A Nuclear-Powered Submarine Capability, But Can Our Workforce Deliver?

By Rob Kremer on 26 April 2023

Picture of Virginia Class Submarine

As Australia begins preparations to acquire and develop its first nuclear-powered submarine fleet, thoughts have turned to building the workforce that will make this feat possible. 

Significant workforce challenges will present themselves over the next few decades, and action is required now to ensure they are successfully addressed. 

So, what are the anticipated changes to the Australian defence industry workforce tasked with delivering this once in a generation program? And what challenges can we anticipate?

Workforce changes

The uniqueness and complexity of the AUKUS program means the predicated workforce changes will be significant. Here we have summarised the major elements of the AUKUS program and the associated workforce changes that we anticipate over the next 12 to 36 months. 

  1. The acquisition of the Virginia class boats.This may be framed as a military off the shelf acquisition, so as such, we would expect the initial hiring activity to be within the APS and supporting professional service providers. 

  2. Sustainment of US and UK boats. Sustainment work for both US and UK boats will be conducted out of HMAS Stirling in WA from 2027. Over time this sustainment activity will build to become a fully-fledged sustainment capability that will support the Australian nuclear-powered boats. To nuclearise the workforce, workers will be required to spend significant time in the US/UK to acquire the skills, mind-set and experience needed. Development of port infrastructure and facilities will require a significant workforce in WA.

  3. Sustainment of Collins class. Australia’s Collins class submarines will be required to outlive their planned lifespan by some margin, so we can expect the sustainment effort to increase over time. This will prove challenging, especially once the Australian Virginia class boats enter service and Defence and industry will be required to sustain two separate platforms.

  4. AUKUS SSN design work. The size and nature of any design work that Australia will contribute to the AUKUS SSN is unclear, but a commitment has been made that construction will be undertaken in Adelaide. It is reasonable to expect that a construction workforce will be of a similar size to what was planned for the Attack class boats, but there may also be a similar requirement for design and project management and commercial workers as well. As with the Attack class program, there will be a need to send significant numbers of workers overseas to learn new skills.


The nuclear-powered submarine program presents challenges to the Australian workforce that have not been seen before.

  1. Lack of nuclear knowledge.The Australian nuclear workforce is relatively small, with the nuclear facility at Lucas Heights in Sydney housing the majority of workers. Australia will need to hire, or second workers with nuclear experience from overseas, as well as send Australian workers to the UK and US to undergo study and gain work experience.

  2. Skills Mobility.The ability of the AUKUS partners to deliver a nuclear-powered submarine capability to Australia will only be achieved through the movement of information and people. Urgent consideration must be given to removing ITAR and security clearance barriers to the efficient and expeditious movement of people and information, whilst at the same time ensuring that information and material is handled appropriately.

  3. Government must take a leading role.Government will need to take a strong commitment to training and upskilling programs in order to produce the workforce numbers required. With between 4,000 and 5,500 roles created to build the nuclear-powered submarines in SA (which is only part of the program), the federal government needs to get serious when it comes to training technical and trade professionals, engineers and PMO workers. Buying signals will not be enough for industry and the education and training sectors; government must quickly provide regulatory and funding environments that will incentivise the creation of the required workforces.

  4. Growth against the backdrop of… more growth. Defence industry will grow by around 4,000 positions in 2023 and 2024 alone, and any hiring for the  AUKUS program will be in addition to this. Against a backdrop of multi-sector Australian labour and skills shortages, this context must not be forgotten by Defence policy makers and workforce planners. 

Key takeaway for defence industry

Building a nuclear-powered submarine fleet is an endeavour not seen before on Australian shores. It will be an enormous undertaking and must include collaboration across the education sector, industry and government across the AUKUS partners.

Defence industry will need to embrace innovative methods of attraction, inclusion and training if we are to succeed in building the workforce required. Workers from backgrounds not previously considered will need to be embraced, as will training programs that look different to anything currently in existence. It’s only through collaboration and commitment that together we can make this endeavour a success. 

Photo Credit: Department of Defence

Defence Sector Blog

Sign up to get your monthly dose of industry updates sent straight to your inbox.

From workforce strategy to sector overviews, we aim to advise and equip industry with the intel that helps individuals and business alike make better, more informed decisions. 


Defence Sector Blog Sign up