The word of the year in 2023 is bound to be ‘AUKUS’. Perhaps it will one day turn up as the five-letter Wordle word of the day. However, as an acronym it would be disallowed in Scrabble, and would be worth a miserly nine points – if it were legal. Nevertheless, its importance cannot be obscured.
AUKUS is the enhanced trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America centred on geostrategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region. First announced on September 16, 2021, AUKUS will become the single largest investment in Australia’s defence capability to date, today worth an estimated A$268 billion to A$368 billion, and see cooperation around cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, hypersonic missiles, and additional undersea capabilities, and has so far enjoyed bipartisan support in all three partner countries.
On March 14, 2023, the leaders of the three countries announced further details on the partnership, eighteen months on from the initial announcement. The deal is expected to initially deliver at least three US-built Virginia-class conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) to Australia in the early 2030s to replace the existing Collins-class submarines currently operated by Australia, and throughout the 2040s a fleet of new SSN-AUKUS model submarines, to be built in Australia and the UK, is expected to be delivered.
The Australian Government has said the AUKUS deal will: ‘Build a future made in Australia, by Australians, with record investments in defence, skills, jobs and infrastructure’, and ‘will result in $6 billion invested in Australia’s industrial capability and workforce over the next four years, creating around 20,000 direct jobs over the next 30 years’. These jobs are said to be ‘across industry, the Australian Defence Force and the Australian Public Service including trades workers, operators, technicians, engineers, scientists, submariners and project managers’.
Ai Group has welcomed the recent AUKUS announcement saying: ‘The program will contribute to skills development in Australia on a massive scale. Tens of thousands of jobs will eventually be created requiring upskilling as well as skill sharing among our AUKUS partners’. In his speech at the Naval Base Point Loma, San Diego, California, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese promised that: ‘Working together, [the AUKUS partners’] universities and research institutes will collaborate to train more Australians in nuclear engineering’. Ai Group has identified areas of opportunity to support these aims, including sharing workforce talent and expertise, and strengthening international collaboration.
It has been reported in The Australian that ‘each Australian submarine would need 27 highly-trained top tier nuclear engineers with PhDs and at least 20 years experience, backed by 330 middle tier people with a PhD, masters or honours degree in the field and at least 10 years experience’. This is without a doubt a marathon, not a sprint, and will require sustained and prolonged investment for decades to come if AUKUS is to be guaranteed every success. This highlights the point that children in our schools, from today onwards, need to be encouraged into science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) fields of study to ensure we have the high skilled workforce required to build and operate the new submarines.
The Australian Government is now developing a comprehensive AUKUS Submarine Workforce and Industry Strategy with state and territory governments, industry, unions, education and training institutions and the scientific and technical sectors. The Strategy will aim to: attract, recruit, develop, qualify and retain a highly-skilled trades, technical, scientific and engineering workforce; and support and build the capabilities of Australia’s defence industry. The Government is predicting that ‘building and sustaining nuclear-powered submarines in Australia will create up to 8,500 direct jobs in the industrial workforce’.
South Australia will be a direct beneficiary of the AUKUS submarine program; it is estimated that up to ‘4,000 Australian workers will be employed to design and build the infrastructure for the new [$2 billion] submarine construction yard [at Osborne] in South Australia’. It is predicted a ‘further 4,000 to 5,500 direct jobs will be created to build the nuclear-powered submarines in South Australia when the program reaches its peak in 20 to 30 years, almost double the workforce the former Government forecast for the Attack class program’.
While the cancellation of the French Naval Group’s Attack-class diesel-electric submarine program – with the advent of AUKUS – still sticks in the craw of South Australia’s defence industry, in the interim, South Australia’s naval shipbuilding and defence industry will benefit from the life-of-type extension program on the Collins-class vessels through to 2026 and an expansion of the Sovereign Shipbuilding Talent Pool, which was set up in September 2021 to retain the shipbuilding workforce from the discontinued Attack-class submarine project for future shipbuilding projects like the new nuclear-powered submarines.
The Commonwealth and South Australian governments are working on a dedicated Skills and Training Academy to deliver tailored education, training and skilling for Australia’s submarine and naval shipbuilding workforce including:
Over the next four years, the South Australian and Western Australian economies will see a fillip of $2 billion and $1 billion, respectively. Western Australia will start receiving more visits from US SSNs from 2023, and from 2026 SSNs from the UK. From 2027, HMAS Stirling will host the rotational presence of UK and US SSNs, and will be known as Submarine Rotational Force-West (SRF-West). It’s expected the SRF-West will create 500 jobs from 2027 to 2032. From the early 2030s HMAS Stirling will house the Virginia-class submarines. To support this effort, the Western Australian Government will develop a skills and training program with WA vocational education and training and higher education providers.
The AUKUS deal is a boon for Australia’s defence industry, which will require Australia’s educational institutions – primary, secondary, and tertiary – to work with industry to ensure the right skills, knowledge and capabilities are being delivered from today. We will require the growth of a skilled workforce in areas including, but not limited to, computer science, data analytics, cyber security, artificial intelligence, engineering, shipbuilding, physics, and nuclear science. AUKUS is a multi-generational project that has the potential to benefit millions of Australians for decades to come.
 Australia to pursue nuclear-powered submarines through new trilateral enhanced security partnership | Prime Minister of Australia (archive.org) https://web.archive.org/web/20210927191633/https://www.pm.gov.au/media/australia-pursue-nuclear-powered-submarines-through-new-trilateral-enhanced-security
 AUKUS Submarine agreement a massive boost for national security and domestic capability | Ai Group https://www.aigroup.com.au/news/media-centre/2023/aukus-submarine-agreement-a-massive-boost-for-national-security-and-domestic-capability/
 US, UK, Australian Aerospace & Defense Organizations: Leverage Industry to Unleash AUKUS Potential | Ai Group https://www.aigroup.com.au/news/media-centre/2023/us-uk-australian-aerospace-and-defense-organizations-leverage-industry-to-unleash-the-potential-of-aukus/
 Dodd, T., ‘Australian universities will team with UK, US unis on nuclear training’, The Australian (15/03/23) [online] https://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/australian-universities-will-team-with-uk-us-unis-on-nuclear-training/news-story/b6ac3ddd9ddfc6a96883ab05f33a8794
 Joint press conference, Adelaide, South Australia | Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs (foreignminister.gov.au) https://www.foreignminister.gov.au/minister/penny-wong/transcript/joint-press-conference-adelaide-south-australia
 South Australia to deliver nuclear-powered submarine build | Defence Ministers https://www.minister.defence.gov.au/media-releases/2023-03-14/south-australia-deliver-nuclear-powered-submarine-build
 Media statements - Western Australia home for Australia’s first nuclear-powered submarines https://www.mediastatements.wa.gov.au/Pages/McGowan/2023/03/Joint-media-statement-Western-Australia-home-for-Australias-first-nuclear-powered-submarines.aspx
Paolo contributes to the Ai Group Centre for Education & Training's policies and is a member on a number of national and state secondary and tertiary education industry advisory bodies. Paolo project manages state government-funded projects centred on education-industry partnerships in the defence industry. He also administers the CET’s Member Network.