Opinion: Amid the cries for an evolved Collins to fill Australia’s submarine gap, and a potential yet unexpected offer of Virginias with US Navy crews, the most attractive option seems obvious to meet everyone’s expectations in a timely manner, writes defence industry analyst and former naval officer Chris Skinner.
Selection of the Astute design meets all of the criteria for the Australian nuclear attack submarine, universally known as the SSN. It is a mature design still in production for the UK Royal Navy (RN) from whom Australia inherited our current submarine culture, with smaller number crew than the alternative Virginia, and other advantages. The RN Astute program of seven boats completes in 2026 so the workforce would be readily available to continue on building for Australia, and many of them would be only too happy to relocate to South Australia for an extended period or even to migrate permanently (as my own family did in the 1950s). South Australia has a lot going for it besides direct employment.
The government’s commitment to build the SSNs in South Australia would be well met by fabricating the forward modules of the submarine in Osborne in which would be housed the US combat management system as is currently used in the Collins class and was already mandated for the cancelled Attack class.
The nuclear reactor module would be manufactured by Rolls-Royce and installed along with all the propulsion plant in the after section of the submarine at Barrow in Cumbria, UK for transshipment to South Australia. This multi-site manufacturing strategy is currently in use for the US Virginia class where some modules are built at only one site for both the building programs. Submarine modules are cylindrical sections of some 10-15 metres length that are fitted out and tested independently before mating with adjoining modules on the circumferential joint by very high-quality welding processes. These processes were learned for the Collins program and have been continued for full maintenance cycle access to Collins boats ever since.
The one difference for the Australian Astute Class from its UK forebear is the combat system where the Australian Navy uses the Mk48 torpedo vice the UK Spearfish. They are both operated from 533-millimetre (21-inch) torpedo tubes but the sophisticated operational and maintenance systems that support the weapons are very different and require different hardware as well as completely different software and operator skills. Australia is an active partner in the continuing development of the Mk48, now up to Mod(ification) 7, and would be most unwilling to cease that participation.
In other aspects of the combat system, notably sonar sensors, there might be a good case to shift to more modern systems as used in the UK Astutes. This would certainly be relevant for the optronic periscopes that do not require hull penetrations as with the classical designs as still used in Collins. This would all form part of the work scope for the combat systems integrator, such was the role of Lockheed Martin Australia (LMA) for the Attack Class. A smart move might be to hire LMA right away to be the SSN combat systems lead for the Australian SSN.
A major issue raised since the AUKUS SSN program was announced is the precedent that would be set with Australia gaining the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) nuclear fuel as is currently used in both Virginia and Astute. The concern is that this might be used as justification for other non-nuclear weapons countries to gain access to HEU to be used in nuclear weapons.
What is not known to many is that Australia has worked with HEU for many years in the first HIFAR reactor operated by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) that superseded the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The fuel used in HIFAR was gradually replaced with lower levels of enrichment and when HIFAR was replaced with the current OPAL reactor, only low enriched uranium (LEU) was required.
The Australian Labor Party (ALP), now in government, last September gave full support to AUKUS subject to three conditions: Australia would not acquire nuclear weapons; Australia would continue to ban nuclear power stations; and Australia would continue in full compliance with the International Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The AUKUS program is compliant with all three conditions. Indeed, Australia has been a full supporter of the NPT since its inception.
A related concern is the expectation that Australian SSNs would be fully maintained in Australia even without any other general nuclear industry such as would be needed for nuclear power stations. This is open to debate as there would need to be a civilian nuclear maintenance force to be available at the SSN base area, but this would be submarine specific. The use of HEU nuclear fuel avoids the need for refuelling the submarine reactors during their service life with consequential less intrusive access needed to the reactor module.
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All things considered, the fastest and most likely to succeed way ahead is to face up to the choice of Astute for the Australian SSN, contract BAE Systems in 2023 to plan and execute all necessary steps to set-up for the final assembly of Australian SSNs in Osborne following the build sequence described above. Then to start planning the workforce development by transfer from UK to SA as necessary to ensure a prompt start to construction as soon as designs are finalised with the combat systems house, and certainly no later than 2027 for first of class delivery not later than 2037.
The other major challenge of building the uniformed workforce would be readily achieved by negotiating with the Royal Navy for Australian submariners to undertake shore training and then posting to UK Astute Class boats to achieve qualifications and licensing as has been done in the earlier transition to the Oberon Class to form Australia’s modern submarine force. There would also be ample incentives for RN personnel to transfer to the Australian submarine force on a temporary or permanent basis, once again as it happened so readily in the past.
Christopher Skinner served 30 years in the Australian Navy as a weapons and electrical engineer officer in six surface warships, including all three of the previous guided missile destroyers. He was seconded to the US Naval Sea Systems Command to manage the trials of the USS Oliver Hazard Perry FFG-7 first of class, and was the initial project director for the RAN Anzac Frigate Program. His interest in nuclear power for submarines is more recent and is reflected in his membership of the Engineers Australia, Sydney Division Nuclear Engineering Panel, the Australian Nuclear Association and the American Nuclear Society. He is also associated with several other organisations and institutes engaged in geopolitics, technology and submarine matters. The views expressed above are entirely those of the author and are not endorsed by any of the organisations of which he is a member.