Australia needs to consider the nuclear option for its new submarines
20 Feb 2020|

Australia needs to seriously consider moving to a nuclear-powered submarine force because, in the rapidly changing circumstances of the region, it is the best solution to meet the Royal Australian Navy’s demanding strategic and operational requirements. The very long timescales and extraordinarily high and escalating cost of the Attack-class submarine program make this imperative.

The program, with a current price tag of more than $50 billion, won’t produce a single operational submarine until 2036, by which time the threat or the technology may have changed dramatically. The program is still planning to use superseded technology and will leave a significant capability gap. So, is it worth it? Or is there a better, faster, more cost-effective way of getting a similar or superior capability?

A number of arguments have been offered against Australia’s ‘going nuclear’, but they really aren’t the showstoppers they’re often claimed to be.

A fresh approach at both the political and military levels could determine whether attitudes are shifting and new partnerships are possible, especially with the advent of smaller nuclear reactors.

Public support for such a force can be gained if the requirements and benefits are discussed honestly and openly, with total costs and safety issues explained. This will require bipartisan political support.

Australia should consider switching to an existing SSN like the Suffren class made by France’s Naval Group. The Suffrens are the nuclear-powered cousin to the conventionally powered Attack class that the company is building for Australia. They could more readily satisfy the RAN’s needs through a similar or even a shorter procurement process.

An early discussion would be with Naval Group, as shifting to a nuclear strategy would mean significantly modifying the program to build the Attack class.  France is understood to have  already offered the Suffren to the RAN.  Discussions with the US and UK navies would also be advisable, covering nuclear safety, support, training, technology transfer and the like.

The requirement for 12 Attack-class submarines to replace the six Collins-class vessels is based on a need to be able to unilaterally deter and defend against surface or subsurface attacks on the Australian homeland and the Australian Defence Force. The submarines will carry out intelligence-gathering, surveillance, targeting and reconnaissance operations, possibly many thousands of kilometres away from home, in seas that are becoming more challenging and potentially more hostile.

In wartime or periods of tension, the submarines would also be expected to provide area defence and sea denial, with long covert submerged operations, alone or with allies. That could involve interdicting anti-submarine and anti-surface ships, which will require the latest in command, control, communications, sensor and weapon technology.

Even without long transits to the South China Sea, simply providing a continuous presence in the key sea lines of communication and choke points to the north of Australia, requires a substantial submarine force. That’s why the fleet is set to double in size.

Australia’s submarines will be unable to meet the nation’s strategic and tactical requirements for some time, especially in the early years of a transition from the Collins class. This is because of a combination of factors, including the slow rate of construction of new subs, the requirement to substantially increase the number of submariners and train them on new systems, and the need for maintenance, defect rectification, leave and shore time.

Despite the increased numbers, as currently specified the new submarines will still be diesel-powered and fitted with lead–acid batteries. They will not be equipped with air-independent propulsion and will be slow during transit. At best, only half of an 80-day operation will be spent in the designated area of operations. The vessels’ regular need to surface, or ‘snort’, to charge their batteries will also offer unwelcome opportunities for an adversary to locate them.

The decision to work with the French solely on a new diesel–electric, rather than nuclear, design is the main factor that will limit the submarines’ effectiveness. It is also behind the program’s enormous cost, risk and timeframe.

A nuclear power plant provides a submarine with a virtually unlimited supply of electricity, high maximum and sustained submerged transit speeds, an almost endless capability to loiter at low speed, and the ability to escape, evade and move to the area of operations expeditiously, far from base, without any need to surface. These are enormous performance improvements over conventionally powered submarines, especially those that, like the Attack class, aren’t designed to use air-independent propulsion or lithium- or zinc-based batteries.

The complicating factors of a move to nuclear submarines would centre on the political aspects of using nuclear power and the substantial costs involved in providing the personnel, training and support infrastructure required to meet modern nuclear safety standards. Each submarine would also cost more than a conventional equivalent. Given that the current program already looks unlikely to provide any new or enhanced submarine capability until the 2040s, a decision to switch to a partial or full SSN fleet might not entail much, if any, further delay.

There’s already a requirement for an interim capability that includes up to six life-extended Collins boats. A further six ‘son of Collins’ vessels will almost certainly be needed to maintain continuity of operations and provide enough fully trained submariners to be able to crew any future SSNs.

Australia’s lack of a nuclear power industry shouldn’t prevent a move to nuclear-powered submarines, but programs would need to be introduced now, including new physics and technical courses in Defence and in civil educational institutions.

Finding, training and retaining personnel is the potential Achilles heel and requires extensive modelling and a major recruitment drive. This has proved extremely challenging for the Royal Navy, especially in the areas of nuclear watch-keepers and junior executive and engineering branch officers.

The recruitment work already in place provides a good basis for finding submarine crew. More complex and time-consuming would be training enough experienced, qualified nuclear engineers and executive branch officers, and maintaining a critical mass. Initially, Australia would need to use other nations’ facilities for much of this training.

The transition won’t be simple, as some personnel would be trained on current and new conventional submarines, while others would need lengthy nuclear training to prepare for the first SSN. In parallel will come the requirement to recruit, train and certify civilian nuclear engineering, support and scientific personnel to work in naval bases and headquarters.

A major construction program would be required to provide facilities to berth, maintain and repair 10 to 12 SSNs. This would include dry docks and nuclear-certified cranes. There could also be a requirement to refuel. While much of the cost of developing an SSN capability falls in the infrastructure area, the regulations and requirements are well documented and the civil engineering is straightforward. It would provide significant employment opportunities.