Saturday, 14 April 2012

Underway on nuclear power? The future of Australia's submarine programme.

Recent events in the Far East, including the failed test of a ‘satellite’ launcher by North Korea have thrown in to focus once again the smouldering tinderbox that is the Asia Pacific region. It is perhaps significant then that the US ambassador to Australia has intimated publicly that the US would support and assist the future Australian submarine programme, even if it included nuclear propulsion as a viable option. Link is CLICK HERE

This is a significant development, and one which represents the growing importance of Australia as a close ally to the US. This authors personal view is that Australia is developing a relationship with the US which will see it emerge as a particularly favoured nation of choice when it comes to joint operations and work – given the strategic shift of US forces in the Asia-Pacific region, one is left with the impression that two key partners of choice exist now – the UK to cover Europe / Africa, and Australia to cover Asia Pacific, and always ensuring that a convenient ally is nearby.

Australia has a long history of successfully operating, and building submarines – the current Collins class, which are six strong, is based on a foreign design, but built indigenously. Designed to provide long range patrol and surveillance capability of Australia’s vast coastline, plus the wider region, they represent a capable SSK force, and realistically, probably the most capable in the region south of Japan. The force has been beset by problems though, including maintenance issues, problems with the design of the vessel, and also problems with getting sufficient crew to support the programme.

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has long found itself in a challenging position of struggling to attract sufficient recruits internally, where due to pay and lifestyle, its proving to be difficult to support their armed forces in general. For decades there has been a steady influx of more senior figures into the forces, drawn from the UK and some other nations, as ex RN personnel are tempted south to live on a combined pension & salary lifestyle which they can afford. This has meant that to man their Navy, Australia remains highly reliant on an influx of expatriates at all ranks.

The Collins class is approaching its mid-life point, and thoughts are now turning to the replacement programme. The Australian Government has stated its wish to double the force in size to 12 boats, in order to keep pace with the evolving submarine fleets in the region (CLICK HERE) and all propulsion types were being considered to meet the new requirement.

Although the US ambassador’s offer of support for nuclear power is useful, it would in reality prove immensely difficult for the RAN to introduce a SSN capability without undergoing very difficult change. For starters, SSNs are phenomenally difficult and complex systems to operate. Ignore the public rhetoric that early SSNs were just diesel boats with a reactor ‘back aft’ – the reality is far more complex than that.

To introduce an SSN into Service, the RAN would first need to train a cadre of nuclear engineers- a challenge in a country with no meaningful nuclear industry. It takes years to train RN or USN nuclear engineers, and this isn’t a skill that can just be acquired through a couple of exchange postings. While the RAN could short circuit this a little through trying to poach, or establish exchange postings, or current nuclear engineers, it is likely that this will be a struggle to achieve. Both the USN and RN struggle to keep their nuclear qualified officers in the system, and face a battle to prevent them from leaving and going to industry. It’s highly unlikely that they’d provide more than very limited support to a third country which would almost certainly try to convince any exchange officer to stay (Humphrey has heard countless tales of exchange officers sent to Australia who have been offered the ability to stay permanently – it’s almost considered insulting now if one isn’t offered the chance to stay!).

The next challenge Australia faces is how to build an SSN – the Australian Submarine Corporation simply doesn’t have the ability to build SSNs at present. As the UK found out to its very significant cost, building SSNs is expensive, particularly when you’ve lost the skillsets required to do this. The problems the Astute class faced when being built own a lot to the loss of core skills in the layover between work on the T&V boats finishing, and meaningful production of the Astutes coming up to speed. Australia would face similar problems – it would need to train an entire workforce from scratch if it were to seek to build a design ‘in house’. The other issue would be that once construction was complete, there would be no follow on design to introduce to service – so the Australians would have paid a huge figure to establish a nuclear shipbuilding industry that would then not have any follow up work for at least another 20 years.

While there have been suggestions that the Australians would seek to buy an off the shelf Virginia class SSN, this author would suggest that it is unlikely to happen in such a simple manner. The combined loss of taxpayers funding to support the US, and not Australian shipbuilders and high end industries would not only be an economic blow to the Australian economy, but could also have a serious impact on Australia’s ability to maintain a high end national ship design capability. As was seen with the procurement of the MARS tankers in the UK (see this authors take on that in the LINK HERE), where the location of the build was irrelevant, providing that the design capability remained in the UK. Any nation can build ships, far fewer can design high end warships.

