Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead on the Way Ahead for Australian SSNs

By Brendan Nicholson

After a year of intense research, the head of the 350-strong nuclear-powered submarine taskforce is confident the Royal Australian Navy will be equipped with SSNs.

Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead tells The Strategist he believes ‘absolutely’ that the massive and highly complex industrial-scale endeavour is viable.

Set up after the AUKUS technology-sharing agreement was signed by Australia, the US and the UK a year ago, Mead’s SSN taskforce will deliver recommendations on options to the government by March next year, and he says the work is on track.

The government will choose the design. Mead says a range of options have emerged. He won’t be drawn on specifics, but says it can only be done with the unfettered support of all three nations. ‘We are providing options to our government on what we think is the optimum pathway, and we are working on that with our partners. I am very confident that we will be in a position for the government to make an announcement next year on an optimal pathway, in conjunction with the other nations’ leaders.’

Mead cautions that a whole-of-government approach with very strong backing from industry and the support of the Australian people will be essential for the plan to work. ‘Defence cannot do this by itself. This social licence is a very important aspect for us. We need Australians to have confidence in our ability to build and operate these submarines.’

Submarines operate at the highest end of warfighting capability, says Mead, and they deliver significant deterrence. ‘When you put a nuclear-powered submarine in the mix, you’ve got almost an exponential increase in speed, manoeuvrability, survivability, endurance, lethality in their ability to launch long-range missiles, to operate around the region and to protect Australia.’

The government had made it clear that submarines were a fundamental part of Australia’s defence capability. Defence Minister Richard Marles has said the need for haste is dictated by deteriorating strategic circumstances, sharpening competition and rapid military modernisation. The taskforce’s recommendations will go to the government at the same time as the defence strategic review by former defence and foreign minister Stephen Smith and former Australian Defence Force chief Angus Houston.

‘We are briefing them so that they can take on board our body of work as well,’ Mead says.

Members of Mead’s team often work through the night in talks with the US and UK partners. They include personnel from all three services, the Lucas Heights reactor, the nuclear regulator and a range of departments.

He won’t comment on the argument that an interim conventionally powered submarine will be needed to avoid a capability gap, but says the government has given him very clear direction to develop options that will deliver the nuclear-powered capability ‘in an expeditious manner’.

‘I’m only looking at nuclear,’ he says. ‘We are working with the US and UK on a range of options that we think can deliver the capability in an expeditious timeframe.’

Any decision to opt for an interim conventional submarine would be up to the government and the Department of Defence.

No one doubts that the submarine force will be eye-wateringly expensive.

The taskforce proposal will be presented to the government at the same time as the results of the Smith–Houston strategic review—and at a time of economic pressures and invidious trade-offs when the world is emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic while facing a dangerous strategic environment. Marles has undertaken to strengthen the lethality and deterrent effect, but that assurance comes as demands for support for services such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme and veterans’ welfare increase.

With a strong social agenda, the government faces painful choices as it deals with a complex set of interlocking problems, and clear choices on ADF capabilities will be vital.

The review will focus on strengthening the ADF’s deterrent effect by getting sophisticated weapons and platforms into the hands of its men and women faster. Areas for rapid development include hypersonics and cyber. Some programs will be accelerated. The reviewers will be looking at options, possibly other than submarines, for long-range strike capability. Missiles and long-range bombers such as the B-21 will be in that mix.

Australia needs to be able to defend itself against sophisticated threats—and to give an adversary pause to consider whether an attack is a good idea. While much is discussed about potential flashpoints such as Taiwan, Australia must be able to defend itself against unexpected threats.

Threats may come in the traditional domains of sea, land and air—or in the shape of cyberattacks, or threats to democracy. Greater interdependencies mean that threats can come from different domains at once, with more lethality and greater range. Great-power adversaries can operate in all these domains, making defending against them much more complex and expensive.

While there’s a need for hard power to deter, that can’t be the only focus. Defending the nation means putting more resources into diplomacy to develop deeper relationships with neighbours, and improving intelligence-gathering to ensure threats are identified and understood as they develop. While Australia must be strong enough to deal with actors that see conflict as a means of getting their way, it needs to reassure friends that it has a defensive mindset.

Australia needs to be able to strengthen civil structures and protect democracy at home. There are many ways democracy can be ‘squeezed’, and Australia must be able to operate much more broadly in the ‘grey zone’ where it can come under serious threat short of open war. That can include active coercion from a major power, or even from tiny states taking advantage of the situation.

The ADF has now been freed up to prepare more openly for the grave strategic consequences of climate change.

A hard fought-over element is whether the army needs all the 450 armoured fighting vehicles it has asked for. Critics say the number should be cut so some of the $28 billion cost can be diverted to a range of other weapons to provide deterrence urgently. The ADF’s strong view is that soldiers learned in World War I that they could defend themselves against rifle fire, but they need armour to defend against machineguns and so it is tactically sensible to have some such vehicles to protect them.

