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In one of the most significant national security decisions in a generation, Australia will acquire a fleet of at least eight nuclear powered submarines with the involvement of the US and UK. The precise details will be thrashed out during the next 18 months, though they will be built in Adelaide with construction starting later this decade.

The nuclear powered Virginia-class fast-attack submarine USS Missouri (SSN 780) (US Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Amanda R. Gray)

The Australia-UK-US agreement – AUKUS for short – is clearly a dramatic response not only to the vast growth of China’s naval might but also the openly aggressive posture of President Xi. This is a highly dangerous combination that is fuelling a number of related regional developments, such as a strengthening of the Quad alliance and growing support for Taiwan.

Read the Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS here.

Another driver behind the decision has been the fraught relationship between Australia and France for the existing project, which has been blamed on “cultural differences”.  It might be a coincidence, but when Prime Minister Scott Morrison tried to call France a day ago about a decision of enormous strategic importance, President Macron was unavailable to speak with him.

Prime contractor Naval Group is disappointed, though Australia has been sending out the warning signs of unhappiness for several years. The company released a statement saying:

“Naval Group takes note of the decision of the Australian authorities to acquire a fleet of nuclear submarines in collaboration with the United States and the United Kingdom.

“The Commonwealth decided not to proceed with the next phase of the program. This is a major disappointment for Naval Group, which was offering Australia a regionally superior conventional submarine with exceptional performances.  Naval Group was also offering Australia a sovereign submarine capability making unrivalled commitments in terms of technology transfer, jobs and local content.

“For five years, Naval Group teams, both in France and in Australia, as well as our partners, have given their best and Naval Group has delivered on all its commitments.

“The analysis of the consequences of this sovereign Australian decision will be conducted with the Commonwealth of Australia in the coming days.”

Moving to nuclear powered submarines makes a lot of sense given the enormous distances Australia needs to cover. The range and endurance requirements of the RAN are at the very edge of what is possible with conventional diesel-electric technology: 20,000km and 70 days at sea. One of the ironies of this development is that the Attack class are based on French nuclear powered Barracuda submarines that Australia has spent $2 billion and five years of effort switching to conventional propulsion.

Nuclear powered submarines have huge advantages in never needing to surface since they do not need to recharge their batteries. They can also run almost indefinitely at high speed, unlike conventional submarines. However, they are much more expensive to acquire and in some circumstances are noisier and therefore slightly easier to detect – but on balance are the best option for the RAN.

Collins Class Submarine, HMAS Sheean at sea in the Western Australia Exercise Area.

The tri-nation announcement was made in a three-way media conference by Prime Ministers Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson as well as US President Joe Biden. President Biden emphasised that these will be nuclear powered – not nuclear armed – and that the US will stand by its nuclear non-proliferation treaty obligations.

This development is a massive boost in Australia’s security with submarines that will be at the leading edge of technology – finally with a propulsion system to match. The US has been supplying naval reactor technology to the UK for their submarines for decades – and now Australia will be joining that very exclusive club.

US submarine reactors are not only safe and reliable, they also have enough enriched uranium to last their 30 year lifetime, meaning they never have to be refuelled. This is different from French reactors, which use lower grade commercial material that needs to be replaced every 10 years. It is conceivable that Australia will be able to use the French Barracuda hull form and move ahead with full cooperation from the US and UK.

The idea of the RAN moving to nuclear powered subs has been around for a long time because it has been such an obvious solution to the range and endurance requirements.  Ironically a lot of institutional resistance has been from the Navy itself, which always seems conservative when it comes to adopting new technologies.

Many criticisms of nuclear powered submarines are inaccurate. Firstly, and probably most importantly: safety. US Naval reactors are extremely safe and reliable. They have never experienced a major mishap in almost 70 years of operations. Having been on board a nuclear powered submarine, the author can report that one is not even aware of the power source and no special measures are needed when they dock – they just tie up alongside all the other vessels.

Secondly: Australia needs a nuclear industry to support them. This is also incorrect. They will arrive as sealed unit. Some RAN personnel will need to be trained as nuclear engineers, but we have at least 10 years to do that with placements in the USN and RN likely to be an important part of the process.

Thirdly: they are expensive. The acquisition cost is certainly greater, but more than offset by performance benefits. They are likely to be no more expensive to operate – and possibly less so – than a diesel electric submarine. This is largely because recharging the batteries on a conventional submarine takes place every 24 hours or so, meaning that they have to come close to the surface and run their diesel engines to power generators. This process contributes greatly to wear and tear.

