Why Australia should ditch the conventional submarine project and build nuclear submarines?

Officers and sailors at work on Collins-class submarine, HMAS Sheean, while transiting Cockburn Sound in Western Australia.

Australia’s controversial attack-class submarine program has been widely criticised. At $90bn in out-turned dollars, it is very expensive. With delivery scheduled between 2035 and 2050, the boats will be in service far too late. Australian industry content will be too low to maintain Australia’s sovereign submarine capability.

As the Auditor-General has pointed out, at around $140 million the cancellation cost would be modest at this stage, but it will grow the longer significantly Australia delays.

The fundamental problem with the Attack-class submarine, however, is that it will not be fit for its purpose. It will be unable to deliver a sufficiently large or potent force to deter an adversary from taking military action against Australia. Its vulnerability to detection and counter-attack means it will lack both efficiency and effectiveness in its operations, while its survivability will be increasingly challenged.

These criticisms are all valid and provide sufficient grounds to cancel the Attack program now.

Why is diesel-powered submarine ominous for attack-class?

How could the government get itself into such a bad position? Some key decision-makers have failed to appreciate that Australia now faces a much more demanding security future. As the Pentagon’s recently released annual report on China’s military development makes clear, Beijing’s surveillance, missile, air and naval developments are transforming the strategic balance in the Western Pacific. Indeed, by 2025 China’s military power will be predominant in parts of our region.

There’s also a need to take account of China’s much more aggressive recent military operations, especially in disputed areas of the South and East China Seas. Australian security planners should do everything in their power to negotiate peaceful resolutions of these issues. They would, however, be naive to neglect strong investment in defense capabilities that can deter coercion against us in the 2025-2050 timeframe.

Advanced submarines offer special strategic leverage in the more demanding security environment that’s in store. The best submarines are highly survivable in intense military operations and have the potential to force the leadership of even a major power to pause and think carefully before attacking Australia or our key interests. They are one of only two or three military capabilities that carry this game-changing leverage. So, while Australia will always need some surface warships, armored vehicles and transport aircraft, the truth is that advanced submarines offer unique strategic advantages for us in the troubled times ahead.

Incorrect assumptions about nuclear propulsion

The popular belief is that a nuclear power industry is an essential prerequisite for nuclear propulsion to be adopted for Australian submarines or other vessels requiring greater endurance and speed, such as icebreakers or high-speed freight liners.

The roadmap is about nuclear power for non-weapons use and is altogether different in nature to nuclear weapons technology.

The claim that Australia can’t have nuclear-powered submarines because it doesn’t have a nuclear industry has never been tested. An Australian ability to manufacture and reprocess nuclear fuel wouldn’t be essential in order to own and operate nuclear-powered submarines.

Why are nuclear submarines best for Australia?

Let’s clear up the elephant in the room–having a nuclear submarine does not mean having a nuclear bomb nor the first step towards a nuclear bomb. Australia still maintains a nuclear non-proliferation commitment after having a nuclear submarine.

Nuclear submarines employ nuclear reactors for this task. These engines are able to provide emergency electrical power for reactor decay heat removal, as well as enough electric power to supply an emergency propulsion mechanism. Submarines may carry nuclear fuel for up to 30 years of operation.

Exceptional safety records of nuclear submarine

The exceptional safety record of nuclear propulsion in the US, UK and France has not been accidental.

For the US Navy and the UK Royal Navy, this has been a direct result of the highly rigorous approach taken by the father of nuclear propulsion, US Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, whose insistence on the highest standards of competence and accountability in all matters related to nuclear technology are legendary and persist to this day.

Nuclear-powered submarines would provide the ADF with a potent offensive capability, both projecting force a long way from home and countering incursions by an adversary’s forces into Australia’s EEZ.

But acquiring them would be a challenge. Other options exist, such as long-range bombers for force projection and more land-based aircraft and missiles to deny an adversary access to Australia’s maritime approaches. Yet because of their destructive power, for Australia the deterrent effect of nuclear-powered attack submarines may be unsurpassed.

All this means Australia needs to get the new submarine program right and do so quickly. Australia has three main submarine options. The government currently favors designing and building Australia’s unique, rather large, diesel-electric submarines, essentially a Collins Mk 2. Second, Australia could purchase much smaller diesel-electric submarines that are currently in production in Europe. Third, Australia could purchase or lease from “hot” production lines advanced nuclear-propelled submarines from the United States or Britain.

In conclusion, this proposed roadmap should not cause concern regarding Australia’s continuing commitment to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons even though both proposed collaborators are nuclear weapons powers themselves.

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