The federal government has announced it will establish a new agency to manage and oversee the Royal Australian Navy’s planned fleet of nuclear-powered submarines (SSN).
The government announced in March that, through the AUKUS construct with the US and UK, it would acquire between three and five Virginia class submarines from the US, before switching to the joint development of a new class of eight SSN-AUKUS submarines using technologies and manufacturing skills from all three nations.
The plan was revealed by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in a joint announcement held pier-side in San Diego, California, in front of a US Navy Virginia-class boat on 14 March.
The Virginia class SSNs will replace some of the current conventionally powered Collins class, while the SSN-AUKUS boats will combine the best US and UK submarine technologies to replace the Astute class boats in Royal Navy service from the late 2030s, and enter service with Australia from the early 2040s.
The Australian Submarine Agency (ASA) will oversee Australia’s entire submarine program, including the acquisition, delivery, construction, technical governance, sustainment and the eventual disposal of the 11-13 planned vessels.
The current Nuclear-Powered Submarine Taskforce headed up by Vice-Admiral Jonathan Mead, which recommended the three-phased ‘optimal pathway’ for Australia to acquire the SSNs, will formally transition to the new ASA from 1 July. It will be headed by a Director-General (ADF 1-Star or APS SES-1) who is yet to be named.
Concept art of the SSN-AUKUS submarine design. Image: UK Ministry of Defence.
In parallel with the ASA, the government will also establish a new regulator to regulate the unique circumstances associated with nuclear safety and radiological protection across the lifecycle of Australia’s nuclear-powered submarine enterprise.
The Australian Nuclear-Powered Submarine Safety Regulator will be independent of the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) chain of command and directions from the Department of Defence, and will work with existing Australian regulators to support the safety of the submarine operators, of Australian and international communities, and of the environment.
The announcement said that both the ASA and the regulator will be non-corporate Commonwealth entities within the Defence portfolio, and will report directly to the Defence Minister.
“The establishment of the Australian Submarine Agency and the Australian Nuclear-Powered Submarine Safety Regulator are critical elements of delivering this game-changing capability, and will ensure the safe and successful implementation of the pathway for Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines,” Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Richard Marles said in a 6 May statement.
“The ASA will be responsible and accountable for delivering the ambitious program to acquire Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines.
“A specialised and dedicated regulator – which will be independent of Defence and the Australian Defence Force – will ensure we have the highest standards of nuclear safety and radiological protection across the lifecycle of Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines.”