Just before the outbreak of World War I, the Australian Royal Australian Navy turned to the “motherland” of its first submarine and more than a century later, Britain is again likely to play a crucial role.
The British built AE1 was commissioned in Portsmouth in February 1914 and, accompanied by her sister AE2, left England for Sydney the following month.
In September of that year, AE1 disappeared and no trace of the submarine’s 35 crew was found – 14 members of the Royal Australian Navy and 21 members of the Royal Navy.
In 2021, the Australian Armed Forces will reconsider what role the Royal Navy could play in the development of its next submarines, or whether it, like many modern acquisitions, will focus on interoperability with American technology.
During the AUKUS partnership, concluded in September, the leaders of the United Kingdom and the United States have agreed to work with Australia on how to build a new class of nuclear-powered submarines.
Over the next 18 months, the nuclear-powered submarine task force in the Ministry of Defense will lead an investigation into the many regulatory issues involved in the ownership and operation of nuclear-powered boats.
Although the design is not yet known, or what the criteria will be, the existing British Astute class is for many commentators emerging as an early favorite for Australia to replace the Collins class fleet.
Others in the defense industry believe that any nuclear-powered Australian submarine must be a Virginia-class U.S. boat so that it can be serviced at nearby U.S. bases in Guam or Japan.
Both the British and American options have different advantages and disadvantages, which highlight the extraordinarily complex process that the ADF faces in choosing a nuclear-powered submarine — which may never actually happen.
The regulatory challenges already look significant, as nothing is more complex and expensive in the military world than nuclear-powered submarines, especially for a country without a domestic nuclear industry.
In the United States, a prominent group of former officials and experts has written to President Joe Biden, warning that the AUKUS agreement could threaten national security by encouraging hostile nations to get heavily enriched uranium (HEU).
Australia insists it will maintain its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but the engineering sector warns that it will be a steep learning curve for the Ministry of Defense.
The now dumped Attack class submarine, designed by France’s Naval Group, was based on the Barracuda class, which lost three years in development due to less complex regulatory issues associated with low enriched uranium (LEU).
“This is a very long-term effort that will take decades, I think, before a submarine goes into the water,” U.S. Naval Chief Admiral Mike Gilday predicted last month.
The Pentagon has not yet decided who will run the submarine process for the United States under the new AUKUS agreement, but Admiral Gilday warns: “I do not see this as a short-term timeline.”
Despite Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s boasting of a “perpetual partnership” in which the United States is willing to share its secret nuclear technology in a “one-time deal”, some still doubt the Pentagon will be ready to part with its “crown jewels” .
On the British side, the experience of building the nuclear-powered Astute fleet has far from been easy, which has required the assistance of the American submarine builder Electric Boat, which also advised on Australia’s Collins program.
Given the two-year delay now expected for Australia’s British-designed Hunter-class frigates, some in the defense believe that there may also be a reluctance to once again rely too heavily on the “motherland” for a far more complex and larger submarine project.