Australia – Nuclear not an option for next generation of submarines

Current – The Australian Collins-class submarine, HMAS Rankin (SSK 78), enters Pearl Harbor for a port visit after completing exercises in the Pacific region

By Paul Dibb

LATER this year, the government will make a decision to narrow the choice for Australia’s future submarines. Contrary to opinions expressed in The Weekend Australian (“Past sub mistakes make a case for going nuclear”, January 5-6) the preferred option will certainly not be a nuclear submarine.

And – contrary to recent views in other media – whichever submarines we choose, they will not be built overseas.

So why not get American nuclear submarines? As the Minister for Defence Materiel, Jason Clare, has noted, the US has never exported or leased a naval nuclear reactor. The US will not simply hand over sensitive nuclear military knowledge, even to its close ally. The US ambassador has observed we don’t have a nuclear energy program and that unless we get that kind of infrastructure, “it’s very, very difficult to maintain any sort of other nuclear industries”. If you don’t have a nuclear industry, you don’t know how to operate nuclear submarines safely.

In the event of a safety problem with the nuclear reactor, who would fix it? Britain had exactly such a problem 12 years ago with one of its nuclear attack submarines, which had to spend 12 months in Gibraltar with a potentially serious leaking weld in the primary reactor circuit that involved partially draining the re-actor coolant. How would we cope with that sort of event in Fremantle if we didn’t have properly trained and experienced nuclear engineers?

The fact that we have no experience with nuclear propulsion means we would be totally dependent on the US for the submarines’ regular and safe maintenance. This could be a big problem if we ever wanted to use these submarines in a regional conflict where Australian and US interests were not aligned.

My understanding is that at the highest levels, the US has indicated very firmly to us that it prefersAustralia to have conventional submarines that can go places and do things that large nuclear submarines cannot do so easily. That was certainly my experience with Australian covert submarine operations in the Cold War.

Whichever submarine we choose, it will have a US combat system, which will give us a crucial operational advantage over potential regional adversaries. We are the only other country in the world to have the US AN/BYG-1 combat system and advanced US weapons such as the ADCAP Mark 48 torpedo on our Collins-class submarines. Washington will not allow European submarine builders to integrate such a highly secret capability in their shipbuilding yards. It would have to be done in Australia.

So what options does that leave us with? They are as follows:

We could simply buy a European military off-the-shelf solution, unmodified except for Australian regulatory and environmental requirements. That would be the cheapest solution. But if it was built in Europe, it would come with a European combat system that would give us no operational advantage over similar origin submarines that might be exported into our region.

A more attractive option would be to choose a significantly modified European vessel that would accommodate our requirement for greater range and endurance, given our demanding strategic geography. It is conceivable that were such a European submarine to be built in Australia, the US would agree to us integrating their combat system. That is clearly one option for consideration.

The third option is for an evolved Collins-class once the government is satisfied that the present operational problems of these submarines have been resolved.

The chief executive of Defence acquisition, Warren King, is of the view that important lessons have been learnt from building the Collins. The key lesson is that we can construct world-class submarines in Australia, but next time we will need to choose a proven combat system and propulsion.

The fourth option, which I consider to be highly unlikely, is to have a brand-new, large conventional submarine designed especially for us. That would be both the highest risk and cost and should not be considered.

Whichever submarine we choose, I do not believe we should calculate the number of boats we require based on highly unlikely scenarios of war with China. That was the fatal flaw in the 2009 Defence white paper. We require submarines optimised for our own strategic requirements, which means an operational area extending from the eastern Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and defending our vast maritime approaches.

The bottom line is that we need a submarine that is capable of supporting our sovereign requirement for independent submarine operations. The sort of money involved ranges anywhere from $10 billion to $30bn. That may suggest we end up with a preferred option and another option held in reserve as more reliable cost, schedule and technological risk data are developed.

Paul Dibb is emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University. He is a former deputy secretary of Defence and director of the Defence Intelligence Organisation. He is an adviser to the SA government on defence policy issues.

Source – The Australian

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One thought on “Australia – Nuclear not an option for next generation of submarines

  1. tom

    Any sovereign nation is entitled to defend itself. Having a subsurface capability is tricky;the sheer size & logistics will determine what policies Australia should pursue. Without nuclear energy, the best submarine you can design will be optimality of the classic ww2 boats. the other high-tech option is surveillance systems for the region… with a fast response surface craft or/and tactical air power. If you master a network of undersea naval bases or ocean platforms, Australia could find its own strengths. Political & economic thresholds are more of a problem than forecasting international crisis’s 10-30 years in the future.

    Reply

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