AUKUS submarines plan brings high risk but plenty of potential reward

While it seems logical for Australia and the UK to build such a boat, the big unknown would be if the US Navy adopts the design or continues with its own program. The holy grail of a true trilateral collaboration would be a common design and build in all three countries and production lines producing submarines in continuous builds across two US yards and one each in Australia and the UK.

While this plan delivers high-end capability quickly, deals with the capability gap and puts Australia on a clear pathway to a sovereign capability, it’s not without high risk.

First, this plan would potentially see Australia operating three different types of submarines for a period of time – the last of the Collins boats, the interim Virginia class, and the new AUKUS boats. This could prove enormously expensive and difficult in terms of maintenance, sustainment, training and operations.


Second, a new SSN AUKUS design will surely make many capability managers, politicians and pundits very nervous. Defence does not have a strong record in this area and the navy in particular has struggled to maintain design discipline. Constant design changes have slowed projects, frustrated industry and blown out budgets. The current Hunter-class frigate was supposed to bring synergies by sharing the design between the UK, Canada and Australia. But this project has blown out the budget, hit delays and fractured its initial approach as the design has constantly been modified, raising concerns about its viability. Perhaps the trilateral approach may bring more discipline to an SSN AUKUS design, but it also brings potentially very high risk.

Finally, infrastructure and workforce challenges loom large. The timeline for a new design is tight, Australia will have to undertake massive investment in Adelaide to prepare the shipyard to undertake the build. All while defence industry, and the economy more broadly, suffer from workforce shortages. Given the highly sensitive nature of the work, this problem cannot be solved quickly by rapid migration of skilled workers. The potential payoff, though, is huge. If we get it right and take on board the lessons from our partners, Australia could have the newest, most efficient and cost-effective nuclear-powered submarine manufacturing capability in the Western world.


The overarching question that looms large over Tuesday’s announcement is, is it worth it? In defence circles ambitions are often limitless, but resources are always finite. The Albanese government has committed to spending more on defence, but this project does risk eating the rest of the defence capability plan alive – potentially impacting other critical areas of defence investment.

The risks are high, but the rewards are even higher. The world we are living in has changed. Great power competition in our region is rising. Australian sovereignty is under more risk than at any time since the 1940s. Security, the prime minster has declared numerous times, is his number-one priority.

In the new era of strategic competition, investments such as AUKUS are investments in our long-term security and sovereignty and hedge against an unknown and high-risk future. The risks and costs will be high, but peace and prosperity always come at a cost. AUKUS is a whole-of-nation endeavour.

While the costs are unknown and the risks high, the potential payoff is significant and the strategic rationale is clear.

Professor Peter J. Dean is the director of foreign policy and defence at the United States Studies Centre and was a senior adviser and a principal author on the Defence Strategic Review.

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