Nuclear-powered submarines are vital to Australia’s defence
18 Apr 2023|

When I was Australia’s ambassador to the United States, I visited General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut, one of two yards constructing the Virginia-class submarines. A Virginia was the backdrop in San Diego last month for the three AUKUS leaders’ announcement of Australia’s path to acquiring nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs).

Electric Boat plans increase its workforce by some 6,000, doubling the number of shifts. Hundreds of Australians will join them. Their training will be invaluable to the creation of a sovereign workforce to build and sustain our SSN AUKUS fleet and sustain our Virginias as we receive three to five of them in the 2030s.

As I entered USS Missouri’s control room, the captain asked if I recognised anything. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I am standing in the control room of a Collins-class submarine.’ He revealed that his last sea post had been as an exchange officer in Australia on a Collins. ‘Best I’ve served on,’ he said (obviously, a certain amount of hyperbole for a guest, but a moment of pride for me).

As ambassador it was my job to request US support for our replacement boat. We’d been looking at a Japanese drive system for the Collins, so I sought assistance from the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the chief of the US Navy and the US defense secretary. They were, however, not the go-to authorities for submarines. That was Admiral James Caldwell, director of the naval nuclear propulsion program in the US Department of Energy. The first director was Admiral Hyman G. Rickover (1949 to 1982).

I experienced some testiness from the Americans along the lines of, ‘Get on with it’. They emphatically didn’t want us in the nuclear program and liked having allies with a conventional capability. They were particularly enamoured of the Collins, despite criticism in Australia, and found it virtually impossible to detect on exercises. But their overwhelming concern was to limit access to the nuclear technologies in which they enjoyed global superiority. Over Rickover’s screaming objections, they shared that technology with the British 65 years ago, and wanted to spread it no further. The AUKUS arrangement is strongly supported in the US but runs very much against their nature. Technology transfers will require congressional approval and there will be much work for the embassy.

There’s been a lot of discussion about threats to our sovereignty once we acquire the US-made Virginia SSNs. The Americans have made clear that all facets of their deployment will be under our control. In accordance with the nuclear non-proliferation processes thus far endorsed by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the reactors’ fuelling will be handled by the Americans. Any decision to go to war, or not to, will be solely a matter for Australia’s government.

Until Australia receives its SSNs, British and American boats operating from here will be designated Submarine Rotational Forces—West and will have their own lines of authority. That’s been the case with submarines that have made nearly 300 visits to HMAS Stirling since the early 1980s.

The US–Australia alliance is critical to our survival, and ensuring its effectiveness involves intense work on commonality of systems. We acquire the best of our ally’s equipment. The Australian Defence Force’s strike, intercepting, surveillance and transport aircraft are virtually all American, including the F-35 Lightning IIs, Superhornets, Growlers, Wedgetails, P-8 Poseidons, C-17 Globemasters, C-130 Hercules, Chinooks and Black Hawks. Hardly commented on but huge is the acquisition of 200 Tomahawk missiles likely to be deployed from our submarines and destroyers. In addition, we’ll receive the HIMARS missile system. A sovereign missile capability is being developed through the guided weapons and explosive ordnance enterprise. Exposure of threats in our region is much assisted by our joint intelligence-gathering facilities. Our navy’s sensing and weapon systems are largely American. We don’t feel our sovereign decision-making is curtailed by our need to acquire these weapons and spares. If origin equals sovereignty, we lost it long ago. But of course, it doesn’t.

Despite the US government overriding Rickover’s objections, the British didn’t feel obliged to join the allies in Vietnam. Indeed, until that war the Royal Australian Navy flew the Royal Navy’s ensign. The British objected because they didn’t want our ships mistaken as British. They had an active trade with North Vietnam. Without access to the best American equipment ,we would have virtually no affordable defence. The SSNs will be in continuation.

I strongly support the government’s SSN decision. Ironically, if Sweden’s Saab, which now owns the company that designed the Collins, had been allowed to bid for the Collins replacement, it may well have beaten the French and we wouldn’t be having this discussion. We are fortunate that this opportunity has arisen. Courtesy of Rickover, the nuclear boats are very safe. He was almost paranoid about safety and believed that any accident, particularly in port, would end his program. Our sailors and workers will be trained to the highest level, and the boats will likewise be built to that standard.

Conventional boats are quiet and difficult to detect. Nuclear boats are not as quiet, but they are quiet. The conventional boats are deft lurkers, but they have discretion issues as radars and other detection systems improve. Our Collins boats have two to three days submerged before they must ‘snort’, raising a mast to take in air to drive their diesel engines and recharge their batteries. As they do that, they can be detected. Air-independent propulsion could extend their time deeply submerged, but in a conflict that remains a vulnerability.

When a submarine discharges a weapon, it is exposed. SSNs are fast and can depart very quickly. Conventional boats are not so fast, and they are slow to reach their station. Diesel–electric conventional boats must vacate the deployment area to refuel, and an enemy knows where they do it. Nuclear boats, not so. Their deployment time is influenced by crew endurance and food. Speed gives the nuclear boats advantages in open waters and in discretion close to shore.

As retired Rear Admiral David Oliver, who has operated both types of boats, told the Lowy Institute: ‘Nuclear submarines [close in] have such inherent advantages, in that the ocean is so noisy and layered that sounds pursue odd paths.’ He also argues: ‘Nuclear-powered submarines will give Australia invulnerability. There is no nation or system that can prevent a determined attack by a nuclear submarine.’ The Chinese know this, too, and as they attack the AUKUS program, they are building SSNs at pace.

Our nuclear boats will be expensive—up to $368 billion—which will increase the defence budget by 0.15%. The government has said it hopes to make savings towards them. I would argue that lifting defence’s share of GDP from 2% to 2.15% would be fine. In my day it was 2.3% to 2.5%. We can’t make this long-term program the enemy of what must be done now. This is a government of cautious financial management, but it has prioritised national security. Defence spending is massively outweighed by what we spend on social programs. The National Disability Insurance Scheme, for example, will cost at least four or five times that $368 billion over the same 30-year period.

It will probably take a decade to get our first Virginia-class boat and slightly less than two decades for our first British–Australian-designed boat incorporating much American capability. But it’s a major deterrent. The rotation of allied boats will be much sooner, and that helps. Deterrence, not war, is the government’s objective. Its diplomacy is clearly directed towards that. The suggestion that our sovereignty is impinged on by this, when our total program is considered, is untrue. A massive lift in our military effectiveness is assured.