Sink Our French Subs or an Enemy Will

nuke virginia IINow 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.

14 thoughts on “Sink Our French Subs or an Enemy Will

  • prsmith14@gmail.com says:

    Tom, This is a really enjoyable and instructive piece. You gotta hope someone in government (Christopher Pyne?) is interested in us being able to defend ourselves.

  • en passant says:

    Pyne neither knows, nor cares. The whole point of the $50Bn boondoggle ws to save his seat in Parliament and the Ministry of the Damned.

  • Biggles says:

    As refreshing as a cool sea breeze; brilliant! A minor point: can South Australia build the proposed French subs with energy from only windmills, solar panels and a big battery?

  • Michael Galak says:

    As Romans used to say -‘Si vis pacem parabellum’ – if you wish for peace – be ready for war.

  • prpriest@picknowl.com.au says:

    Thanks for this very informative and disturbing article. No capable person with commonsense and the best interests of Australia and our futures in mind would have been so irresponsibly foolish as to oder the useless, very costly and perhaps delivered one day dud French subs, particularly when American proven and reliable nuclear subs were available immediately at half the cost. Good riddance to dud Turnbull and hopefully Pyne will follow him soon

  • hvmurphy@bigpond.com says:

    Well done, Tom. As plain and sensible as the noses on our faces. I pray that common sense prevails. Id feel a lot safe with a flotilla of these beauties patrolling our seas. At the minute all we have is painted fingernails and bathtub subs.


    This anti-nuclear campaign was started by the Soviet Union to disarm the west, using pictures of Hiroshima. Now we see green inner city councils proclaiming nuclear free zones. What stupidity.
    Every human being is radioactive due to the potassium in all their cells turning into argon. I have injected radioactive isotopes into numerous patients throughout my professional life.
    Earth is radioactive, and if it wasn’t, we wouldnt be here. Radioactive decay supplies the ENERGY to melt the core and give us [1] a magnetic field – a shield from cosmic rays [2] plate tectonics – which recycles the crust [3] volcanoes – which supply raw atmospheric gas to replace gas lost to space [4] hydrothermal vents which boil water to the surface to recycle water sinking into the crust.
    Venus had too much radioactivity and boiled everything into space. Mars had too little and ran out of air and water.
    Finally sunlight comes from nuclear fusion in the sun.

  • Salome says:

    The message appears to be that if we can’t get the safest, fastest, most effective submarines into our fleet, then we might as well not have any at all. At least, that’s the message I’m taking away from this, and it’s a good one. Our fighting men (and women, etc) deserve the best equipment they can get for the dangerous job they do.

  • wstarck says:

    The capability of diesel electric submarines compared to nuclear subs is like cavalry compared to armored vehicles. Add to this a doubling of cost for retrograding to the obsolete technology and the whole thing rises to the level of insanity. And the same kind of thinking was being planned for the nation’s power supply. If we were a more expressive people we should be dancing in the streets at Turnbull’s departure.

  • lloveday says:

    It’s too early to dance I fear – the “insanity” has not been cancelled or modified, a review not even hinted at, although it is early days for Ciobo and I don’t know his inclination.

    Will Pyne-Ciobo be better than Payne-Pyne? I hope so, but am not confident and only time will tell.

  • Submarine Institute says:

    This article fails to consider many of the critical issues associated with the Future Submarine Program. The only areas where nuclear submarines have unarguable advantages are sustained speed and endurance. The Submarine Institute of Australia (SIA) recognises the speed/endurance advantages of nuclear-powered submarines over conventionally-powered submarines, however, the perception that a move to procure this type of technology in a time-frame commensurate with sustaining a viable submarine capability – via a long-lead procurement program – shows an unrealistic appreciation of the complex factors which exist. The Australian Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act recognises the protection of the environment from nuclear actions as a matter of national environmental significance. Nuclear actions include establishing a nuclear installation. Hence, a change in federal legislation is required before any commitment by an Australian Government is made to pursue any nuclear power program. While the SIA considers that discussion around the long-term planning for a nuclear-powered submarine force is necessary to ensure that all the issues are understood, the consequent delay in planning and procurement for the sustainment of the submarine capability, involving nuclear studies in the short-term, would result in a critical gap in submarine capability. It is simplistic in the extreme to suggest that Australia could approach any of its allies possessing a nuclear submarine capability with a proposal for a rapidly executed leasing arrangement or “off-the-shelf” purchase. The infrastructure to support these vessels is highly complex, as are the sensitivities of the associated technology. None of the nations with a nuclear submarine capability would simply “hand over” that technology. The most important issue is continuity of our submarine capability. In the short-term, this can only be achieved by continuing with conventional submarine technology. At the rate that all relevant forms of submarine technology is advancing – hull design, conventional propulsion and combat system (sensors, processing and weapons) – the progression towards nuclear power will, hopefully be ongoing, but it will take time. The people of Australia must be given the facts regarding the advances in nuclear engineering and the benefits that Australia can gain from embracing the technology. Nuclear-powered submarine technology is but one aspect of these benefits.

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