As the Australian government welcomes US approval of an interim submarine sale ahead of a new British design, a new report raises questions about Canberra’s ability to deliver AUKUS on time and on budget.

Passed last week, the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act greenlit the sale of Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, required to fill a capability gap in between the phase out of its older Collins-class fleet and the delivery of the new AUKUS subs. It will make Australia the first non-nuclear weapons state to possess such technology which will no doubt increase a wider tendency towards nuclear proliferation.

The NDAA also included permission for the Virginias to be repaired at Australian shipyards, training for Australian contractors in the US, as well as technology shares and exemptions for both Australia and the UK from the US export licensing regime. All are aspects required to help Australia make its own UK-designed fleet under the AUKUS pact. The same design will also replace the British Royal Navy’s Astute fleet in the 2040s.

However, a report published by the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre earlier this month raises questions about Australia’s ability to make and deliver its submarines on time. AUKUS inflection point: Building the ecosystem for workforce development, draws on the problems experienced by US and Britain in building their respective Virginia and Astute fleets despite their experience in shipbuilding and nuclear technology.

Among them include the plague of delays and cost overruns faced by manufacturer BAE Systems during its 17-year programme to build the Astutes. These are blamed on a major drop in the workforce at the Barrow shipyard from 13,000 to 3,000 between the end of the building of Britain’s Vanguard-class and the start of the Astute programme. A reduction in Ministry of Defence staff at Barrow also led to less government oversight, compounding problems further. According to a 2022 report by the Labour Party on overspending in the MoD, delivery of boats 4-7 in the Astute fleet alone came in £1 billion over budget.

Australia is expected to need a 20,000-strong workforce to build and maintain its AUKUS fleet – with many more working in its supply chain. But with unemployment at a 50-year low, it could face problems in finding the staff to deliver the programme as non-military sectors compete for the same workers.

Popular support is also necessary for the programme to work. However, the report highlights that the Australian public is more than ambivalent about the AUKUS pact. Its remit has already extended beyond submarines to include deep space radar technology and hypersonic missile development. A poll conducted by The Guardian in March 2023 found that only a quarter of Australians were happy to pay AUS$368 billion for its AUKUS fleet. It also found that only 40 percent thought the pact would make them safer, down 4 percent from November 2022.

CND General Secretary Kate Hudson said:

“From aircraft carriers to nuclear submarines, major overspending at the taxpayer’s expense has become an all-too-familiar feature of military procurement. Announced in the final months of the previous Australian government and quickly expanded to include a raft of new military technologies, everything is stacking up to suggest that the AUKUS submarine programme will be the same. There is considerable opposition to AUKUS in Australia and it is likely to grow further when the price tag inevitably rises. Driving a new arms race in the Indo-Pacific will make Australia less secure and increase tension in the region. And building the subs would draw in scarce and valuable resources that could be better used in sectors like the green economy. It’s time for Australia to pull the plug on AUKUS.”

Image credit: BAE Systems