Australia’s Nuclear Attack Submarine Decision

By Australian Defence Business Review

Across Australia there was a collective gasp as the Prime Minister announced that Australia’s new submarines – which would be far better than anything operating in the region – would be…French.

Five years on, we know how that turned out. Just what went wrong with Australia’s French dalliance has been endlessly analysed, and there may even be a book in it somewhere down the track.

In the fullness of time, it may well be judged that contributing factors were Australian politics and the obsession with using a project to equip the Navy to create jobs in South Australia.

In Adelaide on 26 April 2016, then Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull announced that French shipbuilder DCNS – now Naval Group – was the winner of the hard-fought new submarines contest.

“This is a great day for our navy,” Mr. Turnbull said. “A great day for Australia’s 21st century economy. A great day for the jobs of the future. Australian built, Australian jobs, Australian steel. Here, right where we stand.”

Mr. Turnbull might also have added that it was also a pretty good day for his government’s re-election prospects, which had been looking somewhat shaky in South Australia.

There will be many consequences of Australia’s decision to abandon the deal with Naval Group and acquire nuclear-powered submarines, either U.S. or British. It will cost a lot – rumoured to be around $400 million – to withdraw from the deal with NG, on top of the more than $2 billion already spent.

It will also be a long time before we see our new boats and, in the meantime, the six Collins boats will require a comprehensive life-of-type extension (LOTE).

One immediate consequence was the sundering of diplomatic relations with France. Civil relations will resume, although perhaps not at the levels of warmth pre-September 2021 for some years, if ever.

A large number of Australian businesses signed on with Naval Group, and also will now find themselves without the decades of steady work they anticipated. But on the plus side, the naval shipbuilding sector in SA will need all the skilled workers it can get as work on the Project SEA 5000 Hunter class frigates ramps up, and as Collins LOTE (see article on page 30) and Hobart class destroyer upgrade work.

The Chinese Communist Party, its various media mouthpieces, and the North Korean regime all hypocritically frothed at the mouth at the outrage of Australia opting to go nuclear. Should we have expected anything less? Probably not.

They and various analysts will surely point out that Australian nuclear subs and visiting ally boats, will make Australian ports priority targets, maybe even for nuclear weapons, in the event of war with China.

Australia’s journey to acquiring nuclear subs has been a long time in the making and, it seems in hindsight, has been somewhat inevitable.

In the late 1950s, Australia was considering acquiring a submarine force. In 1959, the defence force Chiefs of Staff committee reported that one nuclear-powered boat – with its long range, extended endurance, and high speed – could perform the patrol work of two conventional diesel electric-powered boats.

But at that time conventional boats were one sixth the cost, and thus deemed more efficient.

The Chiefs said Australia should not go to nuclear submarines until the Indonesians or Chinese had attained a high level of anti-submarine efficiency, or had themselves acquired nuclear subs, or the price of nuclear boats had fallen to just twice that of conventional boats, “when, for a similar capital expenditure, the same effective number of submarines on patrol could be obtained”.

This was the dawn of the nuclear submarine age. In 1954, the USS Nautilus was launched, and she immediately demonstrated her advantages over all that had gone before her by circumnavigating the globe submerged.

The UK was convinced. Although it had been working on its submarine nuclear power, the 1958 US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement granted Britain access to US nuclear technology, and the Royal Navy’s first nuclear-powered boat – HMS Dreadnought – was launched in 1960.

This agreement established the precedent for AUKUS, through which Australia will acquire nuclear submarines.

But back in 1963, Australia, spurred by Britain’s announcement that it would be withdrawing its submarines from the region by 1970, opted for four and later two more conventional Oberon class boats to be built in Britain. The ‘O-boats’ were considered world’s-best diesel-electric boats at the time, and served the RAN well by teaching us how to operate our own advanced submarines.

But as time for their replacement loomed, Defence again pondered nukes, consulting the three western nations which build and operate nuclear submarines – the U.S., UK, and France. At that time, the U.S. declined to sell its nuclear technology to Australia and, constrained by its end user agreement with the U.S., neither could Britain.

