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Australia Plans New East Coast Base for Nuclear Submarines

los angeles class sub
The U.S. and UK are partnering with Australia to help the Royal Australian Navy acquire nuclear attack subs, like this Los Angeles-class vessel (U.S. Navy file image)

Published Mar 6, 2022 6:26 PM by The Conversation

[By Michelle Grattan]

On Monday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will unveil a plan for a new submarine base to be built on the east coast in order to support Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines. Announcing the base in a speech to the Lowy Institute, the Prime Minister will declare that “Australia faces its most difficult and dangerous security environment in 80 years."

The government has been elevating national security as an issue for the election, but Australia's Labor party is taking bipartisan positions and can be expected to do so on the submarine base.

Three sites are being considered for the base – Brisbane, Newcastle and Port Kembla. The short list follows after Australia's Defence Department examined 19 possible locations.

Morrison says that on early estimates more than $10 billion is needed to provide the facilities and infrastructure required for the transition from the present Collins-class submarines to the nuclear-powered ones. The money will come from a new allocation within the existing defence budget.

In his speech, a draft of which was released ahead of delivery, Morrison stresses the new base will be extra capacity, not a relocation of existing or planned capacity for Fleet Base West, where the Collins submarines are based. Given its strategic importance to the Indian Ocean, that will remain home for present and future submarines, Morrison says.

“The decision to establish an east coast submarine base has been many years in the making as part of our transition from Collins,” he says. "An optimal east coast base would provide home-ported submarines with specialized wharfs, maintenance facilities, administrative and logistics support, personnel amenities, and suitable accommodation for submarine crews and support staff. It would also enable the regular visiting of US and UK nuclear-powered submarines.”

Defence Minister Peter Dutton on Sunday reiterated that Australia will get the nuclear-powered submarines “much sooner” than the originally-canvassed timeframe of around 2040. Dutton told the ABC the government would have an announcement “within the next couple of months” on “what boat we are going with [and] what we can do in the interim”.

An evaluation process has been underway to determine whether Australia will acquire a British or an American design. Australia will have a gap in submarine capability before the arrival of the nuclear-powered submarines, which has led to speculation about the possibility of leasing.

Dutton said: “Both the US and the UK understand the timelines, they understand what is happening in the Indo-Pacific and they are very, very willing partners”.

Morrison says in his speech that all three sites being considered for the new base meet many of the required criteria. These include:

  • proximity to industrial infrastructure
  • closeness to large population centres to help recruit the substantially larger uniformed submarine workforce needed
  • reasonable proximity to maritime training and operational areas, as well as to deep water, and to weapons storage and loading facilities
  • strategic depth as far as possible from potential threats, and the ability to support the mounting and sustaining of operations.

Morrison says Defence will immediately engage with the NSW and Queensland governments and local authorities to validate the work to date and begin negotiations “on what will be an enormous undertaking." This initial work would be due to be finished by the end of next year.

On February 8, the Exchange of Naval Nuclear Propulsion Information Agreement with AUKUS partners the United States and the United Kingdom came into force.

“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. “It is a huge milestone and a reflection of the strategic trust that we’ve built with our partners.”

On Ukraine, Morrison says “everything points to a bloody and protracted conflict” there. He and Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke at the weekend, including discussing possible ways in which Australia and the international community could further assist. As well as humanitarian assistance, Australia has already provided $70 million in lethal aid.

Morrison says “a new arc of autocracy is instinctively aligning to challenge and reset the world order in their own image. "We face the spectre of a transactional world, devoid of principle, accountability and transparency, where state sovereignty, territorial integrity and liberty are surrendered for respite from coercion and intimidation, or economic entrapment dressed up as economic reward," he said. 

The crisis has been a “major wake up call” for Europe, in both strategic and economic terms, he says. “The strategic, political, economic and social implications of this crisis will be deeply felt in Europe, but will inevitably stretch to the Indo-Pacific,” he says. “This war of choice by Mr Putin is a reminder that, although Australia’s focus is the Indo-Pacific, events anywhere can affect our security. The Indo-Pacific remains at the centre of global geo-strategic competition."

Labor’s defence spokesman Brendan O'Connor told Sky on Sunday: “I think it’s fair to say we’ll see a further increase in investment in defence and Labor supports that approach.”

Michelle Grattan is one of Australia's most respected political journalists. She has been a member of the Canberra parliamentary press gallery for more than 40 years, during which time she has covered all the most significant stories in Australian politics.

This article appears courtesy of The Conversation and appears here in an abbreviated form. The original may be found here