Unpacking the (semi-)announcement of a submarine base on Australia’s east coast
9 Mar 2022|

One of my colleagues told me on Monday morning that we were going to get a ‘semi-announcement’ on Australia’s submarine basing that day. The government has been making quite a lot of semi-announcements lately about defence capability; I think we’re up to semi-announcement number three on the long-range anti-ship missile and it’s still not clear what capability we are going to get, or when.

Since its announcement of AUKUS and its intention to acquire nuclear-propelled attack submarines (SSNs) in September last year, the government has also been doing some ‘semi-messaging’ on the submarine enterprise. Defence Minister Peter Dutton has been semi-messaging that we’re going to get SSNs much earlier than the late 2030s date first suggested by the government, though he hasn’t said how that’s going to happen. He also semi-messaged on the ABC on Sunday that the government might make an announcement about its choice of SSN before the election, nearly a year before the nuclear submarine taskforce is due to make its recommendation to the government.

So, what did we get on Monday—a semi-announcement or an honest-to-goodness announcement with some new news and actual information that indicates real progress on the SSNs?

As always, a little historical context is helpful. We’ve known since the Rudd government (semi-)announced in 2009 that it intended to double the size of the Royal Australian Navy submarine fleet to 12 boats that we’d need an east coast submarine base. The navy has done sterling work in increasing its submariners to 800, the number needed for its six Collins-class boats. But the Defence Department’s analysis has repeatedly shown that getting to at least 2,000, the number needed for a larger fleet of bigger boats, would require access to larger population centres on the east coast to support recruitment and retention.

That’s the primary driver for an east coast base. There are other ones. Two bases give redundancy, which is very useful now that Australia sits under the umbrella of China’s long-range strike capability. The east coast also gives better access to much of the Pacific without needing to navigate the straits and shallows of the archipelago to our north.

It’s not surprising, then, that an east coast base had been baked into the submarine plan, even before the Attack-class was cancelled. That’s why there’s already $10 billion provisioned in Defence’s 2020 force structure plan under the euphemistic title of ‘Undersea Warfare Support Facilities and Infrastructure’.

Over the years, Defence has done a lot of studies into the optimal location for an east coast submarine base. The problem is that all the good sites are already occupied. Every site has advantages and disadvantages and there’s no stand-out candidate. So, it’s not surprising that each study has reached different conclusions. The usual candidates are Brisbane, Newcastle, Sydney, Port Kembla and Jervis Bay.

Sydney is now out because it just doesn’t have the spare real estate for a fleet of SSNs, plus no government wants to pick a fight with the wealthy and influential people who ring the harbour and don’t want to live next to nuclear reactors. Also, shutting down a city of five million should an accident happen is not a pleasant prospect. Jervis Bay is out because every tree-hugging, bird-watching nature lover in the country (including me) would fight it. So that just leaves Brisbane, Newcastle and Port Kembla.

So, if this was all part of the plan already and all the government has done is rule out a couple of locations, does that mean Monday’s news was only a semi-announcement? Not really. It’s actually a significant statement. No government has previously said so clearly that it intends to develop an east coast submarine base. That’s important because it allows us to start the two conversations we have to have. The first is about how Defence can gain access to real estate that is likely already occupied. That will require finding a way to encourage the current occupants to leave. Some of them could be thinking about moving already; coal ports such as Newcastle and Port Kembla might be very keen to have a large defence facility whose economic impact could help ease the pain of the impending transition to the post-carbon economy.

That gets us to the second, but probably even more difficult, conversation. Generally, local communities are eager to host Australian Defence Force facilities. But many people simply don’t want nuclear reactors in their harbours, regardless of the impeccable safety records of the US and UK nuclear submarine programs. And there are fears about becoming a strategic target (see earlier point about Chinese strike capabilities). Those concerns figured in the immediate reaction to Monday’s announcement. That aversion will be reinforced if Defence can’t develop a long-term disposal plan that doesn’t involve rusting submarines and their reactors sitting for decades in port before they can be dismantled.

This is where the government and Defence need to lift their messaging game. The original AUKUS announcement came out of nowhere with no consultation. For the average person in the street, so did the one about the east coast base. If the government and Defence want to bring the Australian public with them on the long journey to acquiring an SSN capability, they will need to engage rather than just announce.

But Monday’s news also had elements of the semi-announcement to it. Key details such as which functions will be conducted at the new base were left out. Whether deep maintenance will still be done in Adelaide or moved east is an interstate stoush that the government has no interest in unleashing right before an election. And there was little to suggest that Defence is close to developing the information needed for a decision on the location, function and construction schedule of the base. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that initial work on the basing decision would be completed by the end of 2023—that’s nearly a year after the submarine taskforce is meant to report back to the government with its recommendation on the best pathway to an SSN capability. Announcements are not the same as information.

As for the semi-messaging that the government’s choice of submarine could be announced ahead of the election, the prime minister hosed that down in the question and answer session after his speech to the Lowy Institute on Monday. A year and a half is not a lot of time for the submarine taskforce to answer a long list of very difficult questions that they need to get right. It’s probably best to let them use it.