Going full steam ahead on nuclear submarines could push Collins class to the brink
3 Nov 2022|

Submarines provide a unique, asymmetrical capability, giving the Australian government a range of options not offered by other platforms. Their critical importance has been emphasised in multiple defence white papers, most notably since 2009 when an increase from 6 to 12 submarines was agreed.

The published aim of the nuclear-powered submarine taskforce is ‘to advise government on the optimal pathway to acquiring a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines for Australia’. ‘Optimal’ here could be interpreted as ‘quickest’. Taking such a path would be a significant strategic mistake if it also trashes Australia’s existing sovereign, operational submarine capability.

I suggest that two deployable submarines is the minimum Australia requires in the challenging times we face. It’s what we have now, with six Collins-class boats largely dependent on Australian supply chains, with more than 90% of sustainment done by local companies—and the submarines are Australian manned and controlled.

Jumping into one or two nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) that we won’t own as they will likely be leased, dependent on foreign crews, supervision, support and an overseas supply chain, none of which we control does not meet the aim of having a sovereign capability.

ASPI’s Marcus Hellyer describes this as the ‘damn the torpedoes’ approach. The plan to ensure a continuous, sovereign, operational submarine capability under this strategy is not obvious and is yet to be explained, but what’s certain is it will take decades to achieve. All this during a period of heightened strategic risk.

UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has hinted at an alternative approach: a new SSN incorporating the requirements of the AUKUS partners that would start construction in the mid-2030s. This makes sense as the UK production line will close with the completion of the seventh Astute-class  submarine and the US Virginia class is not well suited to Australia’s requirements. A new design would enable updated reactor and other features to be installed. This approach could ultimately meet the aim of a sovereign Australian SSN capability but it will take a significant amount of time and come with the risks all new-design submarines face.

We should expect delays and cost increases, particularly in the first of class which is essentially a prototype requiring a couple of years to evaluate and produce design fixes to be incorporated in the following submarines. That lesson was learned the hard way in the Collins program, where we ended up with five prototypes and rectification was protracted and much more expensive that it otherwise would have been. In the UK in 2010 a parliamentary committee found the Astute program to be almost five years late and 53% over budget.

I should affirm my support for Australia’s transition to nuclear-propelled attack submarines as my detailed study, delivered to the Department of Defence in 2013, and my public advocacy implies. I think it’s an essential, if challenging, transition that should have started years ago, but didn’t.

The media and political focus on when Australia might commission its first SSN—be it new or a leased second-hand submarine—is misplaced. The date we should be looking at is when we might have a fully operational, sovereign SSN capability that can be deployed to defend Australia. What is required to achieve this?

In a Strategist article published in October last year, I discussed the workforce needed before Australia can own its first SSN. The Royal Australian Navy submarine arm has peaked and fallen back with approximately 850 personnel—a commendable effort from three or four seagoing submarines. This number of personnel is insufficient to operate six Collins while providing the several hundred more required to prepare for the first SSN. Conversion of RAN submariners in US and UK nuclear submarines will be a major task and will take some time; both navies have limitations of their own and must prioritise their own needs. Initial training of new recruits will be even more demanding, take longer and have a higher attrition rate.

The submarine squadron staffed by technical experts and operationally experienced personnel is a key element; supporting, training, assessing and moulding a crew into a winning team able to safely and successfully confront real-world challenges and threats. Personnel are but a portion of the big picture, however.

Submarines be they nuclear- or conventionally powered, operate in a particularly harsh regime, with many systems difficult or impossible to access at sea and the price of failure high. Provided they are regularly and appropriately maintained and supported, a fleet of six submarines can provide two ready to defend Australia at any one time.

The government has committed to at least eight SSNs but the navy would need six to be certain of deploying two of them at once. Six SSNs delivered with a drumbeat of two to three years, driven by production limits and the time required to generate crews, would require 10–15 years plus around 12 months for the operational work-up for the sixth submarine. Getting to the starting line to build our first SSN is going to take another decade. Add the build time and you’re looking at a 30-year plus transition. It’s also a realistic time for the development of expertise.

Australia has learned the hard way that it requires an integrated and comprehensive set of infrastructure manned by naval and industry personnel to create and sustain an operational submarine capability, descriptively titled ‘the submarine enterprise’. Failure of any component hazards the final objective of deployable submarines.

A dedicated, secure submarine base and a shipyard, both with qualified, experienced workforces, specialist workshops and tools, are key components. And they must be supported by supply chains under Australia’s control. The presence of nuclear reactors would add significantly to the complexity, cost and quality and quantity of labour required. Repairs to a defective reactor must be done in Australia to avoid months of additional delay incurred by transporting an immobilised SSN to an overseas shipyard. Reactor repairs can be protracted and complex.

Any transition plan should demonstrate how it will preserve a sovereign, operational submarine force of at least six submarines—though that could be a mix of conventional boats and SSNs. That capability is currently based on ageing Collins, which must undergo a high-risk life-of-type extension, or LOTE. Hellyer’s earlier discussion on this is worth re-reading.

If the LOTE is successful, the first Collins will go out of service in 2038. Then the force will no longer be able to consistently provide two deployable submarines. The last is set to retire in 2048.

A ‘damn the torpedoes’ approach is highly likely to cause the collapse of the Collins capability as personnel and resources are drawn to support the transition. The Collins capability is also highly vulnerable to failure or delay of the LOTE. Either or both events will leave Australia without deployable submarines under Australian control. It has rightly been described as a ‘wicked problem’.

A ‘wicked problem’ by definition does not have an easy or perfect solution. I look forward to hearing more of the nuclear taskforce’s solution, but the signs that it is answering the right question are not propitious.

In my next article I will discuss an alternative approach with a clear Plan B.