As these debates evolve, Mead has identified the optimal pathway to SSNs, with nine components underpinning the daily work of the taskforce. ‘If we can’t put a green tick next to each of those nine components, then the boat becomes almost a meaningless concept,’ he says.

First is Australia’s strategic situation and the policies set by the government to deal with it.

The second is how to assess and gather each AUKUS partner’s contribution along the lines of the systems and processes the US long ago established in the UK to make this truly a trilateral program.

Third is building the workforce, identifying the educational requirements and training required for navy crews, welders, naval architects, for those who’ll create the regulatory system, and those who’ll staff the laboratories—and, says Mead, setting a 14-year-old schoolgirl on a path to captain the first or second SSN.

Fourth is the capability, the design of the submarine, and how it can be achieved quickly, safely and in the most secure manner. Mead won’t say where the design choice will land—on the US Virginia class or the SSN(X) to follow it, Britain’s Astute class which is about to go out of production, or the SSN(R) that will follow it—or something else.

‘Clearly these are decisions for government, and not just our government, but also the partners. They need to put it through their political systems.’

He says nuclear submarines will be built in Australia. ‘That’s very important to ensure Australia has a sovereign capability. They are likely to be built on land adjacent to South Australia’s Osborne Naval Shipyard earmarked for the previous Attack-class submarine project.’

Number five is the need to set up an industrial base that can support SSNs and a supply chain to build and maintain them—and to provide components for partner submarines, optimising the industrial bases of all three countries.

‘If we are building a component for an Australian build and that’s what our partners need, then it would be wise for us to identify things we can assist them with. All countries have constrictions and bottlenecks.’

Teams from the US and UK have visited Australia to see what might be available here. Much cooperative work has been done already, he says, with the Collins-class submarine already using combat systems and torpedoes developed with the US.

An option is for Australia to do a deeper level of maintenance on US and UK submarines during their visits to bases such as HMAS Stirling in Western Australia. That could gradually increase to major maintenance.

‘We need to start sending people from our industrial base to the US and UK to be embedded in their construction and maintenance yards so that when submarines visit Australia our people will have the necessary experience. They’ll understand how the regulatory system works, the radiological safety procedures and the nuclear ecosystem.’

For six months, Australian submariners have been working in US submarines ‘at the back end where the reactor is’. The UK has also committed to embarking Australians on its boats.

‘That’s a demonstration of our partners’ commitment,’ Mead says, adding that more Australians are being sent on reactor courses. ‘They’ll have the opportunity to be posted to US and UK submarines for two or three years. They’ll become experts and we’ll bring them back to Australia—or they may do a follow-on posting in a shore position in the US and UK. Then we’ll bring them back to Australia, and they become crew one for the first submarine that we acquire.’

Six is stewardship, which Mead says is the umbrella that brings all the other components together. ‘We need to be an appropriate steward of nuclear material and nuclear technology. That will require a lot of work, and a very demanding standard will be expected of us by the Australian people, and by our partners. We call it “sovereign ready”. That’s when we would be capable of operating a nuclear-powered submarine.’ Mead is not saying yet when that might be.

There are signs all over the taskforce precinct stressing the importance of building a ‘nuclear mindset’, and each member’s ID card comes with that message.

Mead notes a report by the US director of naval reactors that in 65 years of operation, US Navy nuclear-powered warships and their support facilities have had no discernible effect on public health or the environment.

‘It’s safe for the people, and it’s safe for the environment. We intend to learn from the US and UK so that we can demonstrate identical standards,’ he says. ‘This nuclear mindset is a way of thinking within our people, within navy, and within other areas of the department that will allow us to be the effective stewards, to make sure that nuclear safety is paramount. We have an unyielding commitment to security and nuclear safeguards, that we strive for improvement.

‘Accountability, that’s a fundamental aspect of nuclear technology, and we want the best people dedicated to excellence.’

Component seven is the need for high-level security to protect the technologies the US and UK are sharing, which they regard as the crown jewels among their weapon systems.

Eight is the crucial issue of ensuring non-proliferation—preventing the spread of nuclear technology and highly refined bomb-making materials. International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Grossi has visited the taskforce HQ for detailed talks with Mead. ‘He said he was satisfied with the level of engagement he’s been having with Australia and our US and UK partners. That’s a very important body of work, making sure that we continue to uphold those exemplary standards of non-proliferation that we’ve done in the past, as we will in the future.’

Mead says the ninth crucial element is the need to clearly explain to Australians, and to the US and UK, what the program is all about and how the safety and reliability of the submarines can be assured.

Brendan Nicholson is executive editor of The Strategist.

This article was published by ASPI on 27 October 2022.

Featured Photo: Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead AO, RAN, Chief of the Nuclear Powered Submarine Taskforce, addresses the Defence People Symposium at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre on 29 June 2022.

Also, see the following:

Rear Admiral Jonathan Mead Focuses on the Way Ahead for the Royal Australian Navy