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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.

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.

The three countries agreed to launch a trilateral effort of 18 months, which will involve teams — technical and strategic and navy teams — from all three countries to identify the optimal pathway of delivery of this capability. The only country that the United States has shared this kind of nuclear technology for propulsion is Great Britain, and that arrangement dates back to 1958. Under this unique set of circumstances, the USA decided to add Australia to that deep partnership to explore the best ways for Australia to pursue nuclear-powered submarines. Three existing designs could form the point of departure for this effort.

  1. The 3,000 ton Collins Class, Australia's conventional submarines which are the largest, and possibly the most advanced and efficient non-nuclear submarines in the world.
  2. The 7,800 ton Astute class submarines, British nuclear powered hunter-killers SSNs which supersede the Swiftsure class.
  3. The 9,500 ton Block V SSN-774 Virginia-class, the most modern American submarine designed to support an unprecedented array of joint littoral warfare missions.

These submarines represent three rather divergent hull forms, and the design process would thus have to entail more than simply "blending" the three. The Royal Australian Navy is likely to build versions of the latest US or British submarines that have more potent weapons and sensors than their Chinese counterparts. Either way, Australia’s eight nuclear submarines will be designed to sink China’s growing submarine fleet, and will be equipped with torpedoes and mines, as well as cruise missiles that can be used against ships and land targets.

The "pathway of delivery" would require far more than simply the design and construction of the boats and their reactors, but would also require an architecture for the nuclear fuel cycle for the bomb-grade uranium needed to fuel the reactors. The absence of such fuel cycle infrastructure in Australia was historically one of the arguments against nuclear powered submarines.

Some fraction of this fuel cycle might be localized in Australia, which has around one third of the world's uranium resources, and is the world's third ranking producer, accounting for approximately 10 percent of annual global production. Some other stages in the fuel cycle might be provided on an arms-length basis by either the UK or USA [eg, enrichment in the UK, spent fuel disposal in the USA].

The Australian Prime Minister detailed that the trio will take the next 18 months to "work together to seek to determine the best way forward to achieve this. This will include an intense examination of what we need to do to exercise our nuclear stewardship responsibilities in Australia." "We intend to build these submarines in Adelaide, Australia, in close cooperation with the United Kingdom and the United States," Morrison added. "But let me be clear," he said. "Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons [nor] establish nuclear capability. And we will continue to meet all our nuclear non-proliferation obligations."

South Australia will play a key role in the new tri-lateral alliance between Australia, United States and United Kingdom. The Australian Government intended to build the new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines in Adelaide.

The Government will actively work with industry to ensure the people and skills developed under the existing program are not lost to the Government’s Naval Shipbuilding Enterprise as it established a new program to support the delivery of nuclear-powered submarines to the Navy. The existing submarine workforce are prime candidates for the unprecedented work that needs to be performed across the Enterprise over the coming decades.

The Government will partner with the Australian-owned sovereign shipbuilder, ASC, to manage and implement a new Sovereign Shipbuilding Talent Pool. The Government is committed to finding a role within the Sovereign Shipbuilding Talent Pool for each and every skilled shipbuilding worker impacted by this announcement. The Sovereign Shipbuilding Talent Pool will re-deploy the existing shipbuilding workforce throughout current and new shipbuilding programs, while building the nuclear-powered submarine skills that will be crucial for the success of the nuclear-powered submarine program.

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.

In the United States, following the Virginia Block VI/VII, the Next-Generation Attack Submarine (SSN(X)) will be designed to counter the emerging threat posed by near peer adversary competition for undersea supremacy. Under the US Navy’s FY2020 30-year (FY2020-FY2049) shipbuilding plan, the first SSN(X) would be procured in FY2031. In FY2032 and FY2033, the final four Virginia-class boats would be procured. Procurement of follow-on SSN(X)s, at a rate of two per year, would then begin in FY2034. Rather than buying the last Virginias, Australia might wish to buy the initial SSN(X) boats, similar to the Seawolf class submarine.

