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Australian Nuclear Submarine

On 23 February 2012 the front page of the Australian Financial Review reported that Jeffrey Bleich, the US ambassador in Canberra, had raised the possibility of the US selling or leasing nuclear submarines to Australia. Bleich, told the newspaper Washington viewed Australia’s submarine program as crucial to security in the Asia-Pacific region. “Decisions about the design of the Australian submarine are up to Australia’s leaders, including whether they pursue diesel power or nuclear power," Mr Bleich told the paper. “Whatever they decide the US is willing to help."

This would be a a first for either country, though Russia has leased nuclear submarines to India on several occasions. Defence Minister Stephen Smith restated the Labor Party’s position against the “nuclear option", the Ambassador's commenters were further indication of Washington’s moves to strengthen military ties with Australia. US nuclear submarines already use HMAS Stirling, a naval base near Perth, on a periodic basis, but the base’s facilities are tailored to meet the needs of Australia's conventionally-powered Collins fleet.

Jeffrey L. Bleich was nominated by President Obama, and confirmed unanimously by the Senate on 10 November 2009. Ambassador Bleich has led U.S. efforts to advance defense cooperation between the United States and Australia. These efforts include helping drive Senate ratification of the U.S.-Australia Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty, overseeing America’s largest joint training exercise (Talisman Sabre) off the coast of Australia, promoting delivery of upgraded military assets to Australia Defense Forces including C-17s, F-18 Superhornets, and the MH60-Romeo, and helping to guide Australia’s participation in the U.S. global force posture review, resulting in new Marine joint-training exercises in Darwin and airfield dispersals in the Northern Territory.

On 07 February 2012, Ross Babbage, a pro-US analyst and founder of the right-leaning Kokoda Foundation policy shop, prefigured the US ambassador’s suggestion with comments in The Australian. Babbage wrote: “Australia needs to consider purchasing 10-12 of the United States’ latest nuclear-powered attack submarines in order to balance, offset and defer the dramatic expansion of China’s military capabilities." The same day Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, contributed a column in the Sydney Morning Herald which argued that the Australian military needed an “independent capacity to defend the continent" and the country should be “an independent middle power." He advocated the construction of a fleet of 18 to 24 Australian-built small diesel submarines that were not reliant on the US.

The Government ruled out nuclear propulsion for these submarines, according to the 2009 defense White Paper issued on 02 May 2009. The Defence Department planned to examine the feasibility of nuclear-powered submarines as part of its studies into the next generation of submarines. But by December 2007 the Rudd Government was under pressure to rule out nuclear submarines as a future option for the Royal Australian Navy. Opposition defence spokesman Nick Minchin said the Government should immediately reject the option of nuclear submarines. "Australia has no capability or expertise to build or maintain nuclear submarines and the Collins-class boats have proved that conventional submarines can do the job," Senator Minchin said. "Rather than have a distracting debate, Labor should just rule out the nuclear option now."

There had been suggestions in the past that Australia build nuclear power stations. However the ready availability of coal and a strong public feeling that these technologies were unsafe, following the accidents at Three Mile Island in the USA in 1979 and at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986, meant that Australia chose not to pursue this as an option. In 2006 the federal government commissioned Dr Ziggy Switkowski to lead a taskforce to prepare a study into the future feasibility of nuclear power generation in Australia. The Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review Taskforce 2006 ('Switkowski report') made no mention of naval nuclear propulsion.

In a submission to the nuclear taskforce, the former head of the navy's submarine team, Rear Admiral Peter Briggs, and one of Australia's top national security analysts, Allan Behm, argued that the national debate on nuclear energy also allowed Australia to consider the advantages of acquiring nuclear-powered submarines. Opposition Leader Kim Beazley was the architect of the Australian Navy's Collins-class submarine program while serving as defence minister in the Hawke government in the mid-1980s. Beazley had declared his party will oppose any move by the Howard Government to develop a nuclear power industry in Australia. "Without (the foundation of bipartisanship) any discussion about the need for nuclear power for Australia's submarine capability is likely to be poorly directed and at risk of derailing the fundamental need to start preparations for replacing this critical national capability," Admiral Briggs and Mr Behm say.

But in late December 2007 Submarine Institute of Australia president Peter Briggs said the new generation of submarines should be conventional. "I think they should rule out the nuclear option because frankly we do not have time for such a major debate if we are to deliver new submarines by 2025... Australia has no nuclear industry and no nuclear facilities at our universities, and so we don't have the personnel or the knowledge required."

The Navy League [of Australia] says the rejection of nuclear propulsion in the recent defence white paper was "hasty and unconsidered" and "an absurd decision when one remembers we are one of the largest exporters of uranium." In its publication, The Navy, it says "If Australia is to maintain its technological edge it too should opt for nuclear propulsion." The league, which includes many retired senior officers, says nuclear subs are much faster and have a much longer range than conventional boats and Australia, in particular, needs that range if it is to send subs far up into the North China Sea.

Ross Babbage is a former senior Defence official, Managing Director of Strategy International and Founder of the Kokoda Foundation, a not-for-profit national security think-tank, argued in November 2011 in favor of "Australia buying or leasing Virginia class submarines off-the-shelf. These boats would reliably deliver strong deterrence capability, they are fully proven and they could be delivered at a relatively early date." Babbage noted that "Some defence commentators favour the purchase of small European submarines, like the Spanish S-80 or the German Type 214. Even when refitted extensively with American systems, these boats would offer a marginal capability in the 2020s and would be outclassed in the 2030s. Other defence planners favour a new Collins-style of program in which a completely new class of large diesel-electric submarines would be designed, developed and assembled in Australia. This approach would suffer all of the problems of the original Collins program."

In January 2012 the Kokoda Foundation paper, Sub Judice: Australia’s Future Submarine, found no justification for the additional costs of a nuclear program, thought to be of the order of thirty to forty per cent, even if Australia had a nuclear industry and the supporting infrastructure.

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