Australia's Nuclear Sub Option
Image Credit: U.S. Navy (Flickr)

Australia's Nuclear Sub Option


Australia’s six expensive, unreliable Collins Class submarines should be a warning of the risks involved in designing and building a submarine in Australia. These risks are amplified by the challenges facing Australia’s defense forces such as the rise of China, diminishing U.S. power, and expansion of submarine forces across the Asia-Pacific region.

In this strategic context, in 2009 the federal government committed to replacing the Collins Class with 12 diesel-powered Future Submarines costing an estimated $40 billion and assembled in Adelaide. Unfortunately, the project has been marred by delays and poor decisions.

Primarily because of its failed defense ‘self-reliance’ policy, the government erroneously ruled out considering nuclear-powered submarines.

Australia needs the best submarines it can get, and that means the U.S. Navy’s Virginia Class nuclear-powered attack submarine.The traits the Australian Navy wants in the Future Submarines, such as longer range, endurance and improved capabilities over the Collins Class, can only be found in nuclear-powered submarines.

Instead, the government will almost certainly take the exceedingly risky step of substantially redesigning and jury-rigging an existing submarine design, basically repeating the Collins Class process all over again.

If the rocky path that the Collins Class took to service wasn’t enough of a warning against developing our own submarines, the recent data should make decision makers think twice about it.

The Collins Class submarines are expensive. Maintenance and operating costs are likely to exceed $1 billion a year by 2021. They are also unreliable. Between 2009 and 2011, there were always at least three (usually four or five) submarines unavailable due to defects or maintenance.

The history of the Collins Class submarines is littered with failures and problems. This is due to systemic issues within the Navy and the risk inherent in developmental programs. These issues and risks will be inherited by the Future Submarines. The alternative, the Virginia Class, is less risky and would provide Australia with a major edge over the submarine forces in the South East Asian region.

The Virginia Class can cover great distances at much higher speeds than any diesel submarine. It never needs to be refuelled and isn’t as vulnerable as the Collins Class because its nuclear power plant alleviates the need to surface every few days to recharge its batteries.

The Virginia Class can carry out longer deployments and operate much more powerful sensors and systems (especially unmanned undersea vehicles) because of its much greater endurance and power-generation capability. The Virginia Class is more powerful, more flexible and more capable than the Collins Class and any other diesel submarine.

The United States is rebalancing its fleet towards the Pacific and facing a serious funding crisis. It would seriously consider a request from Australia to lease Virginia Class submarines. It serves U.S. interests to ensure Australia has capable, reliable submarines.

If Australia leased eight Virginia Class submarines, it could deploy two submarines continuously. Based on the unreliable nature of the Collins Class, a fleet of 12 Future Submarines would be needed to do the same.

Leasing the Virginia Class submarines together with training, upgrades, sustainment and disposal of spent nuclear material would limit the risks and challenges of establishing a nuclear submarine program.

It would cost less too at about $20 billion upfront, plus $4 billion to $6 billion for facilities and setup costs, a savings of more than $10 billion from current estimates for the Future Submarines. Three-quarters of a billion dollars a year in operational savings might be achieved as well – a Collins Class submarine costs Australia a lot more to run than a Virginia Class submarine costs the United States.

While nuclear safety is an important consideration, U.S. nuclear-powered submarines have a perfect safety record, having travelled more than 240 million kilometres without a single reactor incident and visited Australian bases since 1960 without any problems. Moreover, submarine reactors are a fraction of the size of a nuclear power plant and much less dangerous.

Critics cite reliance on foreign support as a reason why Australia shouldn’t operate nuclear-powered submarines. These concerns are spurious. In reality, Australia already relies heavily for the development and sustainment of its platforms on foreign defense forces and foreign defense companies, and their Australian subsidiaries.

This also ignores the capability limitations resulting from Australia’s declining defense budget. It is necessary to re-examine the limits of self-reliance to ensure Australia gets the strongest defense force it can for the money the government is willing to spend.