But France would happily have sold us its Rubis class nuclear attack boats. The Rubis class is a compact design compared to U.S. and UK boats, and is the forerunner to the Suffren/Barracuda class upon which Australia’s Attack class would have been based.

But the strong arguments against going nuclear remained. They would have been built in France, with Australia – which lacks a domestic nuclear industry – reliant on the French Navy for support.

They would also have been expensive and required substantial investment in infrastructure, which the Navy feared might mean less money for warships.

But the Hawke Labor Party’s election victory in 1983 sealed the deal. Labor was at the time strongly anti-nuclear, plus France was on the nose over its atomic bomb testing in the Pacific.

So Defence embarked on a process to select the conventional boat best able to deliver Australia’s unique range and endurance requirements.

By the mid-1980s, the U.S. and UK no longer built conventionally-powered subs. But many European nations did, although these were invariably small, and lacked the required range and endurance.

Still there were multiple contenders, among them a conventionally-powered version of the Rubis, plus a range of enlarged versions of existing designs. So whatever was chosen was sure to be a uniquely Australian or heavily-customised design, with all the associated risk that would entail.

That eventually came down to a shortlist of two – Swedish firm Kockums offering the Type 471, an enlarged version of the Västergötland class in service with the Swedish Navy – and the German IKL/HDW with an enlarged Type 209.

In May 1987, the government gave the go-ahead for the Kockums design, and the six Collins class boats are the result. HMAS Collins was launched in 1993, and the sixth boat – HMAS Rankin – in 2001.

With the planned LOTE – and it may yet require more than one per boat – to ensure they remain viable through to the entry to service of the new nuclear boats, the Collins’ will have seen half a century of operational service.

That was certainly not the intention when the 2009 Defence White Paper outlined the requirement for an expanded fleet of 12 submarines, more capable than the Collins boats, and able to sustain a significant force at sea at a considerable distance from Australia. Though the White Paper never said so, this fleet of a dozen was widely interpreted as a response to the rise of China.

So, again, why not nukes? The issues seem the same as they had always been – unwillingness of the U.S. to part with its prized technology, absence of a domestic nuclear industry, and the refusal of Labor – particularly the Labor left – to countenance nuclear power.

Yet there was a widespread view that this was the way to go, especially with the rise of a more belligerent China.

In a 2011 Kokoda Foundation paper titled Australia’s Strategic Edge in 2030 in which he outlined various force structure options, Professor Ross Babbage wrote, “Other options would require a restructuring of the ADF’s Future Submarine Project to purchase 10-12 advanced nuclear attack submarines – preferably from a ‘hot’ production line.

“The most obvious early nuclear submarine option would be to negotiate with the U.S. Navy the purchase of either standard or slightly modified Virginia class boats,” he added.

Prof Babbage even suggested the novel concept of leasing boats from the U.S. Navy, which would be contracted to provide all logistical support. The big advantage of this arrangement would mean it would have placed Australian submariners in our own boats much sooner than any local manufacture.

That of course was not to be, and the government set out to deliver an advanced conventionally-powered boat under Project SEA 1000, albeit at a leisurely pace.

Not until 2012 did then Prime Minister Julia Gillard announce funding for the initial design phase. There was an optimistic timeline, with construction initially tipped to start in 2016, allowing the Collins boats to begin retiring from 2025 as new boats entered service. But Labor had its own priorities, and number one was getting re-elected, for which it needed to establish its economic credentials by delivering a budget surplus.

It never did, but the defence budget proved a useful source of funds in its bid to shore-up the bottom line.

But it’s unfair to those involved to say nothing happened under Labor. There was some useful conceptual work done on important parameters such as propulsion, combat systems, stealth, and industry requirements.

It was decided that the new boats would be either military off-the-shelf (MOTS), MOTS plus some Australian modifications, an all-new design, or an evolution of the Collins class. That of course covers almost every conceivable possibility.

Various analysts have raised the obvious question; why not go for an evolved Collins? After all, we’d built them, we understood them and, with application of tremendous toil and vast treasure, made them perhaps the best conventional subs in the world. In November 2014, Saab Kockums submitted a formal bid for SEA 1000.

