Defence

The Solution to Our Addled Submarine Program

Our submarine-acquisition program has spent several billion dollars and not seen a metre of steel cut yet. That’s not a bad thing. Abandon the project now, and buy 12 Virginia-class nuclear vessels (above) from the US. With regional tensions increasing, building our own one-off type submarines, which will arrive in the early 2030s. is not good enough. We have no guarantee they will work. When we built the Collins class submarines (at exorbitant expense) they did not work properly for several years. It is only now – after decades of operation – that they are reasonably functional. There’s a lesson in that, if only we would heed it.

Submarines are the ultimate deterrent and attack weapon: their location is hopefully unknown, and they can strike at targets without warning. But we need to expand beyond the capabilities of the Collins, and also the French attack boats, which we should abandon before more good money is thrown after bad — the inevitable consequence of the myriad complications involved in taking a nuclear-powered vessel and converting it to cumbersome, slow and vulnerable diesel-electric propulsion.

Instead we should buy 12 of a proven design already in the water. We want long-range hunter-killer vessels. We also want them to be able to stay submerged for long periods to avoid detection. Nuclear does this in spades. The propulsion system also offers tremendous speed underwater, much more than diesel-electric systems. This is an attack advantage.

What problems would there be in acquiring nuclear-engined submarines from the US? Using American technology is not as difficult as might be thought. The Americans facilitated the British Navy’s entry into nuclear boats – a submarine is called a boat, by the way – back in the 1960s. The Royal Navy’s HMS Dreadnought was launched in 1960, five years after the US Navy’s first nuclear, USS Nautilus. Its propulsion system was American.

Boats of the Virginia class are proven vessels. They are designed by General Dynamics’s Electric Boat division and Huntington Ingalls Industries, and are expected to be with the US Navy until 2060. Nineteen have been completed so far.

The Virginia-class would be a step up for us: they are a bigger vessel, and would require more crew. But if the relationship with the US was deepened by purchase of such vessels, why not, with America’s permission, embark on a campaign to bring some US submariners down under?

The step-up in requirements also comes with a twin reward of unlimited endurance and range at sea. The nuclear engine can provide the ability to stay submerged and at sea indefinitely, as its never-ending supply of electricity means the boat can stay down rather than surface or snorkel to obtain air for engine and crew requirements. The range, too, is theoretically unlimited, for again the nuclear electricity can drive the vessel for decades. But the nuclear engines also provide very high speed of movement – ideal for pursuing targets or for getting into firing position ahead of them.

The main obstacles in the way of acquiring Virginia-class seem to have be somewhat specious. Critics argue that we would need a “nuclear industry”. Exactly what this might be never seems to be made clear. The nuclear engines of such boats are sealed units. The US Navy maintains four of its own nuclear vessels in Guam, showing that the maintenance needed is no more than the usual requirements for hull, living and weapon systems – which we do anyway for the Collins-class. Anything needed doing in regard to nuclear maintenance could be done by sailing a vessel temporarily back to the US. The nuclear original fuel of each vessel will anyway last the life of the boat.

Another much-parroted objection is that Australians allegedly don’t want nuclear power, and therefore nuclear-powered naval vessels. But no extensive national poll seems to have been done on this question; indeed, in 2014, in a series of public meetings convened under the title “Guarding Against Uncertainty: Australian Attitudes to Defence” nuclear submarines were continually raised positively by members of the public. It seems more that the two main sides of politics fear some slippage of their vote if they introduced it as policy. And in fact Australia has had a nuclear reactor operating in the Sydney suburb of Lucas Heights since 1958.

Another objection is that the Americans would not sell Australia such nuclear technology. I can’t see why not – it is now well over half a century old, and many countries apart from the US operate small nuclear reactors in driving submarines: Britain, France, India, China, USSR, with Brazil currently developing the technology. How such systems work is hardly a secret. And it is likely the USA would want to assist its biggest Pacific partner to become more capable. The Virginia-class is indeed more powerful in areas outside its basic submarine capabilities: it fires both Tomahawk and Harpoon missiles, as well as launching torpedoes and mines.

