The Case for an Australian Nuclear Navy

The Case for an Australian Nuclear Navy, by Tony Abbot.

The first of the new subs will take seven years to design, seven years to build and perhaps two further years to bring into service. If everything goes to plan (and it very rarely does in naval procurement), the absolute soonest we could get the first of our new subs is the early-2030s — to replace the Collins class subs that were originally supposed to start leaving service in the mid-2020s. The Collins Class was designed in the 1980s, built in the 1990s, and then extensively modified and rebuilt in the noughties so that what was a very-good-sub-on-its-day could much more reliably take to sea. As things stand, the Collins will need to be upgraded and modernised again while we plan for its replacement.

The whole point of the next submarine acquisition was to avoid the problems of the Collins, to find the submarine that could be brought swiftly into service with the least possible modifications …

A unique Australian boat is precisely what we wanted to avoid; but it’s exactly what we now face because of our insistence on a submarine that as well as being large, and long-range, was also conventionally powered. The competitive evaluation process conclusively showed that there’s no such thing currently in existence.

All the submarines on which the bids were based are excellent for their countries’ needs – but none, it seems, for ours. The Japanese sub lacked range. The German sub lacked size. And the French sub lacked conventional power. But instead of changing what we wanted, we’ve decided – again – to bring an orphan submarine into being.

Instead of taking a small Swedish submarine designed for the Baltic and seeking to double its size and range to make it suitable for the Pacific — as with the Collins — this time we’re proposing to take a French nuclear submarine and completely redesign it to work with conventional propulsion.

This is so much more than the naval version of putting a four cylinder engine into an eight cylinder car because almost everything inside a nuclear powered submarine assumes unlimited power. The resulting sub will have less power, less range, less speed and less capability than the existing submarine on which it’s based and it will come into service about a decade later than would be optimal at a time when strategic circumstances are changing against us. Hence the basic question: why should we spend years designing a sub that’s inferior to one we could potentially have now?

Nuclear is the obvious conclusion, but not even considered for ideological reasons:

It’s worth noting that Australia has not made a formal decision against acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, so much as studiously avoided even asking the question. …

The French-based design is hardly begun, let alone finalised. No contract to build has been signed and won’t be for years. This is because it’s a completely new sub — inspired by, rather ‘based on’. the existing nuclear model — that needs to be designed from scratch rather than simply modified to take a different engine. So there is still a chance for further thought on this …

The regional submarine competition is vastly more challenging than it was when we last made a decision to go with a conventionally-powered submarine back in the 1980s. Since then, both the United States and Britain have phased out their own diesel-electric submarines; presumably because there was nothing really needing to be done that nuclear subs or, perhaps, unmanned underwater vehicles couldn’t do as well. …

Conventional subs need to surface frequently to recharge their batteries, need to refuel every 70 days, and can only briefly maintain a top speed of about 20 knots. Nuclear powered submarines, on the other hand, can stay submerged as long as the crew can endure, never have to refuel, and can travel at nearly 40 knots. …

Creating a nuclear industry to service subs here would take a decade, perhaps more, yet might turn out to be a lesser challenge than designing and building a new class of submarine almost from scratch. …

In the 1960s, we relatively swiftly developed a civilian nuclear capacity, mainly for medicine, centred on the Lucas Heights facility in Sydney; so it can be done if the will is there. Not more robustly challenging the nuclear no-go mindset is probably the biggest regret I have from my time as PM. …

Because of the engineering requirements, nuclear submarines are invariably more expensive to build and operate than conventional ones. On the other hand, even nine (say) nuclear powered submarines could more than do the work of 12 conventional boats. Much would depend upon the deal that the US might give to a close ally offering even closer interoperability and integration with American forces.

hat-tip Stephen Neil