Australia’s Nuke Sub Gamble

HMS Audacious
HMS Audacious lines up with her sister submarines HMS Anson and HMS Agamemnon as she prepares to leave the BAE Systems Devonshire Dock Hall, in Barrow in Furness.

With the selection made to go nuclear, the next question is from where, and which type? Is this the wrong time for a long odds bet?

On 15 September 2021 the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a surprise joint media appearance to announce the formation of a new Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) defence partnership.

In his announcement, Morrison stated that Australia would be pursuing the development of nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) with support from the two other members of the AUKUS group.

This simultaneously slammed the door shut on Australia’s cooperation with France on the SEA 1000 Attack-class diesel-electric powered submarine (SSK) programme killing it dead, while signalling the beginning of what will be a long and expensive process of building and crewing eight new SSNs.

Although the AUKUS agreement will primarily be about the process of bringing technology to Australia for a new SSN programme, it included other elements of future technology cooperation and exchange relating to Artificial Intelligence (AI), cyber, quantum computing and others.

The partnership is not officially a treaty or an alliance, but considering that it will formalise the exchange of closely-guarded secret nuclear technology, AUKUS just as significant because of the impact it will have on the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.

The three leaders were at pains to ensure that they did not mention the People’s Republic of China, but this partnership is primarily about countering Chinese expansionism in the region. It is sending a warning to Beijing that the US and UK are united in their opposition to Chinese expansion to the extent that they are willing to provide a close ally with unparalleled levels of technological assistance – not seen since the 1958 US–UK Mutual Defense Agreement on nuclear weapons cooperation – to bring about a step change in Royal Australian Navy (RAN) capability.

China, as expected, has not been happy about this development, with Zhao Lijian, Beijing’s foreign ministry spokesperson stating that it “seriously undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race”. The Chinese embassy in Washington said that the AUKUS countries had a “Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice”.

However, the most serious fallout from the new partnership is the impact on NATO ally France. Paris has seen its state-run shipbuilder Naval Group ejected from its position as prime contractor on Australia’s largest-ever defence procurement programme (SEA 1000 has been valued at $65 billion). Although the official language is that Canberra opted not to proceed through the next milestone on SEA 1000 it gave neither Paris nor Naval Group any advance warning about the decision.

This has been received very badly in France. French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said it was a “stab in the back” and called it “unacceptable behaviour among allies and partners”. Paris recalled its ambassadors to the US and Australia. This is not an over-reaction because it damages French perceptions that it is a major power with strong interests and influence in the Indo-Pacific region. Building submarines for Australia reinforced these assumptions, whether they are justified or not, and the sudden collapse of Australian defence cooperation with France is a national humiliation.

Although relations are starting to improve again with the return of the ambassadors and the leaders back to speaking terms again, the long-term damage is that France no longer trusts some of its closest allies in NATO. This is something that France will emphasise as one of the European Union’s major powers. Whether the EU will follow France’s lead is another matter, but it is clear the ramifications of this will be long-lasting.

Volte face

France would have known Naval Group’s submarine deal with Australia was not running smoothly. Despite being in the early stages of development, the SEA 1000 was already in significant trouble and there was a growing opinion in Australian defence circles and media that the Attack-class programme would not deliver on time or to its already inflated cost. The Elysee Palace and Naval Group may have become complacent that Australia would never actually cancel the flagship defence programme it had been promoting for five years.

There is no question that the 4,500 tonne Attack-class submarine Barracuda Shortfin 1A design, which is a modification of the French Navy’s Suffren-class SSN design, would have been a very capable SSK. But the problem is at what cost would the acquisition of 12 of these boats be for Australia, and were they going to meet the RAN’s future sub-surface requirements of the 2050s.

Following the selection of Naval Group’s Barracuda design and contract signing in 2016 there was a significant two-year delay in signing the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA). The SPA was designed to manage the relationship between the Australian Department of Defence and the company throughout the programme’s expected 30-year construction and the delivery cycle for all 12 boats that would take place through from 2034-2056. This is already late. Under the original plans in Australia’s 2009 Defence White Paper the first boat was supposed to be in-service by 2025.

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) had reported in 2020 that were was an overall nine-month delay in the project and Naval Group had failed to meet two of its key design milestones dates. The project had already been re-set. The ANAO also found that differing approaches to the engineering work required and expected deliverables at each stage had an impact on the project and that any delay of three years or more to the programme more could mean a reduction in submarine capability for the RAN.

What was to have been – Naval Group’s Attack class submarine. (Naval Group)

Relations between the company and the Australian DoD had soured significantly over this time and there were already rumours in the media – despite the DoD’s vociferous denial – that a back-up plan was being put in place.

Ultimately it was these programmatic problems that opened to the door for the DoD to look at other options including SSNs. Until now the nuclear option had been ruled out because of cost and the lack of any civilian nuclear infrastructure to support it. But the geo-strategic outlook had changed. Looking ahead the DoD could see that the expansion of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), including its nuclear submarine force, would pose a significantly higher threat much sooner than previously imagined.

