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Challenges for the nuclear submarine task force

What hurdles lie ahead for the nuclear submarine task force? Former Royal Australian Navy officer Christopher Skinner explores. 

What hurdles lie ahead for the nuclear submarine task force? Former Royal Australian Navy officer Christopher Skinner explores. 

Less than a month has passed since AUKUS was unveiled, including the revolutionary announcement of nuclear submarines for Australia. There have been all kinds of commentary and dire prophesies of the demise of submarines and political reluctance to see it through. The nuclear-powered submarine task force has been busy recruiting senior executives and France’s Ambassador is returning to Canberra intending to strike a new relationship with Australia.

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The task force and the Australian government are facing a number of stark challenges, and they need to be resolved before the next election for sure, or better still for tangible progress to be shown by end of this year.

First of the challenges is the choice of the nuclear attack submarine (SSN) platform design to be adopted, and this isn’t just the choice of the UK Astute class or US Virginia class. The US production line is running flat out until 2033 and may be extended further. The Virginia class is much bigger and requires a larger crew which makes it less attractive. Australian naval culture, training and organisation still follow UK practice rather than US, although we have dealt with the differences in previous surface ship programs sourced from USA. The only plus for Virginia is that Australia already uses the same weapons and combat control system suite in the current Australian Collins class.

The UK Astute building program ends in 2026 so extension for Australia would be well timed, especially if the actual construction was at least partially in South Australia, thereby releasing at least part of the UK building yard at Barrow-in-Furness available for their next strategic nuclear submarine (SSBN) program. The downside of the Astute is the need to convert weapon and combat control systems to the Australian US-based baseline. This should not be a major impediment as we proved very well in the Australian Oberon-class Submarine Weapons Upgrade Project last century to embody the US Mark 48 torpedo and Sub Harpoon anti-ship cruise missile.

In both US and UK there are already programs getting started for the next generation of nuclear attack submarines (SSN), the SSN(X) in USA and the SSNR (replacement) in the UK. This is what experienced countries do to avoid the inexcusable delays that Australia has incurred with the replacement for the Collins class, requiring a risk-prone life-of-type-extension that is still not yet fully planned and budgeted. However, the lead times for SSN(X) and SSNR are too remote for us to consider for the Australian SSN (AUSSN).

Second of the challenges is the whole nuclear fuel lifecycle from initial enrichment of the fuel to the ultimate reprocessing of spent fuel and disposal of the residual radioactive waste into a stable geological repository. Neither USA nor UK have yet committed to such a repository and anyway, we may have to accept that our high and intermediate level radioactive waste may need to be finally disposed in the Australian repository on upper Eyre Peninsula.

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The whole subject of nuclear fuel enrichment has been prominent in the last few weeks. On the one hand, the Australian Labor Party has placed a condition on their support for AUKUS and AUSSN that a nuclear power industry will not be created, which accords with current legislative bans. Until recently, a general nuclear industry was considered an essential prerequisite for nuclear submarines. However, the choice of the highly enriched uranium [HEU] nuclear fuel used by UK and US in current SSN designs avoids the need for periodic refuelling, such as is required for the French SSN designs, and this is asserted to remove the need for a general nuclear industry. This rationale has been challenged and is definitely an issue for the task force to explain how the routine reactor maintenance and response to any emergency situation will be competently and expeditiously managed with a fully trained and licensed nuclear workforce that is only there to support submarines.

The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) has published the regulations for visits to nominated Australian ports of nuclear-powered warships and included a reference accident description to provide a basis for emergency planning. Port Adelaide, Osborne or Outer Harbour have not yet been approved which must be a priority as Senator Rex Patrick has observed.

On 10 August 2021 the US Congressional Research Service posed the questions could the SSN(X) be designed to operate with low enriched uranium fuel (LEU) and ‘what impact using LEU in the SSN(X) would have on nuclear arms control and nonproliferation efforts and SSN(X) costs and capabilities?’ As reported by The Guardian on 8 October, several members of the US Congress have raised concerns that the extension of HEU nuclear fuel to Australia will encourage other states to seek similar access to HEU raising the risk of further enrichment to make nuclear weapons. Australia is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which is designed to prevent such occurring.

For Australia, policy and action on the NPT are managed by the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This office has maintained Australia’s ‘strict adherence to the highest standards for safeguards, transparency, verification and accountancy measures to ensure the nonproliferation' according to a recent private communication. This will need to be carefully re-examined for the HEU nuclear fuel embodied in both the US and UK current SSN programs that are expected to be shared with Australia.

The next challenge is to build the nuclear workforce for both naval crewing and shore support and for the essential regulatory and depot level submarine sustainment workers. In a recent media report, the former head of Naval Personnel Management and submarine squadron commander Rear Admiral Peter Briggs stated Australia’s submarine naval workforce will need to increase dramatically from around 900 to at least 2,100, and this is only for the uniformed naval personnel. Similar expansion will be required in ANSTO, ARPANSA and DFAT.

Another challenge is the recent analysis conducted in the Australian National University on the technological advances being made in detection of undersea vehicles making submarines much more detectable and hence more vulnerable in future decades. While this has been rebutted to a degree there is a substantive likelihood that the current asymmetric submarine advantage of stealth will be affected. Conversely countermeasures will also advance to mitigate the predicted effects. There is also the economic differential in the investment cost to achieve the greater detectability against the intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and deterrent effects achieved by submarines even with reduced stealth.

A further big issue is achievement of emissions reduction to address climate change. With the Glasgow COP26 looming, the government would be well regarded to present an Australian proposal for acceptance of small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) that are akin to submarine reactors, as a sign of Australia’s willingness to make radical changes to address climate change.

Over and above all of the above issues, the greatest challenge for the task force is the timelines of approval, execution and achievement of the final operational capability more than 30 years hence. The track record for implementation of Collins to follow the Oberon class was successful, but that was the Cold War. The transition from Collins to the Future Submarine was protracted by both sides of government in the mistaken belief that the new post-Cold War strategic environment was a lower priority and implementation of the expansion of Australia’s submarine force as required by the 2009 Defence White Paper could be pursued at a leisurely pace, only starting in 2016. Now the five years spent on preparation for the Attack class has been terminated with not much to show for it.

Greg Sheridan of The Australian has stated categorically that Australia’s nuclear submarine program will never happen for a variety of reasons, some of them of valid concerns. What he hasn’t allowed for is that the nuclear submarine program might actually awaken the sleepy Australian populace to this being a more dangerous time for Australia than in the living memory for most Australians, and AUKUS and AUSSN are now a matter of priority to address this urgent need.

Christopher Skinner served 30 years in the Australian Navy as a weapons and electrical engineer officer in six surface warships. 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.

Challenges for the nuclear submarine task force
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