Why does Australia need an east coast submarine base?
11 Mar 2022|

In a speech earlier this week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that Brisbane, Newcastle and Port Kembla are the three possible sites for a new east coast base for Australia’s nuclear submarines under the AUKUS partnership.

Why is a new base needed for the nuclear submarines, given the navy’s existing submarine base in Western Australia south of Perth and the submarine construction and maintenance facilities in Adelaide?

Primary factors are the strategic and operational advantages of both east and west coast basing.

Nuclear submarines’ range and endurance are limited only by how long the human crew can stay healthy and sane on patrol. So, theoretically, they could be based anywhere and operate across the globe.

But humans do crew the boats, and adversaries also calculate how a submarine can move from its home port to areas of interest across the Pacific.

A nuclear submarine coming out of Western Australia’s Stirling naval base would have to go through narrow straits in the Indonesian archipelago to get to these places. One operating out of the east coast has a much broader set of paths there.

A sub from Stirling has advantages threatening a potential adversary that wants to use the narrow Indonesian straits, and also has advantages patrolling around the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean.

So, having bases on both coasts gives Australia’s military broad options and complicates a potential adversary’s plans. Those are two important elements that will help make the nuclear submarines a powerful deterrent weapon.

Why announce the possible base locations now, weeks before a federal election? And what’s involved in a base like this?

A simple reason is politics: Morrison no doubt wants to keep the national security theme running, as he thinks it gives the Coalition an advantage. He probably assesses that Labor remains politically vulnerable here with voters, and keeping Anthony Albanese agreeing with him on security helps Morrison more than it helps Labor.

Beyond the politics, though, getting the possible base locations out into the public debate makes sense. The nuclear submarine program is a decades-long endeavour, and will cost well north of the cancelled French Attack-class subs program’s $90 billion price tag. A figure of double that, maybe even $250 billion, wouldn’t be a surprise.

The last thing any government should do is rush this program, because it needs to be done safely, and it needs to be done well—to the highest levels of regulatory, operational and maintenance skill. Our US and UK partners won’t let us take delivery of highly enriched uranium in nuclear submarine reactors if we even look like we might do it any other way.

However, some big decisions need to be taken early because they will shape the rest of the submarine program, and because it will take a long time to get them underway and done.

Choosing the sites where the subs will operate and be maintained from is one of those big early decisions. Another is choosing whether the US or the UK will be Australia’s primary partner for the program analysis Admiral Jonathan Mead’s taskforce is focused on, together with his US and UK counterparts.

With Morrison’s announcement, the essential community, state and local government consultation can begin with the Queensland and NSW governments and the many stakeholders. Defence and other Commonwealth officials now have the licence to give briefings and take submissions on everything involved in a major new naval base.

Those briefings will be eye-opening. They will start to show the Australian public the magnitude, complexity and scale of this enormous tri-nation endeavour. One picture can tell a lot of this story.

The US Navy’s drydock in Hawaii shows what a new base like the one Morrison announced looks like. Huge, expensive and full of technologies, systems and skilled people that must combine to keep nuclear submarines operationally ready and technologically capable. The new base is not a few wharves, sheds and cranes—unless, in an own goal, Defence builds the base to not do deep maintenance and sustainment.

It should be more like the second Sydney airport and the rapidly growing industrial and research groupings around it. Morrison mentioned having already put aside $10 billion for submarine facilities. This new base and related facilities around it will eat most of that.

I won’t try to do a beauty pageant about Brisbane, Newcastle and Port Kembla in a few words. Each site has benefits. Brisbane was a base for submarines in World War II, although those subs weren’t anything like the size of nuclear boats.

Most important, the three sites share some critical attributes: they have capable and broad industry and research communities close by (universities and existing companies) and populations to recruit crews from. This gives something to use and to grow with new entrants and activities focused specifically on supporting nuclear submarines.

Each place would allow the submarines to operate widely across the Pacific. They are places where a large new submarine base can be built—like the one the US Navy has in Pearl Harbor, without the expensive, deeply competitive fight for waterfront in Sydney Harbour.

That will allow it to be at a scale that allows not just Australian submarines but those of our US and UK partners to be maintained and to operate from it—a direct benefit to our and our region’s security. None of the three will need to compete locally for skilled people with existing naval hubs in Western Australia and South Australia.

There will probably be a whole lot of jockeying and positioning from the various interests promoting each site, along with equally fervent opposition to the idea of having nuclear reactors with highly enriched uranium anywhere near affected communities, no matter how impeccable the safety records.

In the midst of these busy, noisy voices, it will be worth keeping in mind Australia’s dangerous international environment and the contribution that the submarines—and the other faster-moving technologies in the AUKUS arrangement—will make to keeping Australians safe and deterring war.