Shaping a nuclear-powered culture within the Royal Australian Navy
27 Jun 2024|

With the continuing implementation of AUKUS Pillar 1, it’s imperative that the culture of the budding Australian nuclear navy is built with care. Failure to lay the cultural foundation now would risk creating a force that’s undermanned, overworked and unprepared for conflict.

Strong leadership will be required to reduce the chances of the poor retention rates seen by both the US nuclear navy and the Royal Navy from establishing themselves in the Royal Australian Navy.

Asking the correct questions is imperative. What’s the ideal selection process for nuclear personnel? What should the community’s guiding principles be? What support is most needed for the personnel to thrive?

Given the complex technical and interpersonal requirements for running nuclear-powered submarines, leadership needs to meld excellent engineering acumen with exemplary emotional intelligence. The US Navy’s selection process hinges almost entirely on a series of technical interviews in which nuclear officer candidates complete complex mathematics and science problems, but that doesn’t capture interpersonal skills.

A possible solution would be to select only sailors who have already completed an engineering tour for follow-on nuclear training and posting. Having their captain’s endorsement and a strong performance history would minimise the variabilities in their leadership skills.

Should there be additional psychological health screenings for all nuclear personnel? What’s the best way to balance diversity goals with the need for personnel with science, engineering and mathematics backgrounds, given the relative lack of diversity in enrolment? Inadvertently creating an old boys club would weaken the community, but attracting top-performing talent from a smaller selection pool will be difficult.

Even years after leaving the US nuclear navy, sailors can rattle off the seven principles that shaped their professional lives: formality, forceful watchteam backup, procedural compliance, integrity, a questioning attitude, level of knowledge, and ownership. Are those the right guidelines for the Australian navy? What would they mean in an Australian context?

The ultimate goal of nuclear propulsion is to provide reliable power no matter the tactical circumstances, and the expectation is that all systems will be functional. When the power plant operates well, engineers are practically invisible. When they get any attention, it’s often due to degradations and inoperable systems. That can create negative feedback loops that drive down morale and, ultimately, retention.

This is why creating an ethos of silent service is the key to the nuclear navy. Engineers will work harder, longer and for less thanks than most of the crew. There’s no avoiding that, but, with the right principles, it can become a source of pride and foster a culture of comradery and mutual support that will prove invaluable in operating and maintaining the power plants. Those principles should be simple and incorporated into every stage of training to ensure the widest uptake.

A comprehensive review of current support practices, including mental health management, can identify the strengths and weak points within the system as it stands. Offering large retention and recruitment bonuses, as the Australian Defence Force has recently done and as the US and Royal navies have been doing for years, provides only temporary financial support.

How does the Australian navy recruit and maintain readiness for its sailors who may be more at risk? The pool of eligible naval recruits is shrinking as the incidence of mental health issues trends upwards. This complicates the induction of sailors for some of the most arduous mental conditions within the forces. There’s already a growing need to provide mental health support to currently serving personnel.

One potential way to support nuclear submariners would be a rigorous ombudsman program to alleviate sources of stress about family left ashore. Another would be incorporation of basic psychological care into leadership programs. Also, continuing education, certification and professional development are vital.

Getting this right will boost recruitment and retention, but will also set sailors up for success upon leaving the service. Given Australia’s current lack of nuclear engineering jobs outside of the navy, this will be instrumental in demonstrating whole-of-life support to the sailors.

What the Australian navy should be doing right now is examining how best to develop its nascent nuclear personnel so that they become a pillar of the ADF.

The chance to build the nuclear culture and community from the ground up shouldn’t be squandered. There’s much good to be drawn from the US, British and Australian military experiences, but this is a chance to take the good and leave out the bad.

To do that, people must be selected with care and diligence. The principles that provide daily guidance and form the core of the nuclear community’s professional pride must be clearly established from the outset. Adequate support to not only maintain the community but to enable it to thrive is vital.