The Limits of Australia’s Plans for a Nuclear Shipbuilding Industry

Moving an Astute-class nuclear-powered attack submarine from the BAE Systems construction hall at Barrow-in-Furness in the United Kingdom in 2014 (BAE Systems via Ministry of Defence)
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Australia’s Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, has compared the country’s nuclear submarine programme to the creation of an Australian car industry after WWII. Albanese sees the submarine project as an industrial policy innovation that will create a new high-tech base for Australian manufacturing and become a “catalyst for jobs, innovation and growth”. He believes that if Australia could build an automobile industry 70 years ago, it can now build nuclear submarines. However, the Australian automobile industry was not particularly interested in exports and ultimately became less and less competitive. Likewise, the nuclear submarine industry, constrained by patent and IP copyright restrictions, technological innovations, wartime deployments, and its sponsors, the US and the UK, will never be allowed to become an export industry. It will build eight submarines for the Australian Government and then become a maintenance company, and as such, the commercial spin-off from this venture may not justify the expense. The more complex the project, the greater the demand for advanced skills, the greater the loss to Australia’s non-defence economy. Therefore, whatever the case for Australia building nuclear-powered submarines, the creation of commercial spin-offs and new high-tech commercial industries from this effort should not be one of them. Despite the challenges, if the project does come to fruition, it will certainly provide high-tech employment in construction.

Tags: Lowy Institute


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