the announcement of the “optimal pathway” to a nuclear-powered submarine via AUKUS on March 14, many more questions have arisen – and answers to date have not been especially revealing. High on the list is what will Australia receive for the $3 billion committed to already – which will come at the expense of other Defence capabilities – an advanced payment that will go to the U.S. and the U.K.


For an announcement of this magnitude after a study phase of 18 months involving 350 Australians and an unknown number of their counterparts in the U.S. and U.K., in essence we received four dot points:

• Beginning in 2023, Australian military and civilian personnel will embed with the U.S. Navy, the Royal Navy, and in the United States and United Kingdom submarine industrial bases to accelerate the training of Australian personnel. The United States plans to increase SSN port visits to Australia beginning in 2023, with Australian sailors joining U.S. crews for training and development; the United Kingdom will increase visits to Australia beginning in 2026.

• As early as 2027, the United States and United Kingdom plan to begin forward rotations of SSNs to Australia to accelerate the development of the Australian naval personnel, workforce, infrastructure and regulatory system necessary to establish a sovereign SSN capability.

• Starting in the early 2030s, pending Congressional approval, the United States intends to sell Australia three Virginia class submarines, with the potential to sell up to two more if needed. This step will systematically grow Australia’s sovereign SSN capability and support capacity.

• In the late 2030s, the United Kingdom will deliver its first SSN-AUKUS to the Royal Navy. Australia will deliver the first SSN-AUKUS built in Australia to the Royal Australian Navy in the early 2040s.

The first two should be relatively easy to achieve without a huge amount of expenditure. The U.S. in particular will be pleased because if submarine “rotations” to Australia are taking place continuously that would seem no different from a capability being permanently based here.

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Kym Bergmann is the editor for Asia Pacific Defence Reporter (APDR) and Defence Review Asia (DRA). He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism and the defence industry. After graduating with honours from the Australian National University, he joined Capital 7 television, holding several positions including foreign news editor and chief political correspondent. During that time he also wrote for Business Review Weekly, undertaking analysis of various defence matters.After two years on the staff of a federal minister, he moved to the defence industry and held senior positions in several companies, including Blohm+Voss, Thales, Celsius and Saab. In 1997 he was one of two Australians selected for the Thomson CSF 'Preparation for Senior Management' MBA course. He has also worked as a consultant for a number of companies including Raytheon, Tenix and others. He has served on the boards of Thomson Sintra Pacific and Saab Pacific.


  1. I think Marles started to talk “sea routes” after widespread Opposition, within Labor ranks and in public surveys, to the A$368 Billion SSN pricetag and loss of sovereignty. This reaction became an Albanese-Marles worry.

    A and M’s spurious “Australia would retain its sovereignty” claim was not helped by the US State, Defense Departments and retired US officials frequently stating along the lines:

    The US and Australia have fought shoulder-to-shoulder for more than 100 years and will continue to carry on that proud tradition.

    Along Coalition of the Willing Forever lines, said US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III after AUKUS was announced in September 2021 :

    “Today, we still stand shoulder-to-shoulder as mates, ready to face the challenges and the opportunities of the future,” Austin said. “That’s what this new trilateral security partnership between the U.S., the U.K. and Australia is all about. … An important first step for AUKUS will be our efforts to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines. This will significantly improve the Australian Navy’s reach and defensive capabilities.

    It will also help contribute to what I call ‘integrated deterrence’ in the region — the ability for the United States military to work more effectively with our allies and partners in defense of our shared security interests.”

    Basically “‘integrated deterrence’ in the region” (a la the US and allies deterring China over Taiwan) trumps separate Australian defence sovereignty or choice.

    • Hi Pete, without an extensive civilian nuclear fuel cycle infra in place, the concept of ‘operational sovereignty’ for N-subs was always going to be difficult to define/defend. I am surprised that there are folks in Australia who are surprised by this and the price tag.

      The price tag is but a natural corollary of not having prior expertise or related N-infra. The 368 billion likely includes a ‘jumpstart booster pack’ /’SSN for dummies’ by the US (and likely UK).

