As is to be expected at this early stage, the PM’s announcement of a new east coast nuclear submarines base is light on details.
In a speech earlier this week, PM Morrison opened with the conflict in Ukraine and regional instability then moved to the two oceans basing policy, initially adopted in 1987 by the Hawke Labor government.
That established Fleet Base West at HMAS Stirling, WA, as home port of the six Collins class subs and around half the surface fleet. Fleet Base East is centred on HMAS Kuttabul in Sydney Harbour.
Fleet Base West will remain home to current and future (nuclear) submarines but the government has decided to establish a new Future Submarine Base on the east coast.
Out of 19 potential locations, three have been short-listed: Brisbane, Newcastle and Port Kembla, said to be Defence’s preferred site.
So why not stick with Sydney? After all much of the required infrastructure is in place. The problem seems to be with placing nukes right next to suburbia.
On the other hand, bases can’t be in the middle of nowhere, which is not conducive to recruiting and retaining the large numbers of personnel who will be needed for the new subs.
Morrison said there will be consultations with the NSW and Queensland governments, with initial work completed by end of 2023. It will form part of the work underway now by the Nuclear Submarine Taskforce.
Navy has seemingly endlessly reviewed its East Coast basing options, in 1988 with the advent of the Collins boats and in a very long report released in 2011.
This report had little to say about nukes but canvasses in great detail about other factors. Whatever port was chosen would need extensive facilities.
The PM mentioned $10 billion for future submarines infrastructure so cash isn’t a constraint.
There are some redactions from the 2011 report, for example, data on transit distances from various ports to different water depths.
It says that’s a critical operational parameter, which would appear to exclude Brisbane where submarines would have to transit across Moreton Bay.
In contrast, Newcastle and Port Kembla are closer to deep water and also to the Navy’s major exercise area off the NSW south coast. The Navy’s ammunition facility at Eden, NSW is also much closer, especially to Port Kembla.
The report’s conclusion on Newcastle: “The planned increases of coal carrier shipping traffic, the highly visible Eastern Basin location and the sometimes hazardous Port entrance due to inclement sea conditions, are decision inhibitors. These may be manageable however.”
On Port Kembla, it had little to say beyond the 1988 judgement that its harbour was small and congested and it would be impractical to develop it as a submarine base.
The overall conclusion was that the best places for submarine bases was where they are now – HMAS Stirling and Sydney Harbour. Brisbane wasn’t at all favoured (ninth of the nine top locations) while Newcastle was seventh.
Times have changed and if Port Kembla is the chosen location it will be intriguing to see why.