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Making the shift to nuclear-powered submarines: training and recruiting

Posted By on October 27, 2021 @ 11:00

In the first post in this series [1], I considered the structure of the safety regimes needed to independently audit the Royal Australian Navy’s procedures and training to operate a nuclear-powered submarine (SSN), along with the personnel required to do this work.

The crew and naval organisations needed to support and oversee the SSN were considered in my second post [2]. Here, I review some of the training and education structures, before summarising the total personnel requirement for phase 1, the starting point for a transition to SSNs.

It is assumed that the RAN will be given the requisite access to the training schools of the navy that supplies our submarines and access to their boats for at-sea training until it has established sufficient capacity in Australia. This is a significant undertaking for the supplier navy. At-sea training billets are always in high demand, so adding the conversion and ab initio training required for the RAN will be a significant imposition even without considering the security and other national issues that could arise. This requires early resolution during the 18-month study period, to establish the viability of the whole proposal. Let’s examine the engineering specialist training, possibly the most demanding and time consuming.

For operators to have a full understanding of the submarine reactor, they will be obliged to undergo a high level of both education and training. This will be undertaken overseas until training is repatriated. Detail on this is outside the timescale of this analysis, but it’s useful to understand the length of training pipelines involved.

The marine engineering officer training pipeline involves new entry naval training, an engineering degree, postgraduate nuclear training and submarine training. Assuming the trainee proceeds smoothly through the pipeline, it takes seven years. The qualified submarine marine engineering officer will then undertake a sequence of sea and shore postings, after which they will complete their qualification as the chief engineer in charge of the engineering department. They will then undertake a posting as a deputy before being assessed fit to be appointed as the chief engineer in charge of the nuclear plant. This process takes an additional nine years. That’s a total of at least 16 years from initial entry to chief engineer.

The nuclear technician sailor operating the reactor completes a technical apprenticeship, general submarine training and specialist courses prior to their first sea appointment as a watchkeeper. This is followed by the four-month nuclear technician short course and then two years at sea before completing the eight-month nuclear long course and returning to the sea as a supervisory watchkeeper. That posting is likely to be followed by a shore job, either as an instructor or as part of the nuclear repair facility team, before a return to sea as a trainee watch leader to qualify as a nuclear chief of the watch. There can be no substitute for experience in this position; simulation can assist but not replace the core knowledge gained from actual reactor operation. The process typically takes eight to 10 years.

This is a snapshot of the technical training to illustrate the long lead times needed to have qualified, experienced reactor operators and supervisors. Command qualified warfare officers are another scarce commodity: it takes six to eight years to qualify and there’s a high wastage rate.

Overall, the number of personnel involved in preparing for our first SSN will need to include an allowance for the wastage rates typically experienced with overseas training and long training pipelines. In practice, a buffer of around 30% would be required to ensure enough personnel complete the training and become qualified.

This discussion identifies the organisations and typical manning numbers required to prepare for and safely operate our first SSN. In gross terms, at least 400 personnel plus about 120 for attrition, all with the appropriate qualifications and experience, will be needed before the first boat is  commissioned. The lead time varies with the position to be filled, and the preparation of the personnel in the safety and policy positions will also take some years. These personnel are in short supply in the British and US navies, so we can’t rely on recruiting from overseas. If we’re to preserve a cooperative relationship, any transfers will have to be agreed with the supplying navy. Until we have several SSNs in service (say, four to six), we will have to depend on the supplying navy’s training system and seagoing submarines for training and experience.

All these requirements will no doubt be managed in a detailed training plan to be developed in collaboration with the supplier navy during the 18-month study period.

It should be clear from this discussion that the manpower obligation prior to safely operating our first SSN precludes an early move to lease an SSN—even in the unlikely event that one was available.

Australia can make this transition, but it is going to take time, a national commitment and a lot of assistance from our AUKUS allies. As Admiral Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations of the US Navy, said on 23 September [3]:

This is a very long-term effort that’ll be decades, I think, before a submarine goes in the water. It could be. I don’t see this as a short-term timeline. We have an 18-month exploratory period that’ll get after a lot of these questions and help Australia come to grips with exactly what they need to do to get in a path akin to the United States Navy.

It’s not feasible to meet the requirements of the nuclear training pipelines, and the subsequent postings to gain experience, by drawing trained submariners from the current submarine arm of about 900 personnel. Those personnel will be operating the six Collins-class submarines, which are critical to generating qualified submariners and defending Australia.

As navy chief Vice Admiral Michael Noonan recently advised a Senate estimates committee, the RAN must grow the submarine arm to 2,300 personnel. To achieve this growth, provide for our defence in uncertain strategic times and hedge against the risk of delays in the transition, the government should be urgently considering increasing the number of conventional submarines. It is now very late in the day and we can’t afford to waste another 18 months waiting until the end of the current study to have this conclusion accepted. If these submarines were to be constructed in Adelaide, it would have the important additional benefit of re-establishing Australia’s submarine-building capability.

In a recent Strategist post, Marcus Hellyer noted [4]: ‘Every time ASPI has looked at the path to acquiring nuclear boats we’ve concluded that Australia still needs a new conventional submarine to ensure we can safely transition to a nuclear fleet.’ He is right.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/making-the-shift-to-nuclear-powered-submarines-training-and-recruiting/

URLs in this post:

[1] first post in this series: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/making-the-shift-to-nuclear-powered-submarines-safety-first/

[2] second post: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/making-the-shift-to-nuclear-powered-submarines-technical-skills-and-oversight/

[3] said on 23 September: https://www.navy.mil/Press-Office/Press-Briefings/display-pressbriefing/Article/2787988/cno-keynote-interview-with-bradley-peniston-for-defense-ones-state-of-defense/

[4] Marcus Hellyer noted: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/australias-nuclear-submarine-decision-leaves-more-questions-than-answers/

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