That’s starting right now.
Though the design will be based on the UK Astute-class and known as the SSN AUKUS, the plan is for Australian industry to make a major contribution.
In the trilateral announcement of 14 March, Australia, the US and UK only announced broad details.
That starts this year with increased visits of US submarines to HMAS Stirling, Western Australia. UK submarines follow in 2026. Beginning in 2027, UK and US submarines will rotate through Australia.
In the early 2030s, the US intends to sell Australia three Virginia-class nuclear submarines (SSNs) with the potential for two more if needed, subject to approval by the US congress.
The first new SSN AUKUS, based on the UK Astute-class and incorporating UK, US and Australian technology, will be built in the UK for the Royal Navy. It will be operational in the late 2030s.
The first SSN AUKUS for Australia, built in a new facility at Osborne, South Australia, will be delivered in the early 2040s.
Industry briefing
That might seem distant, but the government is starting, reaching out to industry with the first online briefing held on 31 March.
Industry minister Pat Conway said the pathway to Australian SSNs had been developed through an 18-month consultation process, examining industry capacity, safety, design, construction, operations, sustainment, regulation environmental protection and infrastructure.
“The AUKUS announcement marks the start of the most technologically complex defence program in Australian history,” he told the briefing.
“In fact, it is the most advanced industrial project this country has ever undertaken, comparable and in some aspects surpassing the Snowy Mountains scheme and the establishment of the Australian automotive industry.
“As part of this program Australian industry will be afforded the privilege and opportunity to handle highly sensitive technology.”
This is still at the earliest of stages, with important details still being worked through. More will come in the build strategy, to be developed over the next 18-months.
The key message to industry interested in participating in the program is to get registered, by way of the industry portal.      
Maintaining security
For a program of this magnitude and sensitivity, security will be central.
Alison Petchell, defence Assistant Secretary for Industrial Capability Planning in the Nuclear Submarines Taskforce, suggested a review of security is a good place for any aspiring business to start out. 
“If you are already involved in defence and work with defence and have an interest in this program, one of the first things that you could and should do is dust off your defence industry security program, have a look at your business processes, look at your controls, just an internal review,” she said.
“If you are not involved with the defence industry security program, that is one of the first places to start.”
The large number of people involved in the program and its secrecy will mean many more seeking defence security clearances, a fraught topic considering recent long delays, especially for high level clearances.
Michelle Miller, head of nuclear submarine security in the nuclear submarine taskforce, said to gain a security clearance, the person needed to be an Australian citizen. 
“We are aware through experience and discussions with defence industry that sometime that process can be difficult,” she said.
“So, the defence security organisation is looking at how to smooth the process, particularly with contract managers to have those approvals go through quickly so we can bring on people who have other citizenships.”
She said Defence had rolled out a new security clearance portal to speed the process.
“Although there have been challenges, they have already done 10,000 clearances in the new system and the vetting agency is on target for over 65,000 clearances this year,” she said.
“For the majority of defence industry where clearances are at the baseline levels, they are already faster than they were six months ago. Clearances for secret and top secret take some additional time.”
As is now practice with some sensitive programs, especially those accessing advanced US technology, there are likely to be personnel restrictions based on prior citizenship.
In practice that’s meant some people originating in certain proscribed countries, such as China, Iran and Russia, may not gain the highest levels of security clearance, no matter their skills or current citizenship.
In less sensitive areas, there would be opportunities for people with a broad range of citizenships, provided that they become Australian citizens, Miller said.
“We are really conscious about that need for the growth in skilling. The work that we are doing with the US and the UK is to understand really clearly what we need to protect and why and then be really clear on where those security clearances and those classification levels apply and where they don’t so that we can actually achieve the workforce we need for this program.”
Establishing a build strategy
So where to next?
Minister Conroy said the build strategy would identify who would actually construct SSN AUKUS in Australia and who would sustain them.
A key decision is whether there would be a single builder or an alliance and whether the builder or separate companies would also perform the sustainment.
“They are the questions the build strategy will address over the next 18 months,” Conroy said.
He said a critical part of the build strategy was actual construction technique.
The reactor would obviously be sourced abroad. But would all hull modules for SSN AUKUS Australia be constructed in Australia and the same for SSN AUKUS UK?
Or could certain modules for both fleets of submarines be constructed in Australia and certain modules be constructed in the UK?
“So, when we are talking about Australian industrial opportunities, we should be very clear we are not just limited to submarines assembled in Australia for the Royal Australian Navy. There will be opportunities to build into the SSN AUKUS build for the UK,” he said.
Conroy said there would be opportunities to support the submarine build programs of both AUKUS partners.
“There are critical choke points in the US and UK and we are working with our partners to see if Australian SMEs and companies have capacity that would help relieve those choke points,” he said.
That would demonstrate that Australian industry possessed the necessary capacity. It would also elevate some companies’ skills and qualifications to work on nuclear submarines.
“This is essential de-risking for our actual build program. We need to be realistic about how many opportunities there are. We are committed to work with our AUKUS partners to extend to Australian industry where it makes sense,” Conroy said.
Some work for Australian industry may arrive quite soon, providing sustainment for visiting subs.
“Some people have assumed that the US would be doing the sustainment for their boats based here under the rotational presence. As part of the AUKUS plan the sustainment will be done by Australian industry. That may be US primes operating in Australia,” Conroy said.
Building a skilled workforce
One of the central challenges is creating a skilled workforce. Conroy said it was estimated around 1,900 scientists, engineers, technicians, tradesmen and others would be required.
He said the Commonwealth was already working with the South Australian government to develop a new skills and training academy.
Unlike the National Shipbuilding College which acts as a broker between industry and training institutes, the academy will perform actual training, guided by industry requirements.
Conroy said the government would provide $3 billion for skills training.
“This will be a huge uplift in Australian science,” he said.
“We are funding new courses in nuclear engineering and science at ANU and University of NSW. It won’t be exclusively those two universities but we recognise that those two universities have resident capacity so we are supporting those courses right now.”
Despite the immensity of the challenge, Australia isn’t starting at ground zero.
Australia may be new to nuclear technology but we do have people who know about submarines, said John Chandler, defence First Assistant Secretary for Submarines.
“Our solid recent management of the Collins capability underpins domestic and international confidence in our ability to properly steward submarine capabilities. It is a key enabler of the nuclear pathway,” he said.
Despite the apparent dead end of the Attack-class program, Australia did gain useful knowledge.
Alison Petchell said over the last 18 months, Australia had worked with the UK and US exploring the optimal path, including assessing Australian industry capability.
“That discussion has been informed by the work undertaken during the Attack-class program, what capability did industry already have, what nascent capabilities already existed, where had the uplifts already commenced,” she said.
“It also takes into account what capabilities we have and are exhibiting today on the Collins-class program. Part of the consideration here is not just what capabilities we already have but what capacity do we have to grow and expand.”
Anyone aspiring to work on the new subs program will become intimately acquainted with a fundamental concept – the nuclear mindset.
“Every person who works in the nuclear-powered submarine enterprise will need to viscerally respect the fact that the nuclear propulsion is complex and unforgiving,” Conroy said.
“The nuclear mindset will be the foundation of every action decision, policy and behaviour in the Australian nuclear powered submarine enterprise to ensure we keep our communities, personnel and environment safe and secure.”
Stay informed with the latest in the business of defence. Subscribe to ADM Premium.
ADM's Defence Industry Guide is published in print edition every 6 months.
We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. We pay our respect to Elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.