Finally: they are noisy and therefore easier to detect and attack. This used to be the case with nuclear submarines needing to continually operate pumps to circulate cooling water through the reactors to prevent overheating. Conventional submarines have the ability to go silent if they temporarily stop moving – or move extremely slowly – relying on battery power.  However, the nuclear submarines are becoming quieter with improvements in technology  – and their potential sustained high speed underwater capabilities allows them to escape from danger much faster than conventional boats.

Reaction to AUKUS

South Australian Senator Rex Patrick said the decision has “long-term national security, geopolitical, and economic consequences that must be the subject to rigorous and wide-ranging scrutiny. In these circumstances the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee should open an immediate inquiry to ensure that all the angles, including alternative conventionally-powered submarine procurement options, are fully explored and understood. The committee should produce an initial report prior to the federal election. I’ve been a strong critic of the French submarine deal. The delays and cost overruns are huge and unacceptable. But we have to be careful we don’t move from one massive procurement disaster into something else that hasn’t been thought through properly. There are huge uncertainties about this announcement – including the selection of a US or British submarine, numbers, cost and schedule of acquisition and delivery. The proposed initial US-UK-Australia joint study to be undertaken over the next eighteen months is a prudent step and will mean that further decisions will take place after Australia’s election.”

Australia’s Electrical Trades Union has condemned the decision to embrace nuclear submarines as one that will expose Australians to greater danger on multiple fronts. ETU National Assistant Secretary Michael Wright said the decision had not been subject to appropriate scrutiny. “After completely bungling the Naval Group submarines deal, the Commonwealth Government expects us to believe it can be trusted to negotiate and manage the delivery of nuclear submarines. This is preposterous,” Wright said. “Nuclear submarines will require significant offshore maintenance, undermining Australia’s sovereign capability. Surely the recent experience with COVID demonstrated the danger of relying on international supply chains for the core needs of a self-respecting nation?”

Wright said the decision represented a betrayal on two fronts. “This decision represents a betrayal of responsibility to Australia’s non-nuclear policy and a betrayal of two generations of highly-skilled, secure, well-paying Australian shipbuilding jobs. It is dangerous and delusional to rely on nuclear submarines for our defence. We are fearful this will also cost Australia much needed engineering, manufacturing, and construction jobs. We need answers as to where and how these nuclear submarines will be built. We need these answers quickly. Nuclear technology is inherently dangerous, something ETU members have known first hand for decades. Has Mr Morrison given any thought to where the spent fuel rods from these nuclear submarines will be stored? Australians have a right to know the answers to these important questions before the Prime Minister makes such dangerous decisions on our behalf.”

China too has been building up its nuclear submarine force recently.

The CEO of Babcock Australasia David Ruff has responded to the joint announcement by the leaders of Australia, United Kingdom and the United States, saying “Babcock Australasia welcomes the joint announcement that an alliance between Australia the UK and the US will deliver nuclear-powered submarines to the Royal Australian Navy. Babcock has a long-standing and proud heritage in nuclear energy stewardship and safety in the UK and, in partnership with the UK and Australian governments and local Australian industry, stands ready to deliver that capability in Australia. In the UK, Babcock sustains the entirety of the UK’s submarine fleet, including the delivery of through-life support and life extension of the Vanguard, Trafalgar and Astute Classes. Babcock also manages and operate two of the UK’s three Naval Bases – HMNB Clyde and HMNB Devonport. Babcock Australasia is a leading provider of submarine sustainment and technology development capability, both in Australia and the UK. In Australia, under its long-term partnership with ASC, Babcock provides through-life support to the Collins Class submarine that is currently in service. Today’s announcement is an historic moment – Babcock Australasia has the capability, the capacity and the experience to deliver.”

Members of the Australian Labor Party also issued a response to the news. Anthony Albanese, leader of the party, Penny Wong, leader of the party in the Senate and Brendan O’Connor, the shadow minister for defence, said in a joint statement:

“Labor looks forward to strengthened cooperation with our close allies, through the AUKUS partnership announced today. This affirms what Labor has been calling for; deeper partnerships with allied and aligned nations, to build a region which is stable, prosperous and respectful of sovereignty. This partnership must add to our existing engagements. It also underlines the need to work more closely with other partners in our region including ASEAN members. We will seek further details about opportunities offered by this partnership, including for enhanced domestic technology capabilities through increased co-operation and information sharing.

“Labor also remains committed to ensuring that defence production/procurement agreements lead to more jobs in Australia, and build skills and expertise in our homegrown workforce. Getting the men and women of the ADF the best possible equipment, on time and on budget, is essential, which is why eight long years of mismanagement of defence procurement has been so troubling. While there is much that we welcome, it’s also clear that today’s announcement is the single biggest admission of failure on the part of the Morrison-Joyce Government over its $90 billion Future Submarines program. A program that is running 10 years late from its original schedule and $40 billion over budget. Eight years into this program and after three separate deals, Mr Morrison is now starting from scratch.

