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Nuclear sub debate continues to gain traction in strategic policy community

HMAS Renkin and USS Albuquerque (SSN 706) in the waters off Rottnest Island, Western Australia (Source: Dept of Defence)

Rear Admiral (Ret’d) Chris Stanford has called for greater public debate about the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy, citing the tactical and strategic advantages for the Navy as well as highlighting the opportunity for greater allied interoperability.

Rear Admiral (Ret’d) Chris Stanford has called for greater public debate about the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy, citing the tactical and strategic advantages for the Navy as well as highlighting the opportunity for greater allied interoperability.

As debate continues, it is shaping up to be one hell of a labour and birthing process for Australia’s multibillion-dollar SEA 1000 Attack Class submarine program as government, Defence and Naval Group move to allay the fears of Australia’s strategic policy community and the public.  

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When first announced, the Attack Class was promised to deliver a quantum leap in the capability delivered to the Royal Australian Navy and its submarine service by leveraging technology and capabilities developed for nuclear submarines implemented on a conventional submarine.

Further complicating matters is the constantly fluctuating price associated with the program, with figures ranging from the original $80 billion as stated by former defence industry and defence minister Christopher Pyne to a now estimated $145 billion as revealed by Future Submarine Program manager Rear Admiral Greg Sammut during Senate estimates.

Despite repeated rebuffs by senior Defence uniformed personnel, bureaucrats and successive ministers of defence and defence industry, concerns released recently by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) in the report titled Future Submarine –Transition to design, combined with political concerns, all serve as powerful fuel to question the program. 

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This cost explosion is further exacerbated by an apparent “slip” in the planned commencement date for construction of the lead boat, HMAS Attack, which was widely publicised as 2022-23 and has now subsequently been pushed back to the 2024 time frame – further exposing Australia’s ageing Collins Class vessels to potential adversary over match. 

RADM Sammuwas quick to explain this away, like a skilled operator, informing Senate estimates that the slated time frame was referencing the standing up of construction personnel, tools, infrastructure, processes and equipment to commence the construction of HMAS Attack's pressure hull in 2024. 

Finally, with the first vessel expected to enter the water in the mid-to-late 2030s, concerns regarding the cost, delivery and capability of the vessels is serving to raise questions about the value proposition for a conventional submarine at a time of increasing technological advancement in comparable vessels operated by peer and near-peer competitors in the Indo-Pacific. 

Capitalising upon these factors, Rear Admiral (Ret’d) Chris Stanford entered the debate, calling on the Australian government, Department of Defence and public to have a considered and rounded debate about the prospect of introducing a nuclear-powered variant of the Attack Class submarine. 

“Australia needs to seriously consider moving to a nuclear-powered submarine force because, in the rapidly changing circumstances of the region, it is the best solution to meet the Royal Australian Navy’s demanding strategic and operational requirements.

“The very long timescales and extraordinarily high and escalating cost of the Attack Class submarine program make this imperative,” Stanford states, adding further: “A fresh approach at both the political and military levels could determine whether attitudes are shifting and new partnerships are possible, especially with the advent of smaller nuclear reactors.”

Remove the ego

There is no shame in admitting that certain things are an immense challenge to achieve, effectively and efficiently building a submarine force in a timely and cost-effective manner is one such program, and with each passing day it is becoming apparent that is the case. Nevertheless, we remain stubbornly defiant. 

For Stanford, this presents an unsuitable challenge to Australia’s national security and its long-range tactical and strategic deterrence capabilities in light of the rapidly evolving threat environment as established and emerging powers in the Indo-Pacific continue to expand their own submarine capabilities. 

“The program, with a current price tag of more than $50 billion, won’t produce a single operational submarine until 2036, by which time the threat or the technology may have changed dramatically.”

Building on this, Stanford emphasises the rapidly evolving qualitative and quantitative edge many potential adversaries will enjoy over Australia’s planned fleet of conventionally powered Attack Class boats from the onset, stating, “The program is still planning to use superseded technology and will leave a significant capability gap. So, is it worth it? Or is there a better, faster, more cost-effective way of getting a similar or superior capability?”

Ask the important question: How much and how long for nuke boats? 

Stanford is clear in the direction he believes Australia should take, stating, “Australia should consider switching to an existing SSN like the Suffren Class made by France’s Naval Group. The Suffrens are the nuclear-powered cousin to the conventionally powered Attack Class that the company is building for Australia.”

A core component of this is asking two simple questions: how much and how long? Both of which are particularly poignant questions for consideration as they will inform the training and development of a credible, “nuclear” capable Australian submariner force – which will also require collaboration with the French, US and British navies to train and maintain the human capital. 

This is particularly relevant as Stanford elaborates on the need for a flexible, highly capable and responsive submarine force amid the rising capabilities and tensions evident in the Indo-Pacific: “Even without long transits to the South China Sea, simply providing a continuous presence in the key sea lines of communication and choke points to the north of Australia requires a substantial submarine force. That’s why the fleet is set to double in size.

“Australia’s submarines will be unable to meet the nation’s strategic and tactical requirements for some time, especially in the early years of a transition from the Collins Class... This is because of a combination of factors, including the slow rate of construction of new subs, the requirement to substantially increase the number of submariners and train them on new systems, and the need for maintenance, defect rectification, leave and shore time,” Stanford said.