Leasing Virginia Class nuclear-powered submarines would revitalize Australia’s submarine program, help fix some of the systemic issues with naval sustainment, and avoid the major risks inherent to a developmental submarine program. It is the best option for the Future Submarines.

Simon Cowan is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and author of the report “The Future Submarine Project Should Raise Periscope For Another Look”.

Robert Miles
December 17, 2013 at 12:15

The idea that the US and USN would be prepared to release 6-8 Virginia class SSN to Australia seems extraordinary unlikely as does Australia’s ability to operate them, target them on ships and subs and crew them.
The USN is deperately short of SSNs with the LA SSN retiring and the priority of the USN subs being to protect desperately vulnerable CVNs.
Both the Collins class programme and proposed improved follow on has been devoid of any realistic conception of Australia designing essentially from scratch medium sized warships let alone immensely more tricky submarines. The inception of such a design has to envisage three broad areas of activity to actually put effective weapons in to service. The coordination of the technical industrial capability for advanced naval and ship building. Secondly the actual design of incredibly complex weapons platforms and thirdly their realistic likely use in the event of an attack on Australia.
In Australian political and defence circles in so far as the Collins have ever been concieved as a serious weapon system to be used in the defence of Australia rather than a shipbuilding and employment programme in which operations are mainly intelligence gathering and launching small boat parties in peacekeeping or commando raids.
The Collins were concieved in the Cold War period where the RAN operated in the 1970s and 1980s with massive direct support from the USN and RN, using slightly modified British and US proven designs ,even the Anzac ships are only a very limited modification of proven German export frigates and not particularly ambitious or much more than average in their basic design.
Once the cold war ended the Collins design was proceeding in an environment where the British, US and Nato and closely related defacto Nato nations like Sweden were massively winding down defence spending and the size of navies but most of all were reducing to little the scale of serious new defence related research and development of new more advanced technology to practical defence platforms. Therefore by the late 1990s Australia could only expect emergency and temporary support from the US to rectify immediate problems with the Collins and the Swedish sub designers of the Collins , Kockums had wound down and been sold to HDW who were a German firm uninterested in the poorly Collins and the Hedemora a tiny Swedish craft builder of rail desiel freight engines , commissioned by the ASC to design the Collins engines by producing a new untested !8 cylinder engine on the basis of old Swedish rail and sub engines, also was sold and essentially finished.
The selection of the Hedermora engines on the basis of Janes and catelouges without the slightest sight inspection is hardly more incredible than numerous features of the design , but is the greatest flaw in the design, if only one of numerous serious and fatal weakness in the event of actual combat deployment in the second and third decade of the 21C.
Australias selection of a 6 fleet Collins sub fleet and the idea of replacing them with 12 improved models fails to take into account that the most likely means of attack on Australia will be by cruise missiles from subs and attacks on shipping and RAN warships. During the Cold War the US had a huge fleet of warships and towed array vessels and an extensive network of SOSUS arrays in key barries and choke points including around Indonesia and in related choke points, none of this now exists and in seems very unlikely a couple of half operational Collins subs will provide any deterrent to other Asian or former communist sub operators. Even if a few conventional subs could be any sort of deterrent that would require them to be reliable and nuclear armed and the probable threat is not invasion but the use of an enemy of submarines against Australia.
The Rand Corp of Santa Monica’s report on the Collins (2011) ‘Learning from Experience’ provides damming evidence that putting together the Collins subs by a nation with no experience in serious warship or sub design post cold war, from mainly Nth Hemisphere suppliers was a task hopelessly beyond Australia and not one Australian science, the RAN or Government seriously believed in or priorised as their was no conception of actual preperation of actually preparing a serious combat force which might have to fight in the 21C.
Beyond anything else in sofar as the RAN is a serious force – its structure, prestige, image and being is centred around the surface fleet,

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