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On 16 September 2021, the Australian Government announced that it would acquire a nuclear-powered submarine (SSN) capability with support from the UK and the US as the first measure of business under the AUKUS technology sharing partnership. At the same time, it announced that it had established the Nuclear-Powered Submarine Taskforce, which would devote 18 months to determining the ‘optimal pathway’ to establishing this new capability.
The taskforce has its work cut out for it, and the signing of an initial nuclear information sharing agreement only two months after AUKUS was announced suggests things are moving fast. Nevertheless this new enterprise will be a massive undertaking and probably the largest and most complex endeavour Australia has embarked upon. The challenges, costs and risks will be enormous. It’s likely to be at least two decades and tens of billions of dollars in sunk costs before Australia has a useful nuclear-powered military capability.
Many commentators have suggested that the work of the taskforce is primarily about making a recommendation on the choice of submarine—either the US Virginia class or the UK Astute class. That’s misleading on two counts. First, the most important decision isn’t so much about the submarine, but about the strategic partner most able to work with us on our new SSN capability. Second, Australia will need to make many choices—about the strategic partner, about the submarine design, about the build strategy, about schedule, and more. Those choices will involve hard prioritisation decisions about what’s most important. Is it capability, schedule, Australian industry content, or something else?
This report examines the decision space available to the government.