The procurement of a USN Virginia class solution would probably cause significant dangers for the Australian national ship design capability, and in addition would be challenging to push through as an industrial deal. This author would struggle to imagine what sort of offsets would be needed to sell this to the Australian taxpayer, and also to the US taxpayer, particularly if reciprocal purchases of military equipment was seen as part of the deal.

Assuming a hull was sorted, the next question is what impact will this have on the Australian ability to man their submarines? Even going for a US propulsion system alone will effectively tie Australia into the US national system, and force a requirement to not only build up sufficiently nuclear qualified officers/ratings, but also retain them. This will probably mean an end to the reliance on recruiting UK and other foreign nationals within the submarine service, and force Australia to really address how it would support such a large burden of nuclear qualified personnel in a comparatively small force.  The problem is that you’d need to send a large number of crews to the US to train, or be hugely reliant on USN manpower support to keep the propulsion systems going. This in turn reduces the ability to put other foreign nationals into your submarine recruitment pool for engineering systems, so in turn, so very hefty financial and other recruitment incentives would be needed to keep the crews going.

The issue of manpower stretches beyond that of just putting crews onto hulls, and also into building the incredibly complex network of support that would be needed to sustain an SSN fleet. One key thing any SSN operator quickly learns is that it’s not about investment in a submarine, it’s about investment in an entire system. A quick look at the UK system shows that the Royal Navy is required to not only operate 11 nuclear submarines, but it has to deliver an assured capability to support, sustain and deliver a 100% safety record on 11 nuclear power stations. It’s fascinating to look into how much of the RN nuclear programme costs are based on the assurance piece – the danger of something going wrong with a nuclear reactor is far too terrible to contemplate. Australia would have to establish from scratch an incredibly complex nuclear safety system, and also the wider support structures needed to keep this in service. This isn’t cheap or easy to do, and it would eat into taxpayers funding that could more easily be put into use as an extra hull or increased physical capabilities. While it is possible to consider using USN facilities for maintenance, this then places a huge reliance on a foreign power to support your premier military capability – and essentially locks your nation into a position of supporting the US, lest support to the SSN fleet be withdrawn.

So, to even get to the stage of operating SSNs, Australia would have to take some very serious strategic decisions about the nature of its relationship with the US, the way it manned its submarine fleet, and whether it was comfortable losing the ability to have an indigenous submarine design, build and support capability.

What Could an SSN deliver for the RAN and the West?

While thus far the article has focused on the challenges, there are a good deal of positives that would come from the delivery of an SSN capability into the region. At its most basic, it would increase the available number of allied (e.g. Five Eyes community) platforms able to carry out SSN related tasking, which in turn would relieve the burden on both the US, and to a far lesser extent to the UK for operational commitments.

The capability would firmly establish Australia’s’ maritime integrity by injecting a first rate SSN force into a region bereft of decent ASW capabilities. It would probably take decades for any potential threatening nation to acquire the ability to acquire, train and operate a genuinely first rate ASW force which could take on half a dozen or so SSNs. This is not hyperbole – Australia is a vast and sparsely populated nation, and in an era of ever changing resources, population pressure and climate change, its vast territories and natural riches may become a tempting target for some countries in the coming years.

 Acquisition of an SSN capability would pose a major problem to any nation even loosely thinking of coveting Australian territory. Until a credible capability emerges which can beat this deterrent, it is fair to say that any invasion of Australian territory would be conducted at huge risk to an aggressor.

The deployment of an SSN capability would catapult Australia into the first rank of naval powers, and firmly cement their reputation as a expanding, aggressive and hugely competent navy, which has taken some of the finest traditions of both the RN, and USN and become one of the most professional medium naval powers in the world. This in turn would enhance their ability to exert influence, and in turn see the establishment of Australia as the USA’s ‘right hand man’ in a region where they are devoid of dependable allies.

For the UK, the implications are more limited. The deployment of an SSN will help with the wider burden of the FPDA alliance, by providing a second nation capable of deploying first rate naval capability into the organisation. Beyond this, it is unlikely that there would be a major shift in policy, although there may be implications for the potential loss of manpower to the RAN if they try to recruit UK submariners, or if they no longer needed them due to adopting US hulls. Suggestions on some internet forums that the RAN could adopt an S or T boat would seem wide of the mark – the last thing the RAN would want to do is take on a decommissioned UK SSN and try to bring it back up to speed – the Canadian experience with the Upholder/Victoria class is a lesson in what happens when taking old hulls and trying to reactivate them with new US systems.

