• John McDonnell

Nuclear submarines will never be built in Australia

No 100% Australian-made submarine to be seen in the near future, John McDonnell argues

There will be no submarines built in South Australia but there will be extensive investment in shipbuilding assets there so that submarines can be maintained. There are two reasons why this is the case: Australian built submarines would be too expensive and would take too long to commission.

Richard Spencer is the chairman of Joe Hockey’s consultancy business, Bondi Partners. He is also a former US secretary for the navy and commissioned 9 Virginia class submarines during his time in office. On Tuesday, he penned an op-ed article in the Australian, in which he revealed that these submarines cost $20 billion. An article in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's publication ‘The Strategist’ this week said 8 submarines built in Australia would cost at least $35 billion more than this.

At the moment, it is predicted that the first submarine won’t be launched until 2040. ASPI says that it is more likely that Australian-built submarines will not be in the water until 2050. This will leave a huge capability gap in our defence framework, during 30 years of prospective geostrategic tension.

Richard Spencer indicated in his article that General Dynamics, which constructs the subs, would be able to accelerate the build.

He makes the point that the company has two redundant shipyards, which could be used to build Australian submarines. On the General Dynamics project model, it takes seven years to build a submarine. A year after the first one is started a second vessel build is commenced. On this project plan, it would take 15 years to build the 8 subs Australia wants. This means that by 2040, Australia would have the full fleet of submarines.

The limiting factors in this scenario are the availability of shipyards and the supply of skilled engineers to undertake the project. Mr Spencer says that General Dynamics would start training people in Australia and the US from the first day an agreement was signed. There would be a need for tens of thousands of people in both countries with specialist skills in areas such as nuclear technology, electronics, weapons systems, informatics and metal fabrication.

There has been some debate over whether Australia should acquire the British nuclear submarine, known as the ‘Astute’ class. According to the experts, these submarines could not deploy the weapons systems which strategic analysts believe are necessary to enable a strong defence posture against China and to protect Asia Pacific trade routes.

The AUKUS discussions are scheduled to take place over the next 18 months, so they will be finalised before the next presidential election. As argued in FlowNews24 this week, there is a chance that Donald Trump will be the next US president, so it would be prudent for all the parties to get the agreements stitched up before then.

The reality is that if Australia wants the Virginia class submarines, then they will have to accept that they will be built in America. This will cause a reaction from critics who will see it as a further diminution of Australian sovereignty. However, Australia would not be signing a construction contract with the US government: it would be doing a deal with a private company. To all intents and purposes, the submarines would be owned and controlled by the Australian government. The only involvement of the US government would be the approval of the export of the technology.