Design work for the next-generation of Royal Navy submarines is underway following the award of two contracts to UK industry, the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace announced 17 September 2021. Two contracts worth £85-million each had been awarded to BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce to deliver design and concept work for a future Class of Royal Navy submarine.

SSNR emerged in 2019 from the Maritime Underwater Future Capability (MUFC) program to develop “future capability requirements and develop options to perform operations and tasks within the underwater environment when the current Astute Class Submarines leave service.”

No name has been assigned to this class, which might as well be called the Commonwealth [or Dominion] class, because it seems ideally suited fro collaboration with Australia, and possibly Canada. Just days before the UK announce the SSNR project, Australia canceled further work on an existing conventional submarine contract with France, and announced its intention to proceed with a nuclear submarine with fellow Alglophones UK and USA, under the AUKUS alliance. In addition to the SSNR project, the US has embarked on a counterpart SSN-X project.

But the American SSN-X is probably rather more submarine the Australians are seeking, will not see new baot until the 2030s and the massive SSN-X design effort would probably prove rather indifferent to Australian input. In contrast, the SSNR project would see smaller boats in the water in the 2020s, and the six units of the SSNR class might prove quite amenable to dsign input from the Australian 8-boat class. Canada has a long standing desirement for SSNs to assert sovereignty in the far North, and may well see this as a unique opportunity to join the SSN club.

The six units of the Collins-class SSK will undergo a multi-billion dollar Life of Type Extension (LOTE) beginning in 2026 that will extend the service life of these boats into the 2040s. While the Morrison Government was eager to acquire a near-term nuclear submarine capability to respond to Chinese provocations, Australia did not confront a "submarine gap" due to the retirement of the Collins SSKs. The 2016 Defence White Paper had noted "The acquisition of the 12 future submarines will commence in 2016 with the first submarines likely to begin entering service in the early 2030s. Construction of the 12 new submarines will extend into the late 2040s to 2050 timeframe."

Leasing nuclear-powered vessels from AUKUS allies could be a stop-gap solution until Australia takes delivery of its own submarines. The finance minister, Simon Birmingham, and the defence minister, Peter Dutton, confirmed in separate interviews on 19 September 2021 that leasing submarines from the AUKUS allies could be a stop-gap solution until Australia takes delivery of its own – potentially in the 2040s. “The short answer is yes,” Dutton said when asked on Sky News about leasing vessels. Birmingham said leasing arrangements would not necessarily “increase the number of submarines and the capability across all of the partner nations” but would help with training and information sharing.

“Doing so may provide opportunities for us to train our sailors, provide the skills and knowledge in terms of how we operate,” Birmingham told the ABC. It would help “ provide the platforms for us to upgrade the infrastructure in Perth, that will be necessary for the operation of these submarines. I expect we will see … lease arrangements or greater joint operations between our navies in the future that sees our sailors working more closely and indeed, potentially on UK and US vessels to get that skills and training and knowledge.”

Over the years, Russia has leased nuclear powered submarines to India, so this practice is not without precedent. The source of lease or purchase would have to be the US Navy, since the Royal Navy is extending the life of Trafalgar class boats to reflect delays in the new Astute class. The US Navy had about 20 Virginia class boats in service as of late 2021, and might be able to spare one or two for a close ally. This would ensure a smooth transition to boats of this class built in Australia.

In the event the US Navy was unprepared to spare a few of their shiniest new toys for "that fellow down-under", as of late 2021 the US Navy retained 28 of the earlier SSN-688 Los Angeles boats. While some of these would be retired within the next few years, these submarines serve for 33-37 years. So the newest of these boats could remain in service through the year 2031 if not later. While these boats may lack the new car smell of the Virginia boats, they are potent warships, and should prove more than adequate to familiarize Australian crews with the discipline of underway under nuclear power.

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Page last modified: 13-12-2021 16:10:47 ZULU