The wider implications of a technology transfer are also interesting – this would not be the first time a nation has provided SSN kit to another, both the provision of a reactor to the UK for HMS DREADNOUGHT back in the 1950s, and also the provision by the Soviets/Russians to the Indian Navy of both SSGNs in the 1980s (albeit most likely with very heavy support), and also more recently with an Akula being provided to the Indian Navy. Whether a move by the US to provide far more overt levels of support than it had previously considered would cause other nations to review their own capabilities, and also whether other SSN owning powers would consider similar deals is open to debate.

The decision on whether Australia would chose to ‘go nuclear’ is almost certainly going to result in a decision to retain an SSK capability rather than gain an SSN. Such a move would be logical, given the implications for Australian industry, and the sheer level of the challenge that would be faced by any new SSN operator in establishing a credible capability.

This offer though is more interesting for the fact that it exposes the depths for which Australia has become a front rank ally for the US. The fact that the US is willing to so overtly offer access and by implication support Australian acquisition of an SSN capability (in marked contrast to the Canadian experience in the 1980s), suggests that Washington may have the long term vision of seeing Australia emerge as not necessarily a replacement for the UK (this author is deeply cynical about any attempt to ‘rank’ friendship between states), but as a first tier partner of choice for both diplomatic and military support.

With the wider regional instability of an area full of nations teetering on the edge of conflict, the fact that the US is so overtly reaching out to try to secure long term support, access and influence in Australia, in part through flattery of mentioning the ‘nuclear’ word, even if it is not followed through, should be seen as highly significant indeed.


  1. Interesting discussion of military factors, but they're secondary to political ones. You need to look also at Australian political views on nuclear - energy as well as military application. Widespread opposition to it - only one uranium mine allowed, no nuclear power plants etc. Labor govt, Greens (hold balance of power) v unlikely to allow. Not sure on Lib-Nat views but any move would need a lot of ground work which post-Fukashima is going to be tricky. You've also possibly got Nuclear Proliferation Treaty requirements to get around. Conceptually tho, its an interesting question esp. when you look at the desired capability for the Collins class replacement and the projected cost.

  2. The UK has a mere 11 nuclear submarines, if we can maintain crews, surely the Australians can with 12?

    Building them would of course provide a much deeper challenge, but not unsolveable, or avoidable anyway.

    The UKs program is in pretty poor shape, what would we do for TWELVE more orders?
    Sure, why not?
    Why bother, just sell them at cost.

    There are of course political issues in the way, but if Australia is serious about defence, SSNs in the south china sea are serious.

    1. Can't see them being able to finance or operate 12 SSNs. Even half that number would be a challenge. The figure of 12 is based on the acquisition of SSKs, not SSNs.


      Page 95

      If my maths is right, the Aussies budget is £17bn.

      According to our accounts, whch may or may not be relevent due to the fact that whitehall compiled them, and who knows how they treated depreciation that day and what got stuck under the submarine umbrella.

      Anyway, we get a per sub cost of between £300mn and £150mn per year.

      12 at £300mn would be around 20% of Australias budget, but it would be one hell of a capability.

    3. The problem is that the costs are not tranparent and tend to be significantly underestimated. The figures for the RAN look suspiciously low to me. When Canada was considering a fleet of 6 SSNs in the late 1980s, the initial cost estimates were later found to be almost 50% out. Hence the proposal was quietly dropped and they ended up buying the Upholders.

  3. How about a Aus/UK pact?
    We run off a couple of Astute's from Barrow, the Aussies stump up for a 25 year lease and joint crew them? We pick up the infrastructure costs and the Aussies get a world class SSN capability, and valuable experience in operating a nuke, whilst the RN gets two (or three) extra subs to play with out east?

    Just a thought

  4. Why does the RAN have a manning problem? You say it is due to a combination of pay and lifestyle, but what does this mean exactly: The RAN pays too little? Aussies like surfing more than grafting?

  5. The impression I get from talking to the Australians is that their pay isn't great, and is combined with a busy operational tempo and generally poor quality of life. They have a fairly high turnover of staff, which has led to long term efforts to recruit from the RN and other navies.

    1. Not to mention of course the mining boom.
      Drive a truck in Afghanistan, or drive one in the outback for three times the pay.

  6. A little update that may be of interest is the link here, which shows Australian naval aspirations currently moving towards Carriers, even if their Government does not necessarily support this course of action.

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