Thales announced 21 August that work is underway to create an ‘Australian eyes-only’ site for the integration of autonomous vessels with Australia’s nuclear deterrence capability. 

Under a Defence Industry Security Program (DISP) Level 3 classification, the purpose-built facility will foster collaboration among research institutions, SMEs, and key industrial partners, according to Thales, in order to “establish future sovereign technology pathways for the development and integration of autonomous vessels in support of Australia’s nuclear deterrence capability.”

Australia signed the AUKUS trilateral security alliance with the US and UK this year, paving the way for Australia to operate its first nuclear-powered submarines. As a non-nuclear weapon state, Australia has made explicit statements that the country relies on the US extended nuclear deterrence to ensure its security against attack with nuclear weapons, but analysts speculate in a post-AUKUS world, against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, Australia may pursue a nuclear capability against the wishes of the US and UK.

Autonomy in nuclear deterrence

“The idea of an autonomous continuous at sea deterrent (CASD) has been raised before due to the benefits in terms of lengthier deployment times, submarine design  – the lack of life support systems and crew quarters makes them smaller and cheaper – reduced operations costs and the possibility to create larger fleets of deterrent forces,” said Tristan Sauer, defence and aerospace analyst at GlobalData.

However, Sauer is skeptical about the  announcement: “The main hypothetical caveat which seems to head off most investment at the moment is that AI and autonomous vehicle technology is not yet at a stage where humans trust it to engage targets without a ‘man-in-the-loop’, thus the inherent benefit is diminished if you need round-the-clock human oversight.”

 “Furthermore, the risks entailed by a potential hostile actor capturing, hacking, or disrupting a nuclear-armed autonomous vehicle make it even more unlikely that any government would deem autonomous CASD as worth the investment and risk.”

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New mine countermeasures

The move will inject AU$40m into the economy in the Hunter region of New South Wales, and creating over 100 jobs. This development will expand the company’s autonomous capabilities footprint, providing a third Maritime Autonomy Centre after the establishment the facilities in the UK and US. 

The site will also aid the development of a future Royal Australian Navy (RAN) Mine Countermeasures and Military Survey Capability, SEA1905-1. The RAN’s existing Huon-class Mine Hunting Coastal vessels (MHC) are scheduled for gradual retirement from service after 30 years of being supported from Newcastle Harbour in Carrington. 

“As Newcastle has evolved into a modern metropolis,” said Troy Stephen, Vice President, Underwater Systems, Thales Australia and New Zealand, “the RAN’s Mine Countermeasures and Military Survey Capability will also undergo rapid advancement and a significant technological step-change into autonomy under SEA1905-1.”