      I would still count 2-3 RAN Virginias in commission by 2040 as a major achievement. There is an conditional ‘IF’ here, the ‘IF’ being ‘if the US will add a Virginia line in Connecticut on nothing short of a war time measure like urgency’ to make the Virginias on time…. this is besides hands on training of Ozzie RAN personnel on current US boats… I am not sure that is a ‘shoo in’ as things stand today…

  2. Just as worrying from the perspective of Australian sovereign decision-making are proposed reforms to Australian Defence legislation, currently subject to a public “consultation” which ends on 21 April.

    According to the government Discussion paper, it aims to “ensure that the domestic legal framework better supports interoperability between Defence and Australia’s international partners”.

    “Future legislation should support this arrangement by enabling interoperability with international allies and partners, including more flexible approaches when hosting foreign personnel and equipment in Australia.”

    The laws will operate “…in a context where seamless interoperability with our international partners is increasingly critical.”

    If the 24 hours that it took Albanese and Marles to commit up to $368 billion to the AUKUS submarine deal is any indication, we already seem to have “seamless interoperability’, at least at the political level.

    We will now be entirely dependent on the Australian office of a major US corporation, World Fuel Supplies to provide a deployable bulk fuel distribution system (DBFDS) to the ADF. Thus, the proposed legislative changes must “support activities by our international allies and partners in Australia. This is a critical requirement as we increase our reliance on shared supply chains and logistics functions…”

    These are worrying signs that our government lacks the will to strengthen our independent capacity for decision-making in matters of foreign policy.

    • I completely agree. For nuclear powered submarines, we might have a form of sovereign capability if there is ever an actual, genuine, joint UK-Australian program in the 2040s to build a shared design in both countries. I think the possibility of this occurring are low because of the enormous cost of having two production lines on opposite sides of the planet, each building less than 10 submarines.

      If Australia buys second hand Virginia class submarines in the 2030s – and I only see that happening if the US manages to massively scale up the construction of new ones – I don’t see how they can be supported in Australia unless we invest billions of dollars more in replicating a lot of infrastructure and having a large fully trained workforce. I’m not ruling it out, but I don’t think it would stand up to even the most basic cost-benefit analysis.

      • Hi, I am Pete’s friend. Myself and Pete have had similar conversations. Sadly, I am inclined to agree that even upgraded older virginias have the potential to become a white elephant for the RAN and ACT by extension. That said, I still think Aus. needs to at least start the process of getting basic crews and technical personnel trained by the US (and UK) as 15 years is the minimum lead time for Generation 1 crew to be ready.

        (As an Indian, I recall the efforts to get crew trained started under Indira Gandhi in 1982-83 and the Arihant SSBN was laid down only in 2009. In between from 1988 onwards 2 Akula SSNs were leased to ensure hands on training was given to have crews ready when Arihant started trials in 2014. Even then there were so many bungles in the 3 decade span)

        The biggest problem I see is from a long term sustainability perspective for an Ozzie N-sub capability is the absence of a complementary civil N program (ideally covering the nuclear fuel cycle incl. ENR). The French solution of focused mission, LEU based SSNs complemented by a huge reservoir of N-engineers, technicians etc going backforth between the Navy and Civilian branches would have given Australia a stable pool of operational personnel given the 25 million population limitation.

        Above all, every ounce of political fortitude that can be mustered will be needed between LNP, ALP and every other political party to see this project through.

        • Hi Ghalib

          I’ve just had a brainwave that can keep newly trained Australian nuclear engineers, techos, scientists and managers busy while they await the Virginias of the 2030s.

          Australia doesn’t need a “complementary civil N program” when Aussies, like Indians, can busy themselves on a Nuclear Weapons program prior to nuclear propelled subs.

          Yes China and Oz’s Southeast Asian and Pacific Island neighbours may harbour some reservations about this N weapons make work plan.

          But our SSNs will be an under-armed extravagance unless they have nuclear tipped future hypersonic cruise missiles.

          “All I Am Saying (is not) Give Peace A Chance” as the Beatles said, but give Nuclear Weapons A Chance at the same time as like-minded democracies, like South Korea, are doing so.

          Cheers Pete


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