San Diego: Australia will need 20,000 more workers to build a new submarine fleet and transform the nation’s defence over the next three decades under forecasts to be revealed within days as part of the AUKUS pact with the United States and the United Kingdom.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will set the jobs target in the formal announcement that the government will buy nuclear-powered submarines from the US while launching a mammoth long-term project to build a new fleet in Australia based on a British design.
The Australian Navy will also launch a recruitment drive next week to find hundreds of personnel to support the shift to nuclear-powered submarines and make more staff available to train with the US and Britain.
The need for skilled workers has been identified as a key challenge in the AUKUS project because of the scale of the construction as well as the shortage of submariners on the existing Collins-class submarine fleet before personnel move to the nuclear-powered fleets.
The 20,000 jobs forecast includes workers supporting AUKUS in the Australian Defence Force, domestic industry and the Australian public service. This includes 8500 direct jobs in Australia’s building and servicing the submarines, with jobs including scientists, engineers, project managers, operators, technicians, welders, construction workers, electricians, metal fitters and builders.
Albanese arrived in San Diego on Saturday night, local time, and was met by Australian ambassador to the US Arthur Sinodinos and US ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy ahead of the AUKUS announcement, which is due on Tuesday morning, AEDT.
His first formal bilateral meeting in San Diego will be with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, before he meets US President Joe Biden and the three leaders reveal the choice of new submarines.
The next stage in the AUKUS pact will seek to build vessels in Adelaide on the new British design with the capacity to fire cruise missiles, possibly at hypersonic speed, as well as torpedoes.
An interim fleet based on the existing Virginia-class nuclear submarines in the US would also have the missile capability, a significant leap in Australia’s ability to project power in the region.
US congressman Joe Courtney gave the clearest signal yet on Sunday that Australia could receive second-hand Virginia-class submarines from the US.
Albanese named Adelaide and Western Australia as two locations that would win work from the AUKUS project, which the Australian Strategic Policy Institute says could cost $170 billion.
“This is about building up our capacity,” the prime minister said in New Delhi on Saturday.
“And when you talk about the issue of manufacturing submarines in Australia, that’s an absolute priority for us.”
The recruitment campaign will begin on March 19 to encourage Australians to join the navy and it will not be restricted to the AUKUS project on submarines.
Australia has 900 serving submariners but needs at least 200 more as soon as possible so it can deploy personnel to US and British vessels to prepare for the transformation in the fleet. Over time, however, many more would be needed, depending on the number of submarines purchased.
Behind the shift is the calculation within government that Australia cannot assume open sea lanes in an era when the existing rules-based order is under challenge.
The fundamental decision is that Australia must build a more lethal fleet to protect sea lanes and undersea cables because the nation’s economic wellbeing depends so heavily on open trade.
The plan to be unveiled commits Australia to using propulsion systems from the US that are installed in the submarines with a supply of nuclear fuel that lasts the lifetime of the vessels, avoiding the need for a civil nuclear industry.
The nuclear reactors are four metres by two metres and are designed to be inserted into the submarines during their construction, resulting in a fully self-contained power source with no refuelling.
The navy will need nuclear-trained technicians to serve on the vessels, as part of a transformation in the overall workforce.
Three navy officers are training with the US Navy already and will be deployed on Virginia-class vessels within months, starting a series of waves in training.
The recruitment campaign will emphasise the service to Australia by submariners and other RAN personnel, who serve for months at a time around the world at a cost to their families.
Former prime minister Paul Keating has criticised the AUKUS pact for putting Australian sovereignty at risk because of the reliance on the US, and former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has questioned the claims about the advantages of nuclear reactors and their lifetime fuel source.
But the imminent announcement will confirm the advice from the navy that Australia should begin the transformation away from diesel-electric submarines because of their vulnerability to detection.
Because the existing Collins-class submarines need air for their diesel-electric engines, they must go to periscope depth regularly and break the ocean surface with an air induction device, greatly increasing the chances of detection.
The AUKUS fleet will not need to do this.
While it takes a Collins-class submarine about 10 days to transit between the fleet bases in Perth and Sydney, the Virginia-class vessels could do this in three days. Rather than taking 30 days to reach Hawaii, the nuclear-powered vessels would take 10 days.
Australian Academy of Science president Chennupati Jagadish said nuclear science in Australia faced a skills crisis because of the heavy reliance on trained workers from overseas.
“We are significantly behind our peer nations in national nuclear and radiation science capability,” he said.
Albanese will also host Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at a meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in Sydney this year. He confirmed on the weekend that this summit would be in May.