The pathway to achieving an Australian nuclear-powered conventionally armed submarine (SSN) has made steady, and at times remarkable, progress over the past year.

Since the optimal pathway to an Australian SSN capability was announced on 13 March, 2023, the Australian Submarine Agency has been established, US SSN visits to HMAS Stirling in Western Australia have increased, infrastructure work is well under way to support Submarine Rotational Force West and the building of SSN-AUKUS in Adelaide, Australian naval officers have graduated from nuclear propulsion schools in the US, thousands of new funded university places have been announced and the ASA has launched its Nuclear Graduate Program. The announcement of the ASA’s design and sustainment industry partners is imminent. Work that would normally have taken years has been completed in a matter of only months.

In the US, passage of the 2024 National Defence Authorisation Act on December 15 was momentous where AUKUS implementation is concerned. The Act offered long-awaited authorisations to enable AUKUS co-operation. It will facilitate unprecedented levels of scientific and technological exchange, and industrial co-operation. Significantly, this Act did not just provide exemptions for Australia on specific AUKUS projects, but broadbased national exemptions through Australia’s inclusion in Title III of the US Defence Act – the most significant move to date by the US to support Australia’s request for an SSN capability.

However, following much of the commentary on the one-year anniversary of the “optimal pathway” over the past few weeks, one could be easily led to believe that the AUKUS submarine deal is dead in the water.

The rallying cry of AUKUS doomsday preppers has become the Pentagon’s recent budget request to the US congress seeking funding for a single new Virginia-class SSN in 2025, rather than the usual two. This has been leapt on by critics as either the US’s unwillingness or inability to meet AUKUS agreements.

What sceptics have overlooked is the unprecedented $US4bn injection into the submarine industrial base it proposes in 2025, and $US11bn over five years, which will be invested in concert with Australia’s promised $US3bn commitment. In addition, there is a further $US3.3bn for the submarine industrial base in the US National Security Supplemental awaiting appropriation. Together, this budget request could culminate in a $US21.3bn injection in workforce, training, education, shipyards, the supply chain and manufacturing.

With the US currently only producing 1.2 SSNs annually, improving the capacity of the submarine base stands to be a more important demonstration of US capacity to deliver AUKUS than a consistent yearly submarine request. The industrial base is the wellspring of submarine production and is a rightful focus as the US endeavours to lift production over the short, medium and long term. What’s more this is not the US defence budget; it’s merely the first step in a long budget negotiation progress, delivered to a congress that has repeatedly voiced its desire to advance US Virginia-class SSN production. And in the US system congress is the body with final authority over the budget.

But the initial proposal to only purchase one SSN in the US solicited instant claims of vindication from a small band of vocal AUKUS opponents. As one defence analyst noted, “the reptilian pile-on against AUKUS in Australia has been something to behold”, especially the “gleeful desire some people have to see it fail”.

But in their rush to proclaim certain victory at AUKUS’s supposed downfall – on the basis of one data point – the opponents betray the single-mindedness of their opposition. The anti-AUKUS coalition is only unified by its opposition.

Despite claims that “the anti-AUKUS argument is now reasonably complex and sophisticated”, closer examination of this loose, and rather odd, coalition of dissenters reveals arguments of overwhelming opposition without a clarity of purpose.

For some, their opposition is driven by visceral, and often personal, political differences, generally with those inside their party; political legacies and the desire for continued relevance provide deep-seated motivation. Driving the broader group of dissenters together is a combination of deep-seated anti-Americanism, fear (rightfully) of the unpredictability of a Trump redux, distaste for anything nuclear, theoretical views of international politics, disgruntlement and dissatisfaction with the Defence Department, and the promotion of personal alternatives to current strategic policy. They range from the right to the left of politics and most places in between; from politicians to commentators, from peace activists to neo-realist academics.

When you probe beneath the surface of this loose coalition of dissenters, you find they are completely fractured in their views. They cannot agree on almost anything.

Their views on Australia’s strategic environment, the role of the US, China’s regional ambitions, questions of sovereignty, nuclear power, the role submarines play, or indeed even if we need them in our defence force at all, are, more often than not, at odds with each other.

The depth charges of dissent they rhetorically throw include Australia’s lack of preparedness or desire for nuclear stewardship, binary notions of SSNs as offensive weapons, broad sweeping claims that SSNs come at the expense of Australian sovereignty, or that this is a return to Cold War notions of forward defence.

They are easy claims to make, but they lack evidence or indeed defy declared policy or public statements by the government. This means that conjecture over their arguments abound.

Despite all the bluster of the AUKUS dissenters, their ideological devotion to abject disapproval, and the lack of coherence in their opposition, means their critiques are having no perceptible impact on the government or the opposition’s policy position. This is unlikely to change.

None of this is to say there is not a need for contestability. AUKUS is high-risk and highly complex. Such a significant policy direction demands deep public debate. In many respects, the Morrison and Albanese governments have been the architects of where the muddled state of the public debate currently stands.

Though the 2023 Defence Strategic Review provided clarity around national defence, the focus on a regional balance of power with allies and partners, deterrence by denial and the requirement for an asymmetric capability edge in the underwater domain, neither government released an official document nor made a major speech providing a comprehensive strategic rationale for the capability. Instead, political leaders’ statements are largely replete with retail politics about jobs and broad sweeping statements of deterrence.

The pathway to implementing a multigenerational project, especially one that is as significant an uplift of capability for the Australian Defence Force as AUKUS proposes, will never be linear. It will come in fits and starts of victories and, at times, setbacks. Debate can and must be robust. Contestability is essential.

But we must move beyond conjecture and be evidence-based: that is a requirement needed from both government and dissenters alike on AUKUS.