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Crash-Diving into Australia’s Submarine Dilemma

13 Jul 2022
By Dr John Bruni and CDRE Pat Tyrrell OBE RN (Ret’d)
The USS Santa Fe (SSN 763) sails in formation with Royal Australian Navy Collins class submarines HMAS Collins, HMAS Farncomb, HMAS Dechaineux, and HMAS Sheean in Western Australia, 2019.
Source: U.S. Pacific Fleet, Flickr, .

Australia made international headlines when it agreed to the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal. But, given the litany of issues that remain with the submarine plan, Anthony Albanese must carefully consider its implementation.

Australia is re-evaluating its national defence. As an island continent, it can either defend its national territories by forward defence or by developing a “fortress Australia.” Consistent with past practice, Australia has chosen to deploy its forces forward to engage any potential enemy before it reaches Australian territorial waters. This defence has been formed around the current Collins class submarines, offering covert, wide-area capabilities. These submarines are, however, approaching their end-of-life and will need to be replaced over the next 10 – 15 years. The Collins class is due to undergo a Life of Type Extension (LOTE) to keep it in service to the 2040s. This is estimated to cost AU $3.7-6 billion.

In 2019, the Australian government signed a multibillion dollar deal with French firm DCNS to build 12 conventional-powered boats under licence in Australia at an estimated cost of AU $50-90 billion. But soon after the deal was signed, things started to fall apart. Key to the problems was local content: the French backtracked on initial Australian expectations, leading to more work going to French firms and less to Australian ones. A lack of progress in development also suggested that significant slippages in time and cost for the submarine project would occur, inevitably leading to political controversy as this leaked out to the media.

Unwilling to invest in the diplomacy necessary to fix this problem, the Morrison government imperilled Australia’s longstanding relationship with France by dumping the DCNS-designed Attack class and instead purchasing eight nuclear-powered submarines from either the United States or the United Kingdom under the auspices of the new AUKUS trilateral arrangement estimated at between AU $116-173 billion. The diplomatic damage was unprecedented, with French President Emmanuel Macron labelling then Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison “a liar“, a point reiterated by then French Ambassador to Australia His Excellency Jean-Pierre Thebault during a presentation at the National Press Club in Canberra on 3 November 2021.

But problems quickly became evident with the new AUKUS submarine deal too.

Firstly, were these boats to come from the United States, as is rumoured, then the Virginia class boats are larger than both the British alternative (the Astute class) and the initial French Attack class offering. If the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) had crewing problems with the existing fleet of six small Collins class boats – each with a crew of 40 – how would the RAN man the Virginia class boats when each of them require a crew of 120, or the Astute class which requires a crew of 90? The only logical conclusion is that many initial crews will have to be a mix of Australian and a significant number of foreign nationals (i.e., US Navy/Royal Navy). How will Australia present one of their boats being commanded by a British or US Navy commanding officer? National sovereign capability anybody?

Secondly, Australia has never built nuclear-powered anything. Indeed, Australia has historically been hostile to nuclear energy. While this perception may be changing, particularly given nuclear energy’s “cleaner” appeal for base-load power, the view that nuclear power is dangerous has not decisively shifted. There are also no legal mechanisms for dealing with nuclear power in Australia. For instance, setting up the appropriate safety legislation, inspection infrastructure, nuclear waste disposal, training nuclear personnel to the required high levels and introducing the necessary infrastructure for servicing and maintaining the boats. Leasing submarines from either the US or the UK is an option but there would be additional issues of sovereignty and national control. The submarines would also not be built in Adelaide – one of the central elements of the initial AUKUS submarine plan under Morrison.

Thirdly, the RAN has no provision for training nuclear-powered submarine crews and it will take many years to establish such infrastructure. All initial RAN preparations will be conducted overseas – either at American or British installations and bases.

Fourthly, the RAN is based on British naval culture, not American. Why does this matter? Integrating American naval technology into the RAN comes at the cost of having to alter how Australian naval crews operate. RAN crews are often smaller and have to exercise a degree of flexibility onboard their assigned vessel. Americans, not having these problems, can afford to structure the internal design of their vessels for crews to perpetuate a strict hierarchy of command. Due to cost considerations, it is unlikely that any Virginia class boats bought by the RAN would be modified to suit Australian command orthodoxy. In US submarines all officers qualify as nuclear engineers and progress through all the key roles before assuming command, but in the Royal Navy, officers are split into nuclear engineers and operations branches, arguably giving a greater depth of expertise into both disciplines. Therefore Australia’s naval culture would either need to be adjusted to a U.S. model or some meld of both systems. Yes, this is as complex as it sounds.

Fifthly, no existing Australia port or naval facility currently meets the basing arrangements for such large vessels. Such facilities would need to be built at a cost separate from the actual purchase of the new submarines. It is therefore likely that initial Australian nuclear-powered boats would be based overseas and would only be able to fly the flag in Australian waters on occasional ship visits.

Finally, and most significantly, building these submarines will be far cheaper if they are built in their respective overseas shipyards, with a proven capability of building nuclear-powered boats. The risks associated with creating a “greenfield” infrastructure and the perils of making mistakes by imperfectly following American or British design plans could be avoided, saving both time and money in getting an operational capability. If we opt for the American Virginia class, while the red Kangaroo might well be painted on the conning tower, one has to wonder what sovereign control the Australian government would have over these American built, possibly largely American manned vessels? The U.S. government has made the protection of its military Intellectual Property  through the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), and its nuclear technology, number one priorities. It is therefore unlikely that Australian naval companies would be able to modify or maintain these strategic assets in any meaningful way.

There has been a lack of public information regarding both AUKUS generally and Australia’s new submarines in particular. This was particularly so under the former Morrison government. Few outside of the Defence Organisation knew where this trilateral was leading and what it meant. It behoves new Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his Defence Minister Richard Marles to be more forthright in what the Australian people can expect from AUKUS. Will it guide the free-flow of military/security technology transfer between the three member-states? Will it deliver on the political promise that nuclear-powered boats will be built in Australia, South Australia specifically? Because when things go bad – and in complex defence acquisitions they most certainly will – having the public informed and onboard is far better than for the media to sniff out long-smouldering catastrophes in the labyrinthine corridors of bureaucratic power. There is a very strong case for the Albanese government to modify the former Morrison government’s AUKUS concept so that Australia can gain maximum advantage from the arrangement rather than continuing with something that has an odour of policy on the run. Political bipartisanship is generally a benefit when it comes to defence and security issues, but only when they are well laid out. Crashing through with a former government’s poorly conceived ideas traps a current government in a compound interest of problems.

Dr. John Bruni is Founder & CEO of South Australian geopolitical think tank, SAGE International

CDRE Pat Tyrrell OBE RN (Ret’d) is SAGE International’s Chair of the Advisory Board & former Submariner serving in the Royal Navy

SAGE International is an Adelaide-based, independent, privately operated NFP geopolitical think-tank and consultancy estd. in 2008. Areas of expertise include Indo-Pacific strategy, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, defence procurement, Australian defence & security and global maritime security and technological trends.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.