The Tomahawk is a land-attack weapon, and with its long-range is an extremely capable stand-off weapon – more capable than anything else in the Australian Defence Force arsenal. Australia has crept towards such capabilities over the last few years, but 12 sets of Tomahawks – the Virginia Block V boats carry 40 – would massively increase Australia’s attack capacity – and therefore its deterrence capability. In other words, we would become a lot more scary – a good thing – for “if you want peace, then prepare for war”. By being very strong we may indeed deter potential enemies from being engaged in battle against us.

As can be seen, the Virginia-class would present a lot of advantages for Australia. Ironically, such an improvement in our defence systems would also be cheaper than what we are preparing to spend on the French submarines. $80-$100 billion has been much talked about, for vessels which would arrive in the early 2030’s onwards. The cost of the Virginias is said to be around $3-4 billion a boat – a total cost of around half of the present proposition. And it would give us a weapons platform that would work – rather than one which is an unknown voyage into an uncertain future.

The Americans have a useful expression for such an outline as given above. It’s called a “no-brainer”. It means this solution is so obvious and simple and straightforward it’s obvious. But why not add something else that we may gain. With the American’s designer’s permission, build our own Virginia class boats number 9-12 under licence. Even if the US supplied the complete engine package, that would represent another remarkable step-up for this country. As the Americans also say: “Don’t ask, don’t get.”

Dr Tom Lewis OAM was a naval officer, primarily an intelligence analyst, for nearly 20 years. He is a military historian whose latest books include Atomic Salvation – how the A-Bombs saved the lives of 30 million, and Teddy Sheean VC, an analysis of the delayed award of a Victoria Cross to Australia’s only naval VC hero

12 comments
  • Harry Lee

    I like it when military officers know what they are talking about. In this case, Lewis ignores the fact of the ALP-Green legislation that prohibits the use of nuclear tech beyond the most limited medical applications.
    In my view, Australia should go full-bore to develop a full-scale nuke industry. But where would the investment come from? And how would realistic pro-Western politicians persuade the big majority of voters that a full-scale nuke industry is a good thing -and the idiot ALP-Green anti-nuke legislation must be overthrown? And in what scientific-engineering-design institutions would all the necessary knowledge-work and training be made to happen?
    The power people in the universities are keen for Australia to become the farm-quarry slave province of China. That is, we’d need entirely new institutions to do the necessary work to support a nuke industry and develop the associated assets and capabilities required for proper military deterrence and long-range projection of force.
    Note that the view among the current Western nuclear powers is that Australia lacks the will and the smarts to be a plausibly effective military power. They see this as evident in the anti-nuke legislation, and more generally in the neo-marxist ideology that has long dominated decisions over economic investment and use of resources within Australia. And voter-support for anti-nuke stupidity shows the dominance of the weak, naive, and possibly anti-Western groupthink that permeates Australian culture, esp at high levels. In this regard, note that the Left is currently well-advanced in destroying the SASR. See the current attack on Ben Roberts-Smith and the claims about “atrocities” by SASR personnel being perpetrated by ignorant, ungrateful parasitic and perhaps anti-Western journalists, lawyers and PR forces -all endorsed and supported by the power people of the ALP and Greens.
    Against this, those persons who want to establish, and work for, a New Proper Australia must seek to comprehend the key underlying factors that make Australia the Dummy Country -and then organise and resource, and mobilise the requisite forces to do the necessary.
    Meanwhile, the greatest threats to Australian sovereignty and longer-term survival as a contributing member of the West are internal. So-called multiculturalism, and its causes and consequences, are actually part of the strategy to enable anti-Westernist infiltration, insurrection and takeover of all Australian institutions.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Around and around these buoys we go again. There is no doubt in my mind that the American nuclear boat is every bit as good as everyone says. In a mature political environment, I’m sure it would have been just the sort of boat we need.

