A farewell to nuclear submarines, for now
15 May 2013|

The Royal Navy's HMS Triumph, a Trafalgar Class nuclear submarine, glides into HM Naval Base Clyde in the early morning sun following a patrolThe Defence White Paper signals full-steam ahead for Australia’s most expensive defence project ever: the design and construction, in Australia, of 12 conventionally-powered submarines. With A$200m committed to funding initial designs, however, the enormity of the challenge will start to surface. Australia now has to create submarines with greater range and endurance than anything built by countries with generations of experience.

Hopefully, Canberra analysed its alternatives to the point of exhaustion. In about two years’ time, Adelaide will start to fill up with the 1,500-or-so foreign draughtsmen and engineers that RAND says Australia will have to import, just to execute the design work. And as these experienced submarine designers wrestle with the performance parameters set by government, they’ll pose one very awkward question: “Why are you asking us to design a nuclear-powered submarine without a nuclear engine?”

Currently, the government has no answer. The White Paper simply says that “consideration of a nuclear powered submarine capability [… has been] ruled out”. This reticence is mistake. As Collins Mk II rises from the drawing board, the case for purchasing nuclear-powered boats will only get stronger.

First, consider the money. The projected cost of an all-new 4,000 tonne conventional boat is estimated by ASPI to be over A$3 billion, which includes all project costs. This is approximately the same as the sail-away cost of a much larger Virginia class nuclear submarine off an established production line, and could even be more than a French or British nuclear submarine which would almost certainly sail away for less than $2 billion. Defence would still have to purchase the support systems to get the boats into Australian service, but the industrial and program costs sunk into getting a first-in-class to work would be borne by someone else.

Besides being less risky to procure, these nuclear-powered vessels would be far more powerful than conventionally-powered boats. They could arrive on station faster, stay there longer, carry more weapons, and fight more aggressively. As a deterrent, they’d be many times more formidable.

The Royal Australian Navy might play a simple war game once the new design matures. They could invite a retired American submarine captain over and say : “Sir, to achieve a specific objective in the middle of the Pacific or Indian oceans you have a straight choice between having, under your command, one single nuclear-powered boat, or ‘X’ number of our Collins Mk.II?” Even at this distance, his ‘X’ is likely to be two or three. Expressed as an opportunity cost in dollars, the answer is horrendous.

The objections to going nuclear are clear; but as the challenges of Collins Mk.II become less opaque, the question will be: did the Government diligently and unemotionally address them?

If the over-riding justification for an Australia-built fleet is operational independence, then Government should look squarely at what the current fleet delivers. Only one third of the Collins fleet is generally seaworthy. Refitting them takes four to five times the work required on similar comparable European vessels. And upgrading them requires US help for the most complex elements—the sensors, combat system and weapons.

Australia could almost certainly sustain a fleet of nuclear boats to a higher level of operational availability than currently possible. Neither the US nor UK boats ever need refuelling. The core is closed for the lifetime of the submarine, so the additional nuclear engineering required for through-life support is modest. Establishing a first-class nuclear-boat maintenance facility in Australia would be expensive, but pales beside the gargantuan cost of re-launching the Australian Submarine Corporate (ASC) as a construction yard.

Alternatively, Australia could avoid the cost and political risk of building maintenance facilities here, and instead operate the boats on a similar cycle to the United States Navy’s Guam-based submarines. This would mean the submarines having only a small maintenance footprint here and returning to US West Coast for periodic refits, which is pretty much how the RAAF maintains its fleet of C-17 strategic transports.

In either case, you don’t need a construction yard to maintain a submarine. The activities are quite different. British nuclear boats never re-visit the Barrow yard where they are built.

Nor would the fact Australia’s boats were foreign-built boats necessarily diminish the country’s strategic independence. There’s a fundamental difference between depending on an ally to come to your aid (which, in extremis, Australia does now) and depending on your ally not to obstruct you from paying to defend yourself. That’s why the UK ultimately trusts US not to abuse its position as the supplier–owner of its Trident ballistic missiles, on which the UK’s independent deterrent relies.

Does the case against nuclear boats ultimately rest, then, on Australian jobs foregone? That flank, too, is exposed. Re-booting ASC will merely kick-start thousands of careers that will go nowhere once each design and construction phase is complete. Better, surely, to play the international defence procurement game, and trade jobs on submarines for offsets in industries where Australia can build competitive advantage—and careers with a future.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Asia is rising and submarines will become Australia’s primary defence asset for many decades. For now, the government has passed on the one weapon that could deliver genuine independent strategic security. But like a pair of lethal mines, cost and capability are floating right in the path Australia’s home-grown subs. This won’t be the last we hear of Australia’s nuclear option.

Phil Radford is a freelance writer, based in Sydney. He specialises in naval strategy and defence procurement. Image courtesy of Flickr user Defence Images.