrial capacity of each nation to produce and sustain nuclear powered submarines over the coming decades, as well as expand the presence of AUKUS capabilities across the Indo-Pacific region. This expansion focuses on undersea and ‘on-sea’ systems aimed at contributing to greater global security and stability across one of the most critical economic and military-contested areas in the world. 

A year in, and it is clear that the AUKUS partners are now becoming fully aware of the challenges of this endeavour, especially as it relates to ensuring Australia, as a nation that is new to the notion of ‘nuclear stewardship’, is able to operate and sustain its own fleet of nuclear submarines safely and securely. The accepted glidepath is designed to do this, beginning with embedded personnel, scheduled port visits, and rotational forces based in Western Australia from 2027, to be shortly followed by the planned acquisition of an existing nuclear-powered submarine, the US Virginia Class, from the early 2030s. The optimal pathway will culminate in the early years of the 2040s, with the delivery of a trilaterally developed submarine, based on a UK-design, which will perform the attack submarine role for both the United Kingdom and Australia for decades to come. 

The economies of scale of this activity are significant; the Australian Government, for example, expects to commit up to 0.15% of its GDP averaged over the life of the program. Workforce demands are also expected to rapidly increase, especially for areas of critical expertise, including science, technology, and cyber. Australia also insists that it will continue to lead international efforts in the global nuclear non-proliferation regime, in continued close cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

For the United States, industrial capacity remains an issue, with a planned increase in shipyard construction capacity struggling to keep pace with manufacturing timelines, especially as it relates to achieving balance between both its Virginia Class program and its efforts to simultaneously replace the ballistic missile submarine, the Ohio Class, with the Colombia Class

The United Kingdom also faces significant challenges over how to increase its supply chain and close its skills gap, especially in relation to advanced manufacturing, naval shipbuilding, and overall budgetary pressure, as the government grapples with significant financial and security challenges both in Europe and abroad. 

One year into the optimal pathway and two things are clear: all three AUKUS nations appear genuinely committed to the Pillar 1 realisation of a nuclear-powered submarine for Australia. Secondly, the enormity of the challenge has now become more apparent, as ambitions and rhetoric give way to the reality of applying time, energy, and resources towards its realisation. 

Brig (R’td) Dr Ian Langford is the Executive Director of Security & Defence PLuS. He has 30 years of experience as a senior officer in the Australian Defence Force, culminating in strategic roles such as Director-General Future Land Warfare and Head of Land Capability. Dr Langford has received three Distinguished Services Crosses and retired from the Army as a Brigadier in 2022. He has a PhD from Deakin University, is a non-resident fellow of the Irregular Warfare Initiative, and is published widely as an author and essayist.