    But, we are not living in a mature political environment. We are living in a nation where historically it has almost always been extremely difficult to achieve rational consensus on almost any significant policy, be it health, education, welfare or, in the case of defence, virtually impossible. The insane debate about the choice of the F35A surely proves that even “experts” cannot be depended on to draw a line under an argument once a decision can no longer be delayed. Given their own way, some of these experts, and I’ve known and worked with some of them, would still be sticking BandAids on the nearly 60 years old F111.

    The political left will do their best to veto or sabotage even the most sensible proposals. In this regard, there is an extant act of Parliament that would need to be repealed before any nuclear option could be pursued. The tiny reactor at Lucas Heights is under constant opposition from the radical left and is more likely to be dismantled than duplicated. With either major party in power, with a razor-edge majority under constant threat from the utterly irresponsible radicals on the cross benches, I think that it will remain politically impossible to choose the nuclear option.

    On a more practical basis, the RAN has had extreme difficulty keeping more than one Collins submarine at sea, or retaining sufficient skilled manpower to man more than one or two in operational readiness. The Virginia class demands a crew nearly three times the size of the Collins boats. There is almost no chance that our tightly restrained manpower resources could even man one operational Virginia. As to recruiting submariners from the US, dream on. Last I looked, the pay of a CPO chef in a Collins boat was in the ballpark of the ADF 3-Star Service Chiefs’. The pay is so high because willing volunteers are very, very scarce. Even if the US government were prepared to allow their current submariners to augment the RAN’s manpower, the costs would be prohibitive.

  • Lewis P Buckingham

    Judging by advances in drone and air power configurations I suspect the day of the manned submarine controlling sea lanes is all but over.
    Any boat they build will have a multirole capacity with satellite/drone cover and submersible drones acting as sensors, decoys and weapon carriers.
    These drones, like the already available Loyal Wingman for the F35, will do a lot of the heavy lifting.
    Some of the ideas..

    “For instance, the airframe’s “snap-off” nose section can be rapidly switched between missions to provide the required capabilities.”
    https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/35806/australias-loyal-wingman-drone-its-developing-with-boeing-has-been-photographed-in-the-wild
    Enhanced versions of the Seawing no doubt will be coming to a port near us soon.
    This flies underwater.
    https://rusi.org/commentary/underwater-drone-incidents-point-china-expanding-intelligence-gathering
    It would seem plausible that the major effort in the submarine theatre is in robotics.
    These will be integrated with whatever submarine we have at the time, be it conventional or nuclear.

  • Geoff Sherrington

    Decades ago, the French decided to install nuclear electricity as the main form. They started from a comparatively low knowledge base and produced a safe, low cost generation system that still accounts for 70% of their needs with no fatalities.
    To imagine that Australians are too bereft of experience, knowledge, manpower or whatever, to succeed with nuclear boats is rather hard to support.
    The beauty of nuclear power in boats is that it is so simple that it requires less operation skills and staff than conventional.
    (I started my nuclear science education and practicals in 1970).
    Geoff S

  • Harry Lee

    Geoff S -Let us acknowledge, that compared to Australia, France had then and has now far, far greater depth and breadth in science, engineering, design, manufacturing, finance, requisite education and training, and willingness to serve in the military. And our education systems are not producing the required smarts. And by proportion, compared to 50 years ago, there are fewer people in Australia who are educable/trainable in the hard fields. Then there’s the marxist-greenist legislation that prohibits our going nuke. Similarly, there’s the extreme scarcity of people available to crew nuke or conventional boats. if or not the job is a bit technical. And no Western nuclear power will sell us nuke items while we do not have a proper nuke industry and a supportive populace. Besides, the main threats to Australian sovereignty and security are now internal. Lot of people who think they know what’s important about the defence of Australia fail to notice these internal threats, let alone assess and respond to them.
    As you’d know, it is best to focus on the main points, when it comes to devising implementable strategy.

    ng implementable strategy.

