Australia looks to plug nuclear subs gap

·2-min read

Australia's nuclear submarine program is starting to take shape a year after the plan was unveiled, but the defence minister says time is of the essence in deciding which model to buy.

The future fleet is a major part of the historic AUKUS agreement with the United States and United Kingdom.

The government remains on track to finalise its submarine strategy by March after 18 months of consultation.

This process has run alongside a review of Australia's defence spending priorities and capability gaps.

Defence Minister Richard Marles said the government would prefer a nuclear boat used by one of the AUKUS partners rather than a bespoke design.

"It would be advantageous to be operating a submarine which is being operated elsewhere as well," Mr Marles told the ABC on Friday.

"Time is of the essence. We need to get options as soon as possible."

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, who was defence minister when the pact was signed, said he would work with the government to deliver the submarines quickly.

"We'll provide every support because it's in our country's best interest that we acquire that capability, sooner than later," he told the Nine Network.

One year on from inking the pact, Australia has taken the first steps to develop a domestic industry.

Local crews will train on UK submarines while defence officials participate in nuclear reactor courses and universities teach engineers and scientists.

"The optimal pathway is taking shape. We can now begin to see it," Mr Marles said.

Jonathon Mead, the nuclear submarine project lead, is confident Australia will be able to operate the vessels without relying on the US or UK.

The design will be similar to how Australia operates its existing submarine fleet, which uses a US combat system.

Local personnel maintain a working understanding of the submarine systems and can be briefed by US counterparts on any major issues that arise.

For its nuclear-powered fleet, Australia is looking to ramp up its industrial base and prove to the US and Britain that submarines can be built and maintained in the country.

Vice Admiral Mead has identified land in South Australia to be used for the submarine project and is in discussions with the state government to develop a local workforce strategy.

Australia controversially scrapped a French submarine deal in favour of the AUKUS agreement, with a leaked confidential document revealing officials were kept in the dark about the cancellation.

The leaked note was written by former Department of Defence deputy secretary Kim Gillis and first published by the ABC.

Mr Gillis wrote he did not believe any more than a handful of people within Defence knew the French submarine contract was being dumped.

He also canvassed reopening discussions with the French about buying nuclear-powered submarines in the future.