AUKUS gathering steam as Australia and US commit

From theory to practical implementation, the tripartite AUKUS agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States is coming closer to cutting metal, or at least soil, for new nuclear-powered conventionally armed submarines.

And as milestones move closer, organisations with potential involvement are committing to the early preparation required to ensure they are in the right place at the right time, and New Zealand is asking questions about how it may join the team, or at least share in the technology and industry opportunities.

In November the South Australian and Australian Governments signed a land swap agreement, with South Australia giving up federal defence-owned land around the city of Adelaide for 60 hectares at the Osborne submarine construction site, for a construction yard and a training academy.

In December the US Congress passed the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which officially rubber stamped the sale of three Virginia Class submarines to Australia, including two in-service submarines and one off the production line.

The same bill authorised maintenance of US submarines by Australians in Australia and the training of Australians in US shipyards, included a national exemption from US export control licensing requirements and added Australia and the United Kingdom to Title III of the US Defense Production act.

“The US Congress has provided unprecedented support to Australia in passing the National Defense Authorization Act which will see the transfer of submarines and streamlined export control provisions, symbolising the strength of our Alliance, and our shared commitment to the AUKUS partnership,” said Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, Richard Marles, at the time.

“We are on the precipice of historic reform that will transform our ability to effectively deter, innovate, and operate together.”

There are still pundits suggesting AUKUS is destined to be canned by a future Australian government or binned immediately if Donald Trump becomes the next US president, although Steve Bannon, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager, has recently dismissed such speculation.

But state and federal governments and industry seem committed to the pathway, in both the submarine related Pillar 1 of AUKUS and the diverse technologies for Pillar 2.

With workforce development expected to be a speed hump for production of the submarines in Australia, the Australian Government announced in November that it would fund 4001 additional university places, to the tune of $128 million, across 16 Australian universities offering a total of 38 STEM-related courses. This project is particularly aiming to attract more students to train in engineering, mathematics, chemistry, and physics.

Bisalloy Steel has also announced it is an early contractor for AUKUS, entering a contract with the fledgling Australian Submarine Agency for the steel to be used on the SSN AUKUS design, with its 4500-test qualification cycle expected to be completed in the first half of 2025.

Other advances have been flagged with the AUKUS badge, including the Trusted Operation of Robotic Vehicles in a Contested Environment (TORVICE) trial, a combined US, UK and Australian exercise testing how autonomous ground vehicles might react when under attack from electronic warfare weapons.

And the Royal Australian Navy has also begun ramping up its move to become a nuclear-powered force. Earlier this year the RAN announced that three officers had graduated from the U.S. Nuclear Power Training Unit (NPTU) program in Charleston, South Carolina.

A US Jeep leads two US Raptors during a Trusted Operation of Robotic Vehicles in a Contested Environment (TORVICE) trial.

Lieutenant Commanders Heydon and Klyne and Lieutenant Hall are the first cadre of Royal Australian Navy personnel to complete one of the U.S. Department of Defense’s most rigorous and demanding training pipelines.

“I was really looking forward to putting the concepts and theories we learned at power school into operation at the prototype training,” said Klyne.

“Operating a nuclear reactor was thrilling, humbling, and allowed us get that hands-on experience we need to safely operate the Royal Australian Navy’s future SSNs.”

With continuous activity in industry, government and defence on AUKUS, the Western Australian Government has staked its claim as a major venue for a national event unpacking how the AUKUS pact will influence Australia’s Indian Ocean strategy, diplomacy, and industry. And it has a point, with Western Australia likely to be one of the first places where the AUKUS program becomes visible.

Over the next decade, the Australian Government will invest up to $8 billion to expand the HMAS Stirling naval base which will house the AUKUS submarines on the west coast, creating around 3,000 direct jobs.

Western Australia is also set to receive more frequent port visits by United States nuclear-powered submarines, with the United Kingdom to follow from 2026. This will further strengthen Australia’s experience with SSNs in Western Australia.

As early as 2027, HMAS Stirling will host the rotational presence of UK and US nuclear-powered submarines. This initiative, known as ‘Submarine Rotational Force-West’ (SRF-West), will develop Australia’s ability to operate, maintain and safely steward our future SSNs by deploying our Navy personnel on visiting UK and US boats where they will gain at-sea experience with naval nuclear propulsion.

From the early 2030s HMAS Stirling will house Australia’s first sovereign SSN capability, the US Virginia class submarines.

With so much happening in industry, government and defence, the Western Australian Government has flagged its Indian Ocean Defence & Security 2024 (IODS 2024) conference and exhibition, at the Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre, as the place to chart progress and discern what may come next.

The event will unpack the real-world issues and impacts of the tripartite Australia, United Kingdom, and United States AUKUS agreement and the four-nation “Quad” dialogue between Australia, the US, Japan and India.

The event has already confirmed speakers including:

Royal Australian Navy Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Mark Hammond, AO, RAN;

Admiral Sir Ben Key KCB CBE ADC, United Kingdom First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff;

Dr. Kurt Campbell, Deputy Assistant to the President of the United States and Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs on the US National Security Council;

Amb. Sujan R. Chinoy, Director General of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) in New Delhi.

The event’s 2024 theme, Where AUKUS Meets The Quad, will explore two of Australia’s premier international diplomatic partnerships and the challenges and opportunities they present for international engagement.

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