“Australia’s sharpest minds” needed to implement nuclear submarine plan


Multidisciplinary task force recruits “Australia’s sharpest minds” to tackle the Herculean task of providing the Royal Australian Navy with eight nuclear-powered submarines, to acquire technical skills the nation does has yet to maintain them and train highly specialized crews. to drive them.

Given the immense complexity of this project revealed in the explosive September announcement by US President Joe Biden and Australian and British Prime Ministers Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson, and the scale of Australia’s strategic shift, these spirits will have their work cut out for them.

Whatever promises are made, the hardest part of this deal will be convincing the United States that, from a nearly standing start, Australia is able to muster the skills needed to manage military assets. and most valuable and best-kept nuclear power plants in the United States. secrets.

Hundreds of Australian sailors will need to develop nuclear engineering skills, and a national infrastructure will need to be created to accommodate and maintain nuclear-powered ships in Australia and those of its allies.

Building this type of nuclear capability will take a decade or more. And whatever gaps exist in Australia’s submarine capability during this process, they will need to be addressed.

The creation of a new trilateral security partnership – AUKUS – involving the United States, United Kingdom and Australia with the primary objective of supplying these submarines was a remarkable turnaround in the next few years. the constant statement by US officials that their naval nuclear technology would not be shared even with an ally as close as Australia. They had only done this once before – with Britain in 1958, at the height of the Cold War.

After this well-kept secret was revealed, the head of the ASPI Defense, Strategy and National Security Program, Michael Shoebridge, was quick to note that all of this had become possible due to the drastic change in the global strategic situation caused by an increasingly aggressive China. .

As recently as 2016, Australia chose a conventional diesel-powered submarine as its key underwater weapon, to be built in partnership with the French.

“A nuclear submarine was then ruled out because of the sensitivity of military nuclear technologies, their complexity and cost, and because we were told that our strategic needs would be met by the diesel submarine,” Shoebridge said. “The sensitivity, complexity and cost remain. What has changed is our security environment. It can be summed up in three words: China under Xi.

On the day of the announcement, White House officials briefed reporters on the importance for Australia of having nuclear-powered submarines that are fast, stealthy, very long-range and capable of operating closely together. with the US Submarine Fleet. They underlined the complexity of the project and the difficulty of moving it forward from its inception.

It would start with an 18-month effort by technical, strategic and naval teams from all three countries to figure out how this can be done.

The move follows months of high-level negotiations conducted in secret and would mark the biggest strategic milestone Australia has taken in generations.

“It allows Australia to play at a much higher level and increase American capabilities which will be similar. And it’s about maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific, ”US officials said.

They made it clear that this increased strategic role would see Australia align ever more closely with the United States for decades to come. They said the deal was “huge” in Australia and that the negotiations had been conducted with a high degree of discretion.

In an effort to make up for two decades of lost time, the government, the Australian defense establishment and shipbuilders in the United States and Britain are fully aware of the scale of what they have undertaken.

Over many years and various plans, trying to assemble a new fleet of submarines to eventually replace the current fleet of Collins-class boats, Australia has greatly upset the Swedes, Germans, Japanese and now the French.

In the USA, Morrison said he made it clear to the French a few months ago that a conventionally powered submarine would no longer meet Australia’s strategic demands and what these ships should do.

“It was communicated very clearly several months ago,” Morrison said. “We were working on these issues.”

While Morrison told French President Emmanuel Macron in June that Australia no longer needs the Attack-class submarines, it appears that information has not been passed on to their builder, Naval Group. And if that had been the case, it is likely that Naval Group would have assumed that it would have been asked to supply Australia with the original nuclear-powered Barracuda on which the Attack-class was to be based.

The first of the nuclear-powered Barracuda, the Suffren, was launched in Cherbourg in July 2019 in the presence of representatives of the Australian Navy.

After Morrison’s comments to Macron, the prospect of reversing the process “build us a conventionally powered submarine based on your nuclear powered submarine design” would have made perfect sense to the French. A lot of design work had already been done to marry the conventional version of Australia with the American combat system intended for it.

Australia’s move to nuclear with the Americans and the British seems to have been lost in translation.

The real shock of the French when they learned that the contract would go to the United States or Britain, or both, could not have been greater than their surprise when originally asked. to build us a submarine similar to their nuclear Barracuda but with a diesel-electric system and a mass of batteries. In terms of performance, some compared it to buying a Formula 1 racing car and replacing its engine with that of a small sedan, which is why the Attack class could no longer be considered a “superior regional” design.

One of the questions that remain unclear after the US and UK move under AUKUS is whether Australia will end up with an American nuclear submarine or a British submarine that the Americans will help. But the central source of key technology is the United States.

Morrison announced that the eight submarines will be built in Adelaide.

U.S. officials have made it clear that the process of equipping RAN with nuclear-powered submarines will be both difficult and important. “Australia does not have a national nuclear infrastructure. They have made a major commitment to move in this direction. It will be a sustained effort for years to come.

Between February and September, Vice-Admiral Jonathan Mead, now head of the Nuclear-Powered Submarine Task Force, led a “Defense Capacity Building Review” to determine what was possible to do Australia a more efficient submarine.

Today, its multi-agency, whole-of-government working group has brought together more than 80 experts, including nuclear specialists from the Australian Organization for Nuclear Science and Technology and the Australian Radiation Protection and Technology Agency. nuclear safety.

“We are,” Mead told a Senate committee, “are vigorously recruiting Australia’s sharpest minds to serve on the task force so that we can deliver on the government’s commitment.”

US officials have frankly said the nuclear submarine decision would mean much deeper interoperability between the US, UK and Australian navies and their nuclear infrastructure.

This move would bind Australia to the United States and the United Kingdom decisively for generations.

Defining the scale of this strategic development, Shoebridge said Biden, Johnson and Morrison have come together (virtually) to announce AUKUS has marked a shift towards more robust deterrence from China by some of the most powerful and militant democracies. of the world. This is the huge geostrategic news behind the announcement – and it will be understood in Beijing and around the world.

“The long-term nature of the AUKUS partnership is the strongest possible statement that the challenge we face from China is equally long-term – no change of tone or even the most judicious diplomacy is likely to succeed. change the instinctive path and mindset of Xi’s struggle Deterrence by a growing set of powerful nations may well.

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