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Workforce Key Obstacle for Australia, U.S. to Deliver on AUKUS
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SYDNEY — Despite strong political support, a commitment to fund the initiative and an eager industrial base, serious questions remain about whether Australia — and to an extent the United States — can meet the promises of the trilateral agreement to deliver nuclear-powered submarines to Australia.
Finalized in March, the submarine pillar of the Australia-United Kingdom-United States agreement known as AUKUS lays out a four-stage process beginning with embedded training for Australian service members and port visits by U.S. and U.K. nuclear-powered submarines, then rotational presence in Australia of the U.K. Astute-class and U.S. Virginia-class boats.
The third phase is the sale of Virginia-class subs to Australia in the early 2030s, followed by the construction of the U.K.-designed SSN-AUKUS, which the United Kingdom will build in the 2030s and Australia will construct in the early 2040s.
The first step for Australia is getting the regulatory framework in place, Bryan Clark, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said during an interview at the Indo Pacific 2023 International Maritime Exposition in Sydney.
Australia has been laying the groundwork in terms of the policy, infrastructure, people and organizational infrastructure to manage a nuclear power program similar to the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration’s Naval Reactors Program, Clark said.
“I think that’s a good starting point,” he added.
The question will be: to what degree can Australia do that truly independently of the United States, or is their equivalent of the Naval Reactors Program essentially an extension of the U.S. version? Clark asked.
“And when it comes to nuclear maintenance, I think it’s going to be a tough road because just the number of people you need, the training they need is going to be hard to quickly ramp up here in Australia,” Clark said.
“When they get to the point of being able to buy and own nuclear submarines, are they really ready to do that complete operation, or are they going to depend on the U.S. to a great degree?” he asked.
Sam Roggeveen, director of the international security program at Australia’s Lowy Institute, said in an interview he’s in the minority of skeptics of the strategic value of the AUKUS program, but he’s in the majority of those who question Australia’s ability to deliver.
“There’s widespread skepticism among defense commentators and observers about Australia’s capacity particularly to build submarines on shore and to support the capability,” he said.
Roggeveen noted Australia’s longest-serving foreign minister, Alexander Downer — who supports the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines — recently said he has doubts about Australia’s ability to build the SSN-AUKUS.
“He’s extremely skeptical, and in fact to the point of being dismissive that it would ever happen,” Roggeveen said.
However, Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles is bullish on the entire program. He told reporters at the conference the bulk of Australia’s investment in the AUKUS program will be directed toward building domestic capability.
“This will be one of the most significant industry endeavors in our country’s history, getting onto the horse of being able to produce, actually manufacture, a nuclear-powered submarine is a massive endeavor,” Marles said. “These are the most complex machines known to humanity.”
One of the biggest challenges the country will face is building the workforce needed to construct and operate the submarines, he said.
“It’s why we are establishing an academy at the Osborne [Naval Shipyard], which will be focused on that trade-level skill, to make sure that we are growing that part of the workforce,” he said. “That’s why we are funding 4,000 Digital University places specifically in respect of disciplines which will go into the production of nuclear-powered submarines in this country — I think that is going to be the most critical challenge that we face.
“Having said that, I feel confident that we can do that,” he continued. “There’s obviously a lot that we need to be doing in terms of developing the physical infrastructure, both at Osborne in terms of allowing ourselves to generate that production line, which will manufacture the submarines, but also in Western Australia and [naval base] HMAS Stirling so that we can begin hosting nuclear-powered submarines, as we are already doing, but prepare ourselves for the submarine rotation, which will happen later in this decade with the United States and the United Kingdom.”
Tim Senden, director of the research school of physics at Australian National University, said in an interview the required workforce probably exists in the country.
“There’s two ways of looking at it,” he said. “We do have a skilled workforce already, but they just need to some extent — in the early stages — to be reskilled. The range of projection for the workforce is between 5,000 and 20,000 additional people by 2040.”
Not all will need to be new graduates because some can be pulled from other industries and reskilled or upskilled, he said. “So, I don’t actually know what the uplift is. I’m not sure anyone truly does.”
“From the university perspective, there’s of course a highly skilled nuclear engineering and nuclear physics program,” he said. “It’s not like Australia is starting from zero. And that means, particularly in the nuclear physics arena, we’ve had very, very many long, deep relationships with national laboratories, and of course the AUKUS partners. So, I think from an academic perspective, we have enough human capital to get moving.”
Then there will be the next tier of skilled workers, those who need to have greater specialization in the nuclear industry, Senden said. “That’s probably the bigger area to activate upfront.”
Tony Irwin, principal lecturer for nuclear reactors and the nuclear fuel cycle at Australian National University, said there’s been a huge influx of students in the last year.
“We’ve just done a special course for defense with people from the [Australian Submarine Agency] at quite a high level,” he said. “So, there’s a lot of work going into upskilling and the education part of it.”
And then there will be the non-nuclear trade workers needed to build and maintain facilities, Senden said.
“I think in Australia, maybe in the world, the manual skills, mechanical, electrical fields are probably in demand everywhere irrespective of industry,” he said. “So, I think that’s going to be more of a global skill shortage than anything. So, the challenge for Australia will be to mobilize and to get really new people thinking about the trades — the technically skilled and how they can pivot into engineering, project management and bigger project design capabilities.”
Another question is whether workers in Australia will be willing to move to the locations where the submarine maintenance and eventually production will take place, he added.
And while there is cautious optimism that Australia will be able to build its workforce and industrial base to meet the AUKUS submarine milestones, there is perhaps more uncertainty about whether the United States can deliver.
As of the time of publication, the U.S. Congress had yet to ratify the AUKUS agreement. Marles said he’s confident Congress will move forward.
“There is legislation which is going through the U.S. Congress as we speak, legislation which goes to reducing the export control regime as it applies between Australia and America, legislation which will enable the sale of the Virginias, but importantly legislation which will enable the provision of the Australian contribution to the American industrial uplift,” he said.
Under the AUKUS agreement, Australia has agreed to provide $3 billion to the United States to bolster the submarine industrial base.
“It is about uplifting United States industrial capability so that they can have a greater production rate of the Virginia-class submarines, but more significantly, that they can do greater sustainment to get a greater availability rate of their Virginia-class submarines, which enables them to provide us with the Virginias in the first part of the 2030s,” he said.
Under the terms of the AUKUS agreement, the United States will sell at least three, and up to five, Virginia-class submarines to Australia in the early 2030s.
While Marles and many others are optimistic that the United States will be able to increase the production rate of Virginia-class boats and crank out a few to sell to Australia, other experts and analysts, like Bryan Clark, are saying the Aussies need to be thinking certified pre-owned.
“The U.S. government’s going to have to be honest with itself and with the public to say, ‘We’re not going to be able to build additional submarines to satisfy the AUKUS demand, so we’re going to have to sell from our own inventory,’ which will be hard,” he said.
Selling 10 percent of the operational submarine fleet to Australia seems like a lot, he said, but it’s a worthwhile trade to have full-time availability in the Indo-Pacific theater.
“I think that that’s an argument that the U.S. government can make, but they need to start being kind of transparent about the fact that we will not build extra submarines,” he said. “There’s no capacity in the industrial base to really pull off the construction of three-to-six extra submarines in the next 10 years. There’s just no way to do that.”
Again, the main limitation is the U.S. workforce, he said. “Manpower is going to be a bigger constraint in some cases than money,” Clark added.