  • Stephen

    Thanks for this article. I agree completely. Buying Virginia Class subs from the USA is certainly a “no brainer” assuming they would be willing to sell them to us. We would have a much more effective capability at a lower cost and one that suits our “tyranny of distance” situation better. My understanding is that he initial charge of nuclear fuel last for many years and may never need recharging for the life of the boat. The boats make their own oxygen and water and only need to return to port ( or rendezvous with a supply ship) when they run out of food. Our interoperability with the US Navy will also be improved, a reasonable consideration as any future war like use would most likely be in concert with the US.
    The crewing issue may well be problematic. In the future greater use of Artificial Intelligence and automation will reduce the need for so many sailors. In the interim higher wages and faster promotion may do the trick.
    In a past life I made a living selling IT stuff to the Defense Department and a Naval Officer one advised me that, at 167cm tall, I was the right size to be a submariner! As they are, on average, smaller more women could be part of the solution. I appreciate that having a mixed crew in such a confined space may cause problems. An all female crew perhaps? Why not?
    It’s quite correct that a submarine is a boat. Evidently, in naval parlance a ship is something you get on whilst a boat is something you get in. By this definition a sub is definitely a boat.

  • Elizabeth Beare

    Cutting the number of subs and making them Virginia nuclear ones, assisted by the US, sounds like our best option. Cancelling the French ones should have been done before they have got this far, which is a stage that is still cancellable. Dutton did seem to musing about doing just this. Let’s hope. Going for the US Virginia’s is an idea time to train up young men (I don’t like the idea of women in submarines) to become submariners par excellence. Properly presented to them, I am sure many would seize the opportunity.
    That all said, aren’t there also options to buy ready-made nuclear subs from the Japanese?

    Also – I’ll never think of a sub as a boat. My idea of a boat is that it rhymes with float!

  • Harry Lee

    Far too much ignorance on this topic.
    These points are important:
    1. Legislation introduced by the ALP-Green alliance prohibits Australia from using nuke tech beyond very limited medical applications. There is no sign of requisite effort/support to overthrow that legislation.
    2. No nuke power country will sell us nuke subs unless we have wide internal civilian support and actual development for a nuke industry.
    3. Non-nuke subs have applications in certain relevant theatres in which they are superior to nuke subs.
    4. Too many people think that non-nuke submarine propulsion systems and other non-nuke submarine capabilities are obsolete -being rooted in 1940’s tech. But this is utterly false.
    5. Ignorance of the above points is a feature of the pathetic culture of anti-knowledge that pervades Australia -and is evident even among people who’d like to defend the place.

  • weisman1951

    About 28 of the 62 boats of the very capable Los Angeles-class (SSN-688) nuclear attack submarines (the predecessor to the Virginia-class) are still in commission. If the Australian Government doesn’t want to spend money on new Virginia-class boats, consideration should be given to acquiring Los Angeles class boats upon decommissioning.

  • Harry Lee

    weismann1951 -there is an Australian law that prohibits Australian use of nuclear tech beyond that of very restricted medical applications. True, you are in the company of all but a few dozen Australians -who are not ALP, Green, Lib or Nat federal politicians- who know about this law. Even many ADF officers are unaware of it. And yes, not knowing about certain things contributes mightily to one’s bliss, if not to usefulness.

  • weisman1951

    Mr. Lee: Forgive my ignorance of Australian law. I was merely commenting as an American (living in New York) who is a long-time ANZAC admirer and adherent of the writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan.

  • nfw

    It seems:

    1. Mr Lee doesn’t know anything about submarines other than from the armchair. They are not “subs”, they are either submarines or boats. Calling such vessels “subs” only proves one’s ignorance of the subject. Okay, the Americans will also say “ship”, but that is their problem.
    2. Dr Lewis is also ignorant of nuclear propulsion. Nuclear boats (sic) don’t have “nuclear engines”, they have a nuclear reactor which produces heat to turn water into super-heated steam which then turns the turbine.

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