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AUKUS submarine plan needs dry dock by 2032, secret agency briefing reveals

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Katina Curtis
The Nightly
3 Min Read
Australia will need a dry dock capable of accommodating large nuclear subs by 2032, it has been revealed.
Australia will need a dry dock capable of accommodating large nuclear subs by 2032, it has been revealed. Credit: Supplied

Australia needs a dry dock capable of accommodating large nuclear-powered submarines by 2032 as the first significant milestone towards being able to carry out maintenance domestically, but the Government has yet to decide where it will be located.

Despite years of speculation about building a dry dock at the Perth coastal suburb of Henderson, documents obtained under freedom of information reveal the location of submarine maintenance works is not certain.

Last month, the Government announced ASC would be the sustainment partner for the Virginia class submarines Australia intends to buy from the United States and for the new SSN-AUKUS submarines.

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The government-owned company is expected to double its workforce in WA over the next decade so it can also service visiting US and UK nuclear-powered submarines, which will be based at HMAS Stirling on WA’s Garden Island as a rotational force from 2027.

The Morrison government allocated $4.3 billion to build a dry dock at nearby Henderson for maintenance and as a backup to Australia’s only other such facility, located at Garden Island in Sydney Harbour.

However, the project has been stalled ever since with doubts cast over whether it is possible to build it for that price and when it would be needed. Last year, WA Defence Industry Minister Paul Papalia labelled it a “hollow announcement” and said a nuclear-rated dry dock was an entirely different proposition.

Now for the first time, the Australian Submarine Agency has put a date on when the dry dock is needed.

Briefing papers for agency officials appearing at Senate estimates in February say the facility is required for “depot level maintenance”, which refers to major repairs or overhaul of military equipment.

“Depot level maintenance of an SSN is a complex, and lengthy activity that will place a significant demand on Australian industry,” says the briefing, obtained by The West Australian under freedom of information.

“The first significant DLM milestone is the availability of a contingent dry docking capability from 2032 to enable emergent out-of-water maintenance.

“By the late 2030’s Australia will need to have a full dry docking capability for the first planned DLM availability for an AUS Virginia Class SSN.”

It goes on to say the Government has yet to decide on the location of depot-level maintenance for the submarines.

However, it is considering HMAS Stirling and the Henderson precinct as “a potential site to conduct sustainment” for the visiting submarine and Australian-flagged ones.

“As part of our consideration of options, we are looking at the feasibility of undertaking deep level maintenance activities in the HMAS Stirling/Henderson precinct, including a nuclear-certified docking capability at Henderson,” the briefing says.

These details were not in the agency’s briefing notes for the estimates session in October, which former senator Rex Patrick had released under FOI.

The Government has promised $8 billion worth of upgrades at HMAS Stirling, with $1.5 billion to be spent on priority works over the next four years, to get it up to scratch for the visiting and new submarines.

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