Analysis and Commentary

The AUKUS deal that puts Adelaide N-sub construction further into the future

Analysis and Commentary

By Peter Roberts

Look, I have no particular inside information on what nuclear submarine path the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will announce in San Diego on Monday.

But I can read the tea leaves and ask – how can it be that both the US and the UK are beaming about their respective nations prospects about the deal, while South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas looks like the only kid in the room that didn’t get a bike for Christmas?

Remember this was meant to be a competition between US and UK designs, and SA was meant to be the place where our N-subs were built, at least substantially.

It seems this mess of contradictory signals can all be true if we accept the latest rumour:

  • Australia will bankroll an expansion of US submarine yards, perhaps injecting some Australian content into that supply chain, and initially purchase US Virginia class submarines from the 2030s
  • At the same time we will team with the US and UK to design a totally new submarine class to follow the UK’s Astute class, and could then follow the Virginia in Australia’s arsenal from the 2040s.

This would explain Malinauskas’s miffed look and his calls for guarantees about future construction in Adelaide – how many times have SA Premiers asked, and received that?

However it could be the only sensible path if we accept that we are getting nuclear submarines, but there is no way Adelaide and Australian capabilities can be geared up rapidly enough to substantially construct the first few submarines before the Collins class reach the end of their service lives.

So the path to local manufacturing and technology development has to be incremental, with Australia’s early role to strengthen US supply chains, either by building components or new facilities here or in the US.

In this way buying Virginia class submarines with a rising Australian content over time could be the logical way to build local capabilities.

A massive bonus would be if Australian industry is injected as part of the submarine supply chain of the United States, and later with the totally new submarine class of both the US and the UK.

We could supply some components immediately such as bridge consoles or even composite fairings where we have our own technologies, and reasonably quickly be able to supply simple hull sections such as crew quarters.

It could also open the way to injecting Australian technologies such as towed array sonars into US and UK vessels.

At the moment, it also makes sense for us not to tie our submarine future to designs being built in the US or the UK right now.

The UK’s in particular, but also the US designs are nearing the end of their design lives.

Submarines acquire more weight over their life as new versions are released with new capabilities.

This can be partially be mitigated by cutting weight but there are limits to how many times and how far any vessel design can be evolved.

The UK Astute Class is at this end point now.

This all means, as many have pointed out, that Australia could be operating two submarine classes at once. It is unlikely that we would be operating three as some suggest – the Collins will be long gone when the new submarine design arrives.

We can see how Malinauskas has that sinking feeling that Adelaide submarine construction keeps getting put off into the never never.

We will know all on Monday.

Picture: Australian-built HMAS Collins

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