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Australian Nuclear Submarine

On 15 September 2021 the US, UK and Australia announced a new military initiative, dedicated to a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” The first step of the alliance that appeared aimed against China is to provide Canberra with nuclear submarines. President Biden announced the three-way tech-sharing pact with the UK and Australia, including nuclear defense as the countries met to discuss ‘threats’ including China. Biden announced a new defense pact, called AUKUS and involving the UK and Australia. It focused on sharing information in areas like artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, long-range strike capabilities, and even nuclear defense infrastructure.

At the same time, Australia cancelled an existing deal with France for conventionally powered submarines. The French Barracuda boats are nuclear-powered, but Paris had committed to a diesel-driven sdesign babsed on the Barracuda. Some of the cost growth and schedule delay om the Australian program was due to this modification.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and US President Joe Biden held a virtual news conference to unveil their new joint partnership on advanced defense-tech sharing. Morrison revealed in his address that the first major initiative of the new trilateral security partnership - dubbed AUKUS - will be to deliver a nuclear-powered submarine fleet to Australia.

Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Mike Gilday conducted a keynote interview with Bradley Peniston for Defense One’s “State of Defense” Webinar on Sept. 23, 2021. "The AUKUS announcement was made during ISS, and so I think, strategically, that’s a very, very important and, I think, brilliant stroke with respect to our posture in the Pacific, particularly vis-à-vis China. And I think that the effort that’s ongoing as a result of the agreement that was announced has the United States Navy working very closely with the Australian navy to help determine what the optimum path will be to safely deliver not solely the submarines but the enterprise that has to support them. This is everything from a defense industrial base in Australia to a community inside the Australian navy that’s able to man, train, and equip those submarines to sustain them to the oversight mechanisms similar to what we have in the United States Navy to oversee those nuclear-powered vessels. 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." John G. Ferrari and William C. Greenwalt argued that "we have announced a major power shift in the Pacific but followed the announcement with an assurance to China that it will be decades (note the plural) before the shift takes hold."

In 2020 Government directed Defence to implement a strategy that signals Australia’s ability – and willingness – to project military power and deter actions against Australia. Previously Defence’s Strategic Objectives were equally weighted between the three geographical priorities of Australia and its approaches, our nearer region, and the broader global order. Defence’s new strategic objectives are to employ military power to shape Australia’s strategic environment, deter actions against Australian interests and, when required, respond with credible military force.

The size and geographical location of Australia impose long transit times upon Australia’s submarines. The speed and endurance offered by nuclear-powered submarines are tailor-made for these conditions.

  • Conventional-only navies such as South Korea and Japan are concerned at present with operations in home waters, for which the long range and fast transit times of nuclear powered submarines offer little advantage.
  • Mixed-fleet navies such as China and Russia deploy conventional submarines for home waters operations and atomic submarines for longer range operations.
  • Nuclear-only navies of the United States and United Kingdom reflect the global responsibilities of these countries, and a relative lack of concern about home waters threats.

Thus international reaction to the acquisition of nuclear powered submarines by Australia reflects more than the simple augmentation of undersea warfighting capabilities. It also must be seen as reflecting an enlargement in the potential scope of operations by the Royal Australian Navy, from regional responsibilities in South-East Asia, to the entire Indo-Pacific theater.

John G. Ferrari and William C. Greenwalt argued that "The first step is to start moving now. In the coming months, the Australians need to be sent to school, or more specifically the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command’s Nuclear Power School. Upon graduation, these enlisted personnel should complete their training on board operational U.S. submarines. After training up a cadre of Aussies, and rather than wishing for a brand-new class of paper submarines, we should loan the Australians one or two of ours operated by skeleton crews.... the Astute class submarine program is winding down. It makes perfect sense to extend that production line so that the Aussies can buy the next Astute that can be built after the current U.K. order. This potentially could take place as soon as 2028. "

The first two elements of their proposal - training Australian crews at US Navy schools, and leasing a few older American boats, are blindingly obvious, though seldom discussed. The Australians are probably not interested in buying Astutes, a move that does nothing for Australian industry or Australian jobs, nor are the British likely to be interested in prolonging the prodution of these boats, which would delay their plans for a more advanced successor.

Understandably, the French were not pleased with this development. The pre-existing contract for Attack-class submarines was to deliver a new conventional design based on the existing nuclear powered Barracuda. But the redesign proved rather more complicated than initially anticipated, and by 2021 the program had exhibited rather alarming cost growth and schedule delays. The design incorporated traditional lead-acid batteries, while the emerging global standard was more powerful lithium-ion batteries. The strategic environment had changed, and there was a view that Australia needed a longer-range nuclear boat to confront an increasingly belligerent China.

Former Australian premier Kevin Rudd suggested that instead of simply choosing the American offer, Canberra should have let France compete in a new open tender. But this would have opened the project to a French government that was decidedly softer on China than USA or UK [or Australian], possibly derailing the whole enterprise. Such a competition would have further delayed the delivery of the first boat. The American and British submarines use bomb-grade Highly Enriched Uranium [HEU] as fuel, and do not need refueling for the life of the boat. French submarines use fuel of lower enrichment, and the reactors require refueling. Australia does not have nor does it seek the nuclear infrastructure required for reactor refueling, and depending on France for refueling would place a strategic asset in the hands of another country half-way around the world.

on 10 June 2022 the Australian Government finalised negotiations with Naval Group to conclude the Attack class submarine program. The government reached a fair and equitable settlement of €555 million (around $830 million) with Naval Group. Now that the matter is resolved Australia can move forward with the relationship with France. The Australian Prime Minister said "Australia and France share deep historical ties of friendship, forged in common sacrifice in war. We are both vibrant democracies, committed to upholding human rights and fundamental values. We deeply respect France's role and active engagement in the Indo-Pacific."

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Page last modified: 06-07-2022 11:58:31 ZULU