First Big Step Towards ‘Anti-China’ AUKUS Pact – Australia Announces New Base For Nuclear-Powered Submarine Fleet

Australian PM Scott Morrison has announced plans for a nuclear submarine base on the country’s east coast. The A$10-billion (US$7.4 billion) facility will support Australia’s new nuclear-powered submarine fleet, likely to be acquired under the AUKUS pact.

Announcing the project in Sydney on March 7, Morrison stressed the importance of a major expansion of Australia’s defense footprint. He said that a location for the new submarine facility will be finalized by the end of next year. 

The Australian government chose the three east coast sites — Newcastle and Port Kembla in New South Wales, and Brisbane, Queensland’s capital — after reviewing 19 options.

“The decision to establish an east coast submarine base has been many years in the making as part of our transition from Collins-[class-submarines],” he said in his speech to the Lowy Institute.

“However, the government has now determined that, to support our decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, establishing a second submarine base on our east coast will enhance our strategic deterrent capability, with significant advantages in operational, training, personnel, and industrial terms,” he added. 

“Australia faces its most difficult and dangerous security environment in 80 years,” Morrison said, warning against increased militarization and attacks on liberal democracies in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Canberra already has a submarine base on its west coast, where it keeps its aging fleet of Collins-class vessels. The Australian Prime Minister made it clear that the current submarine base at HMAS Stirling near Perth will not be changed; Stirling will remain an important part of the nuclear submarine fleet. 

A Boost to AUKUS? 

In September, the Australian government sparked a major diplomatic row when it abruptly canceled a $66 billion deal with the French government to buy 12 new diesel-electric submarines for the Australian navy and instead signed a pact with the United Kingdom and the United States to acquire nuclear-powered subs.

Under this agreement, Australia plans to develop and operate a fleet of nuclear submarines with the help of the US and the UK. The Exchange of Naval Nuclear Propulsion Information Agreement between the AUKUS partners came into effect on February 8.

“This landmark agreement is the first time since 1958 that the US has allowed access to this information. It gives Australia the training and the information sharing that we need to build a nuclear-powered submarine capability here,” Morrison says.

However, there has been no update on whether Australia will build its submarine fleet on a British or American design. Last year, the government stated that it will conduct an 18-month evaluation before agreeing to purchase either the US Virginia Class or UK Astute class submarines. 

NSSN Virginia-Class Attack Submarine, United States of America
NSSN Virginia-Class Attack Submarine of the US Navy. (Image: US Navy )

Defence Minister Peter Dutton told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on March 6 that the decision on the design would be made “within the next couple of months”. However, PM Morrison has refuted this, saying that no decision will be taken before the upcoming federal election. 

“The process isn’t just about deciding the technology and boat option we go forward with. There’s a whole series of things that have to take place after that. We don’t anticipate that it should be done before the election — it won’t be done in that time frame,” Morrison said. 

He also suggested that the new facility would allow nuclear-powered submarines from the United States and the United Kingdom to visit on a regular basis. 

A nuclear-powered submarine is capable of operating at high speeds and can complete the same transit a day faster than a diesel boat can. It also has more storage than a conventional submarine because of its larger displacement and can stay on patrol for a considerably longer duration.  

At the time of the announcement of the AUKUS agreement, the U.S. State Department promised an “enhanced maritime cooperation by increasing logistics and sustainment capabilities of U.S. surface and subsurface vessels in Australia”.

Meanwhile, UK government officials previously told The Times that the Royal Navy’s nuclear attack boats could receive maintenance in Australia under the provisions of the new US-UK-Australian submarine pact. In November 2021, a Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarine made a port visit to Perth, demonstrating the UK’s commitment to the region. 

Given the increasing importance of the Indo-Pacific region, the US and European countries are striving to deepen their engagement with the regional powers. It wouldn’t be surprising if attack submarines from the Royal Australian Navy, United States Navy, and the Royal Navy all embarked from the same base in the coming years.

Moreover, the United States has increased its footprint in the Indo-Pacific region in recent months. Given Australia’s geostrategic location, a new facility would be a significant advantage in confronting any Chinese incursions in the region.

Govt Faces Opposition’s Wrath

The announcement of the facility comes as Morrison is purportedly trying to bolster his national security credentials prior to the May elections. In opinion polls, the prime minister’s center-right Liberal-National coalition is far behind the opposition Labor Party. 

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull criticized the decision to build a new submarine base, stating that purchasing nuclear-powered submarines would be the worst thing Australia could do in the context of escalating global tensions. 

Turnbull claimed that the AUKUS deal had jeopardized Australia’s national security, particularly in light of the escalating instability in Europe, and that it amounted to an “abandonment of sovereignty”. 

“It’s going to result in us having nuclear submarines, if it ever comes to pass, that we not only can’t build, can’t maintain, and will not be able to operate on our own,” he told ABC Radio. “It’s exactly the worst thing that we should be doing in the face of the threats we face.” 

Astute-class nuclear submarine HMS Audacious (via Twitter)

Meanwhile, Morrison said tensions across Europe after the Russian invasion of Ukraine highlighted the higher threat perceptions for Australia. “It highlights the threat of autocracies … and why we need greater capabilities but I think all of those points were driving the forces of AUKUS before these events took place, and it continues to carry it.”

While opposition leader Anthony Albanese supports nuclear-powered submarines, he has yet to understand how the submarine industry in Adelaide, South Australia’s capital, will be impacted.

“There were immediate job losses there, and I couldn’t find (Adelaide) anywhere in the announcement … but we have not received the courtesy of a briefing in advance, so therefore, I’m not going to sign off automatically on that detail,” he told Adelaide radio station 5AA.