Now that we have a new PM, he should look urgently at scrapping the plans for our new submarine fleet. Australia’s present submarine plans are to build a French re-design of a nuclear-engined boat. The Barracuda re-model will use diesel engines, and fuel tanks, in a design likely be fraught with problems. You wouldn’t buy a car which didn’t exist yet, so why buy subs this way?
The Australian public has been sucker-punched by the green movement into not understanding nuclear power, and that includes submarines. If we are buying new subs – and we should – the nuclear off-the-shelf option is the only way to go. In every way they would be our best buy. And we can easily solve the crewing problem with the same purchase. Here are eight reasons why the government should go nuclear.
See also: Where is Our Rickover?
Cost. The US Navy’s Virginia-class submarines are in production now, and cheaper than a new-build diesel-electric variant. A lot of extra hospitals and federal highways can be built with the spare cash. Australia is planning on spending at least $50 billion on its French project. A US alternative would cost around half of this amount.
Proven design. If we bought a nuclear boat off the rack, we would be buying something already in service. We would know it works. The odds are against building another “one-off” design, here and in France, and making it work. Submarines are the most complicated piece of military technology around. We’d never built any before the present Collins-class, which have had multiple problems – and we’d never had difficulties with the off-the-shelf Oberons preceding them. Thinking we can build something as well as countries which have been sub-building for over 100 years is a delusion.
Endurance. The nuclear sub never needs refueling, and can operate to vast distances from port. It doesn’t have to return to a harbour, where its arrival is predictable, and where it can be hit by missiles or aircraft. It doesn’t have to meet a tanker and position itself to take on fuel, being extremely vulnerable while it does so.
A diesel-electric is limited by needing diesel, and in a war situation there’s unlikely to be a nearby service station if operating up close to the enemy. And you have to resurface to refuel. Nuclears can stay at sea for years if necessary, limited only by food for the crew. They can scrub the air, make fresh water, and keep everyone comfortable on board – and do so without stopping.
If we went nuclear, the boats would need fuel in about 30 years, which could be done in America, but the submarine type would probably be obsolete by then. The rest of the vessel could be maintained in Australia, providing jobs.
Undetectability. If you have subs, your potential enemy has to guard against them. Upon leaving port, the nuclear boat submerges – and doesn’t surface until the patrol is complete. Staying down means avoiding detection. And as every hour goes by, the circle of where that sub could be widens, and the enemy knows it could strike anywhere in that circle. Diesel subs have to come to periscope depth to “snort” – to take in air to run their diesels, and recharge their batteries. When they’re at war, this is dangerous.
Speed. Nuclear subs are capable of immense speed underwater – faster than they are on the surface. They are much faster than their prey. This means they can chase enemy vessels, or make high speed runs to position themselves favourably in their path. Diesels can’t do this.
Crew. If we bought boats from the Americans, we could buy a few planeloads of crew too. Why not see if we can attract a few hundred US Navy submariners – and their families – to a new life in Australia? Many may jump at the chance, and we’d get some ready-trained men to mix in with our people.
Safety. Nuclear subs just have nuclear engines. Many people hazily think they have nuclear weapons too – not so. The nuclear engine is a sealed unit. As the Eveready battery of the depths it just keeps producing electricity. Lots of it. This makes the boat go. America, France, Britain, China, Russia, India – with Pakistan following soon – all have nuclear subs. Their engines have been accident-free for decades.
Deterrence. Subs are a great deterrent to any enemy thinking of coming here by sea — and there is no other way to mount a credible invasion. Once at sea, the nuclear submarine can go deep and stay quiet. The enemy will have to expensively equip and train with anti-submarine measures – not easily acquired. They would forever have to guard against an unseen enemy who could be anywhere. Having subs is a bit like having a guard dog. It doesn’t have to bite anyone, just its presence is justification enough for the food and kennel. We’ve got to retain the idea of having submarines – and we should have the most capable.
We’ve already spent millions on a study to analyse which possible problem to buy into. But we pushed nuclear off the table before we even started research. We should open our minds to not going further down the road of disaster with the Barracuda class. Not a metre of steel has been cut yet for the French design. Instead, we just need our chequebook and a flight to the States.
For half of what we’re thinking of spending on new diesel boats, we can solve our submarine problems tomorrow – and have the most potent strikeforce in the Southern Hemisphere.
Dr Tom Lewis OAM was a naval officer for 19 years. A military historian of 14 books, one of his major works is Carrier Attack, an analysis of the first 1942 air raid on Darwin, carried out after Japanese submarine attacks on the port failed. He is also the author of Darwin’s Submarine I-124, a study of the Japanese 80-man vessel which still lies sunk outside Darwin harbour – lost in a combat action with the Royal Australian Navy in 1942.