Subs “optimal pathway” sacrifices simplicity for speed, while digital tech cooperation lags

Deputy PM and Defence Minister Marles visits nuclear attack submarine USS Asheville. Source: Defence Images at

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

President Biden, prime minister Albanese and UK prime minister Sunak have now told the world what the ‘optimal pathway’ for Australia to get 8 nuclear powered submarines looks like.

At a cost of between $268 billion and $368 billion, Australia seems likely to get 3 of America’s Virginia class nuclear attack submarines between 2033 and 2039 and later 8 ‘AUKUS SSNs’ – a new design submarine built for both the UK’s Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy, with the first Australian sub arriving in 2042.

To help Australian submariners and maintenance workers understand, operate and maintain nuclear submarines, America will rotate some of its own Virginia class submarines through Western Australia’s Stirling naval base from 2027. That’s also good strategic news for Australia early one, because it means that the security of our part of the world is a very clear priority for America.

The thread connecting this rather complicated plan is a drive to get nuclear submarines into Australian hands fast. Even so, it will be 2039 before Australia gets a useful nuclear submarine force. That’s because, even with best practice maintenance and preparation cycles, it takes three submarines for one to be available at any given time to actually send places to operate.

So, Australia and its two AUKUS partners have sacrificed simplicity for speed.

Australia will have to learn to operate and maintain the world’s most complex nuclear attack submarine first – the Virginia class- before then introducing a different, brand new submarine design – the yet to be designed joint UK-Australia ‘AUKUS SSN’ later. And for at least the time it takes to get the first UK-Aust sub, the Australian Navy will also be operating the current diesel-powered Collins class submarines.

What Australia gets from the plan the three leaders unveiled in San Diego this week is access to enormously sensitive nuclear propulsion technology and, eventually, a powerful new military weapon to deter adversaries from threatening Australia. It also deepens its already close strategic alliance with the US and longstanding partnership with the United Kingdom at a time when trusted partners matter more than in recent decades.

What America gets is a very large Australian investment into US domestic submarine production capacity, in exchange for America selling us three – and up to five – of its own Virginia submarines. That’s interesting because there were powerful voices and interests in the American political and military systems warning against giving Australia any US subs at a time when the US Navy doesn’t have enough and wants more. What seems to have changed things is Australia’s willingness to spend to not just buy the American submarines but also to help fund US efforts to increase its own production capacity: so AUKUS allows the US Navy to get more nuclear submarines faster than it would alone.

And the United Kingdom? It’s hard to see who is the bigger winner from the AUKUS plan – the US or the UK. But the UK gets an enormous cash injection into its nuclear enterprise for designing and building submarines, which is an economy-wide level stimulus that will allow the UK to reinvest in and rebuild its defence manufacturing sector. In a post-Brexit world, the UK also gains a deep strategic and economic partner in the Indo Pacific. And Australia takes ownership of all the nuclear fuel in the Australian submarines built to the joint design, removing that headache from the UK.

All three countries will be using government cash – their own and Australian government cash – to rebuild their defence industrial sectors.

An irony about the 3 national leaders’ announcement today is that, despite all the brainpower and effort to fast-track Australian nuclear submarines, it’s still 16 years from now before Australia get as a minimum viable capability from the plan. Will Xi Jinping’s China wait that long to be deterred form invading Taiwan or using its military to dictate the choices of other smaller nations in our part of the world?

The forgotten part of AUKUS – the part that is not about nuclear submarines but instead about fast-moving digital technologies like AI, cyber capabilities, uncrewed undersea vessels and hypersonic missiles – seems to be delivering slower than it could and should. But this part of AUKUS – called Pillar Two – is what can shift the military balance away from China quickly.

Joe Biden referred to the nuclear subs par of AUKUS as the first AUKUS project and foreshadowed more news in the future. That has to be about these digital technologies that AUKUS is meant to be getting into the hands of Australian, US and UK militaries quickly.

China has made these technologies priorities for a few years now and has already fielded hypersonic missiles, as has Russia, with Putin using them in anger against Ukraine. So, while all the spotlights and analysis focus on the eyewateringly expensive and complex nuclear submarines, the early increase in Australian military power AUKUS can provide is on these other areas.

The unity of focus from the US, UK and Australia demonstrated by the announcements on submarines is a big strategic fact. And the submarines plan is impressive. It will be at least as powerful a message for regional security if the three leaders can show early practical benefits from our nations’ cooperation in the fastmoving areas of AI, cyber and hypersonics as their next AUKUS event.