But by this time, Australia had a coalition government, and then new Prime Minister Tony Abbott had his own ideas. Surveying the potential contenders (excluding unacceptable options such as the Russians), there was not much available off-the-shelf to meet Australia’s very particular requirements.

The Europeans make fine small boats, well-suited to European waters, but substantial modification would be needed to meet Australia’s needs.

Then there was Japan, whose Soryu class was around the same size as Collins, an impressive design close to Australian requirements. Soryu boats featured air-independent propulsion (AIP), with plans for the last two, commissioned in 2020 and 2021, to be fitted with lithium-ion batteries.

There appeared to be a lot going for a Soryu deal. Further, Tony Abbott and Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe were on good terms.

But on the downside, Japan’s pacifist post-war constitution barred any defence exports, although under Abe the country had moved to change direction and adopt a more pro-active role in international affairs, and began permitting some exports of defence equipment.

However, for a nation which had never exported any defence equipment, starting with an item as complex as a submarine was very high risk.

Quite what understanding Abbott reached with Abe, we don’t know and may never know. But when the word started to spread that Australia’s new subs could be made in Japan, the South Australian Liberals started to become exceedingly anxious at the prospect of an electoral rout if the build went offshore.

In the space of a year, plans firmed up. In February 2015, the Government announced there would be a competitive evaluation process (CEP), pitting the Japanese against the Germans against the French, but interestingly, not the Swedes.

Defence had concluded the work required to evolve Collins amounted to a new submarine design and, further, that it was simply too long since the Swedes last independently designed a submarine. Interestingly, today Saab has the excellent A26 design and a contender to replace the Netherlands’ four Walrus class boats.

Throughout the CEP, there was speculation about the contenders, with a general view that the Germans – and shipbuilder TKMS – were favoured because of their design capabilities, extensive export experience, and the scalability of Type 212’s design.

So there was abundant surprise when, in April 2016, Turnbull announced the winner was DCNS.

So why the French?

Obviously the design, based on the Suffren/Barracuda class SSNs was viewed favourably. Further, France was willing to fully transfer its submarine technology which was doubly favourable should, down the track, Australia decide to go nuclear.

Initially, the public perception was that what would be involved was an adaptation of a current design – whip out the nuclear bits, install diesels and electric motors and batteries and, et voila! But as the process proceeded, it quickly became clear that it would be a very extensive design process which could not be rushed.

In a benign strategic environment, delivery of the first boat late in the 2030s might have been acceptable, but the accelerating rise of an increasingly belligerent China meant that might be too late.

There were many lessons from Collins, the principle one being complex systems such as propulsion and combat systems needed to be carefully designed then fully tested ashore before installation in a submarine.

Initially, it was speculated that boat one and maybe two could be done in France, upskilling a cadre of Australian workers, before work would be transferred to Australia. Ultimately, the political dynamic required that all be built in Australia, despite the Australian industry content never rising much above 60 per cent.

This would surely have resulted in excellent diesel-electric submarines, eventually.

So what changed?

Well, China is clearly the biggie.

Australia, the U.S., and UK have an interest in counter-balancing an expansionist CCP, and what better way than an expanded fleet of nuclear attack boats in their region.

Navy concluded that the future operational risk would be simply too high for conventional subs and, in the context of a rising China, the U.S. and UK were now willing to share their nuclear technologies with a close ally.

Where once a domestic nuclear industry was seen as an essential pre-condition for a nation to operate nuclear vessels, this no longer appears to be the case, although how that will work is yet to be explained.

In the meantime, the schedule for the introduction of a new nuclear-powered attack submarine – whether it be of U.S. or UK origin – has slipped years beyond the previous planned service entry of the first Attack class boats.

Therefore – and despite the government’s commitment to the Collins class LOTE – there appears to be no alignment between the acquisition schedule of the nuclear-powered boats and the claimed urgent strategic imperative.

This story was published by ADBR on December 7, 2021 and was written by Max Blinken.

Featured Photo: The attack submarine USS Virginia (SSN 774) returns to Submarine Base New London after completing a 14-week surge deployment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jason J. Perry/Released). July 3, 2014.