Forward deployment as ‘burden sharing’ 

For Australia, a continent and nation at the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific, supporting greater interoperability and enhancing the “special relationship” alliance with both the US and UK is a critical component of the nation’s long-term defence and strategic posture.

A central part of supporting these efforts includes promoting increased forward deployment of major tactical and strategic force multipliers like carrier strike groups and fast attack submarine squadrons in Australia.  

There has been significant conversation in recent decades about the permanent basing and development of supporting infrastructure to accommodate a US Navy carrier strike group in Fremantle, with additional debate stimulated by the likes of venerable strategic policy expert Ross Babbage regarding the Australian lease of Virginia Class fast attack submarines.

“I remain strongly of the view that the best submarines for Australia for the coming 40 years would be 10-12 leased or bought Virginia or Astute Class boats. The Virginia Class boats, in particular, are well sorted and reliable, they have low risk, they have known costs, they never need to be refuelled and they could be acquired with associated training programs and system upgrade pathways,” Babbage is quoted

“However, all other things being equal, if the US government were open to the idea, it would seem more sensible for Australia to opt for the Virginia Class. Australian boats of this class would be operating in very close co-operation with US boats in Pacific and Indian Ocean waters.

“There are likely to be substantial advantages flowing to both countries from joint basing, logistic support, training and many other aspects.”

Domestically, there has been significant debate about Australia’s nuclear energy potential, with much of the debate being dominated to the costs and time frame associated with developing such energy production. The idea of permanently basing forward deployed carrier strike groups and nuclear-powered fast attack submarines provides two interesting options:

  1. An option for embedding Australian enlisted, non-commissioned and submarine officers into both Royal and US Navy fast attack submarines forward deployed to key facilities to better develop such a capability domestically; and 
  2. To share the costs associated with developing the infrastructure necessary to support nuclear powered vessels with flow-on benefits for the Australian economy and local development of a viable, world-leading nuclear energy industry. 

We’re going to need a son-of-Collins 

Perhaps most controversially, Stanford is blunt in his assessment that Australia will need to accept a “son-of-Collins” in addition to a fleet of “life-of-type-extension” Collins Class submarines to ensure that Australia’s future submarine force is capable of sustained operations and crewing across the fleet of 12 proposed Attack Class. 

“There’s already a requirement for an interim capability that includes up to six life-extended Collins boats. A further six ‘son-of-Collins’ vessels will almost certainly be needed to maintain continuity of operations and provide enough fully trained submariners to be able to crew any future SSNs,” Stanford said.

This is reminiscent of the government’s decision to acquire the fleet of Boeing F-18E/F Super Hornets to replace the F-111s following the delivery delays for the Lockheed Martin F-35s, raising further important questions about the full costs associated with the future submarine force and whether or not it is simply easier to have a nuclear fleet built overseas. 

This would, as previously mentioned, afford the Royal Australian Navy and Defence with the time necessary to adequately support the development of the crewing and infrastructure required, with Stanford stating: “Australia’s lack of a nuclear power industry shouldn’t prevent a move to nuclear-powered submarines, but programs would need to be introduced now, including new physics and technical courses in Defence and in civil educational institutions.

“Finding, training and retaining personnel is the potential Achilles heel and requires extensive modelling and a major recruitment drive. This has proved extremely challenging for the Royal Navy, especially in the areas of nuclear watchkeepers and junior executive and engineering branch officers.

“The recruitment work already in place provides a good basis for finding submarine crew. More complex and time-consuming would be training enough experienced, qualified nuclear engineers and executive branch officers, and maintaining a critical mass. Initially, Australia would need to use other nations’ facilities for much of this training.

“The transition won’t be simple, as some personnel would be trained on current and new conventional submarines, while others would need lengthy nuclear training to prepare for the first SSN.

“In parallel will come the requirement to recruit, train and certify civilian nuclear engineering, support and scientific personnel to work in naval bases and headquarters.”

Maintaining the regional order and enhancing Australia’s national interests 

However, the question now becomes, given the geographic area of responsibility Australia will become increasingly responsible for and dependent on, is the RAN and the recapitalisation and modernisation programs currently underway enough for Australia to maintain its qualitative and quantitative lead over regional peers?

It is clear that Australia’s region is going to be increasingly congested as both great and emerging powers continue to invest heavily in their own submarine capabilities.

The growing proliferation of steadily more capable platforms across the nation’s northern approaches presents significant challenges for the nation’s existing Collins Class submarines in the short-to-medium term and the future submarine force of the future. 

Australia is defined by its relationship and access to the ocean, with strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.

Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.

The Indian Ocean and its critical global sea lines of communication are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the world’s seaborne trade in critical energy supplies, namely oil and natural gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced economy.

Traditionally, Australia has focused on a platform-for-platform acquisition program – focused on replacing, modernising or upgrading key capabilities on a like-for-like basis without a guiding policy, doctrine or strategy, limiting the overall effectiveness, survivability and capability of the RAN.

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Nuclear sub debate continues to gain traction in strategic policy community
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