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Submarine basing on Australia’s east coast – issues for early discussion

Navy veteran and defence industry analyst Christopher Skinner unpacks the Commonwealth government’s recent decision to develop a new naval base along Australia’s east coast to support the RAN’s future nuclear-powered submarines.

Navy veteran and defence industry analyst Christopher Skinner unpacks the Commonwealth government’s recent decision to develop a new naval base along Australia’s east coast to support the RAN’s future nuclear-powered submarines.

The recent announcement of Australia’s need for an east coast submarine base was intended to continue the interest in the subject of nuclear submarine acquisition begun so unexpectedly by the AUKUS agreement announced last September.

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The reality is the arguments for an east coast submarine base have been raised many times since the 2009 Defence White Paper called for the doubling of Australia’s submarine force from six to 12 boats.

This was the basis for the Attack Class Future Submarine Program SEA 1000, begun in 2016 and abruptly terminated upon the AUKUS commitment.

What is the need for an east coast base?

Fundamentally the deployment of submarines comprises transit to and from the operating area and time-on-task within that area conducting the assigned mission, be that intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), interdiction of maritime traffic, insertion and recovery of special forces, or land strike with suitable weapons.

The big issue is the proportion of the deployment spent in transit, during which time the submarine must navigate safely, avoid detection by unfriendly forces and keep informed of the maritime environment in which it is currently and will be operating.

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An east coast base will therefore save transit time if the operating area is within major areas of the Pacific and Southern Oceans and archipelagic island nations therein. There are other secondary reasons for the corporate structure and culture of the submarine enterprise.

Having all current operational assets in WA and deep maintenance in SA means that submariners from the more populous eastern states tend to treat submarine postings as remote with limited assisted travel back and forth for extended family and other reasons.

Submariners are a very committed group and very professional so they don’t make a big fuss about this aspect of their careers but having a second base on the east coast would provide a much more attractive career prospect and with co-operation from RAAF and airlines, flexible travel for submariners and their families would be very well appreciated.

The more serious recent development in this equation is the inexorable presence of China and the PLA-N in the south-west Pacific and Antarctic areas and that means we cannot focus solely on the South China Sea or Persian Gulf.

Nuclear submarine basing

Finally, the arguments for the east coast submarine base applied fully for an expanded 12-boat submarine force. They apply even more so for a nuclear submarine force of at least eight boats because of the sensitivity in the Australian community for anything nuclear.

Fleet Base West (FBW) at HMAS Stirling on Garden Island, south of Fremantle, was designed from day one to be suitable for berthing and future basing of nuclear-powered submarines. So, the periodic visits there, such the most recent by HMS Astute, are no big deal.

All of the regulations for nuclear-powered warship visits are very precisely stipulated by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) on their publicly accessible website. 

Basically, the ARPANSA rules assume that an accident involving radioactive material would be contained within the reactor containment vessel and then by the submarine pressure hull. This principle of multiple containment is fundamental to dealing with accidents of hazardous materials and should always be mandated for any such activities.

For basing of Australia’s nuclear submarines, the ARPANSA rules for ship visits would be the very minimum above which further constraints and safety and security provisions would be applied for specific evolutions such as repairs to reactor cooling systems.

They would also have applied to reactor refuelling, however by virtue of choosing through AUKUS to follow UK and US practice the need for in-service refueling is avoided by employment of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) reactor fuel.

HEU does bring some other concerns regarding the detailed and externally accountable management of nuclear materials over their full life cycle, but that requirement already existed with the Lucas Heights reactors of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).

Specific issues for the east coast submarine base

To start, the whole process of consideration of the east coast base for nuclear submarines, at the very least the ARPANSA rules should apply. They should also apply to Osborne North site in South Australia to accord with the announcement that the nuclear submarines will be built there, even though we all know that means final assembly and delivery.

The most obvious rule to be applied is the geographical area affected by the berthing of a nuclear-powered warship and that boils down to a radius within which there may be a requirement for evacuation should an incident occur.

The rules are contained in a traditional Manual entitled OPSMAN1 currently standing at Edition 10 and available on the ARPANSA site. There are several already approved berths (including Brisbane) which each have an alternative remote berth to which a vessel experiencing an accident would be towed.

The specific rules are in the companion document, The 2000 Reference Accident Used to Assess the Suitability of Australian Ports for Visits by Nuclear Powered Warships, which among other requirements specifies a Zone 1 of 600 metres radius in all directions and a Zone 2 of 1.4 kilometres in a 30-degree arc centred on the downwind direction and requiring evacuation in the event of an accident.

Looking at Google Maps for Port Kembla and Newcastle suggests they might well qualify. Brisbane already does so at a nominated berth, but that is a far cry from a fully functioning submarine base.

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.

Submarine basing on Australia’s east coast – issues for early discussion
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