Even a force of 12 SSKs would be limited in what it could achieve considering the distance from naval bases in Australia to its area of operations across the Indo-Pacific region, including the South China Sea, East China Sea and at maritime choke points. Furthermore, the capabilities that the Attack-class can offer would not be that far removed from those already provided by the RAN’s existing fleet of Collins-class SSKs. Diesel-electric boats are just not able to offer the kind of range and endurance, or support the kinds of weapons and sensors that the RAN will need in the future that can only be hosted by a SSN.

It may be a fair assessment that for $65+ billion the RAN would not be getting enough bang for the buck to meet the new naval threats that would emerge by the time all 12 boats Attack-class boats would be delivered. If there was a delay in the programme it would mean that the first of the six Collins-class SSKs would start to leave service (after a Life of Type Extension – LOTE) from 2038 without a replacement, causing the RAN a significant capability reduction.

However, Marcus Hellyer from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) told AMR that although the SSN decision is the right one in capability terms it raises serious concerns relating to delivery; choosing a SSN instead of a SSK at this late stage isn’t going to improve the cost and schedule implications.

“Those eight SSNs are going to cost significantly more than 12 conventional boats,” he said. “The government’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update said that it is no longer expected that it will be 10 years before a conflict may arise involving Australia. Well, there is a discrepancy between that high level assessment and the timeframes around the naval shipbuilding programme; that inconsistency is even more stark and glaring, because it’s going to take even longer to get the future SSN submarines.”

HMAS Rankin
HMAS Rankin conducts helicopter transfers in Cockburn Sound, Western Australia, as part of Rankin’s training assessments to ensure the boat is ready to deploy.

Submarine gap

The Attack-class SSKs were expected to enter service from 2034 giving a four-year gap before the first LOTE upgraded Collins-class SSK, HMAS Farncomb, is expected to be decommissioned. The DoD has said that the decision to build SSNs instead would add two to four years compared to the Attack-class delivery schedule giving a possible in-service date of the first boat from 2036-38, assuming no delays or problems.

Hellyer said that other DoD briefings have concluded that 2040 is a more realistic date for the arrival of the first SSN, which surely would mean a gap. But despite the 10 extra years the LOTE will give the Collins-class, there is no absolute date as to when they should retire.

“But there is no risk margin in that transition,” he said, meaning there is still a high chance of a submarine capability gap for the RAN. “The Minister has talked about the possibility of leasing an SSN, but there is nobody out there who has an extra SSN in good condition waiting for somebody to come along,” Hellyer warned.

An 18-month scoping phase is underway between the AUKUS countries to decide the best way for Australia to acquire new SSNs. The DoD has stated that the SSNs will be built in Adelaide, likely at the Osborne North facility where Naval Group had started the early stages of construction of a shipyard to build the Attack-class. This area will be re-tasked but it will have to be a different kind of yard to build a 10,000 tonne boat instead of one that half that size, and it is not clear what will be required to support SSNs long-term.

“This is one of the big unknowns,” Hellyer said, “People can do a quick costing exercise to work out the cost of the boats, but what we don’t really understand is the overhead in operating nuclear boats.”

The US and UK will be providing nuclear reactor technology and, unlike France, its latest reactors will last for 35 years and do not need refuelling. This suits Australia because it does not want a nuclear industry to manage the SSN’s nuclear cycle, and it simplifies the support requirements significantly by avoiding this.

But even if Australia purchases off-the-shelf reactors in a box from the US or UK to reduce that risk, Hellyer said that does not eliminate the need for a regulatory and safety superstructure: “There is a huge amount of training that all personnel, either crewing the boats or on-shore involved in that regulatory structure, have to do to ensure they have the requisite skills in nuclear technologies. There is a very large infrastructure that comes with this, even if we try to do this in the easiest possible way,” he explained. This will be a key part of the 18-month assessment.

Australia has a limited choice in the design and type of the SSN. Buying existing reactors for an existing design that is merely assembled in Australia is the least risky option. This means either selecting the UK Royal Navy’s Astute-class SSN design or the US Navy’s Virginia-class SSN with as few modifications as possible. A completely new design is a third option, but this would entail too much risk.

USS Washington
The USS Washington (SSN-787) is a Virginia-class nuclear powered attack submarine commissioned into the US Navy in October 2017. (Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding)

“The government has sort of said it is aiming to start construction in the late 2020s, which is a very racy timeline; it does not leave any, any room of messing around with substantial design modifications,” Hellyer said.

The question then becomes one of timing, and which type of Astute-class or Virginia-class design is chosen. Hellyer explained that the US is already starting construction of its Block V Virginia-class and by the late 2020s they will have a new block design ready for construction in the early 2030s. Around the same time the UK will be moving on to its SSN(R) Astute-class replacement.

“So we’ll just be starting our programme at the time the US is moving to whatever comes next and that is looking to be even bigger and even more expensive,” he said, adding that Australia will not want to start building one type and then transition to another.

There are further concerns about the engagement of Australian industry. It is unlikely that local firms will be able to produce many components for the SSNs in Australia due to the inordinate amount of time it would take to certify thousands of pieces of equipment.

“Nothing about this is simple or straightforward. So even when we want to keep it as simple as possible, implementing that has already raises some fairly difficult questions,” Hellyer concluded.

by Tim Fish