The Australian Government has an ambitious, complex plan to field nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) by the early 2030s, but is it feasible?

In the latest instalment of its Debate Papers series, the United States Studies Centre (USSC) at the University of Sydney invited two leading thinkers on maritime strategy to debate whether the AUKUS Optimal Pathway is the best way forward to realise Australia’s strategic interests.

“The acquisition of SSNs presents a tremendous challenge and opportunity for Australia,” says USSC CEO Dr Michael Green. “The USSC is committed to a robust debate of all aspects of AUKUS.”

Dr Elizabeth Buchanan, an expert associate of the Australian National University National Security College, argues that, though nuclear-powered submarines are the right choice for Australia, Canberra should scrap plans to build its own SSN-AUKUS submarine. Taking stock of labour shortages, time and funding constraints, and political will among AUKUS partners, she says Australia should prioritise building interoperability with the United States. In addition to purchasing three to five US Virginia-class SSNs, this would involve embracing Australia's advantages as a key regional pit-stop to support an enhanced US and UK SSN presence from Australian shores.

Dr Richard Dunley, a senior lecturer at UNSW Canberra argues that the Optimal Pathway chosen by the Australian Government is the best of the few options available to Australia. The transfer of the US Virginia-class submarines will be, Dunley argues, further enhanced by developing an indigenous SSN capability. The smaller and cheaper British-designed SSN-AUKUS is a better fit for Australia than alternatives and allows Australia and the UK to develop a shared industrial base to support a joint fleet.

Is Australia’s AUKUS submarine pathway really ‘optimal,’ is the 13th instalment of The Debate Papers.

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