“In addition to a yet unknown cancellation fee for the Attack Class contract, up to $4 billion has already been spent. The Government must be transparent about how much money has been burnt in the process. The Government has made clear the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines will not require a domestic civil nuclear industry, is compatible with the Non Proliferation Treaty and has ruled out the acquisition of nuclear weapons. We will hold them to these commitments. We accept that this technology is now the best option for Australia’s capability. The Morrison-Joyce Government must also urgently explain:

  • The cost of this new plan.
  • The number of submarines to be built.
  • The impact of today’s announcement on local jobs and businesses
  • The timeline for construction and delivery of the nuclear-powered submarine capability.
  • The impact on the Life of Type Extension (LOTE) of the Collins Class submarines.
  • How local skills and know how will be delivered through the biggest acquisition in Australia’s history.

“Labor calls on the Morrison-Joyce Government to guarantee no net job losses in South Australia or Western Australia. Given the importance of this multi-decade agreement to Australia’s national interests it is critical that in this pre-caretaker period that both parties of government work together to secure the path forward. Labor will be seeking deeper consultation, including proposing a joint structure going forward.”

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Kym Bergmann is the editor for Asia Pacific Defence Reporter (APDR) and Defence Review Asia (DRA). He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism and the defence industry. After graduating with honours from the Australian National University, he joined Capital 7 television, holding several positions including foreign news editor and chief political correspondent. During that time he also wrote for Business Review Weekly, undertaking analysis of various defence matters.After two years on the staff of a federal minister, he moved to the defence industry and held senior positions in several companies, including Blohm+Voss, Thales, Celsius and Saab. In 1997 he was one of two Australians selected for the Thomson CSF 'Preparation for Senior Management' MBA course. He has also worked as a consultant for a number of companies including Raytheon, Tenix and others. He has served on the boards of Thomson Sintra Pacific and Saab Pacific.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Built in the US, so they will be delivered for about US$3.3 billion a boat, and probably on time as well. Can’t see 12 being bought, due to crewing issues, so more likely a one for one replacement for the Collins.
    It means that ASC concentrates on building surface ships and a maintainer of submarines, though their will be work on upgrading the Collins class to cover the delay until the Virginia’s enter service.

  2. The reactors will be delivered from the US – but probably as sealed units to be installed in Adelaide. This is the same methodology used for UK nuclear submarines. I don’t believe crewing will be an issue – they won’t enter service for a decade and will be introduced at yearly intervals meaning there is plenty of time to ramp up. Nuclear submarines are more comfortable for crews – unlimited power and absence of diesel fumes for starters.

  3. Thought UK had reactor tech transferred to Rolls Royce and they build it in their WK3 [ I think that’s the name ] reactor. For us optimal would seem to be as said US reactors + Adelaide build and hopefully a build to 12 boats. Wonder how this affects Lockheed Martins efforts as systems designer/integrator could see that this could be used in new programme. Personally always preferred the look of the Astute class.

    • You might be correct about the ToT to Rolls Royce – I haven’t been following the detail. I would imagine that the role of Lockheed Martin if anything will be enhanced. It’s also significant that BAE Systems has such a huge engineering presence at the Osbourne yard for SEA 5000 – though they are having unexpected problems for that program.

  4. If you put a conventional submarine to sea in any conflict and they come up against a nuke their chances of surviving the encounter are next to none. As an ex-submariner sonar rating I am not just stating an opinion, it is a fact. It was a fact in the 70’s just as it is fact now.
    The ETU being against it either shows the politics of the decision or their ignorance of the US submarine reactor technology. I suspect the former. There would indeed be many heavy engineering jobs for their members and nuclear technicians needed in the South Australian facility would by necessity have an electrical background, both the military and the civilian maintenance personnel in the proposed project in fact. As to the reactors being “inherently more dangerous,” this is also rubbish. There has never been a mishap in the 60-70 years of these submarine reactors being in service and the new generation of these reactors NEVER require refuelling during the life of the submarine. Lastly the carbon footprint of these hunter-killer submarines being nuclear and not deisel powered is greatly diminished. A great, smart and hopefully devoid of politics decision that should have been made some years back instead of the white elephants Australia was about to build.

    • Thanks Rob – I agree with all of that. However for the sake of balance I should add that nuclear reactors on submarines of the USSR had a less than spectacular safety record.

  5. Perhaps we should look at maintaining a small fleet of diesel/electric vessels for the role the navy has always said nuclear can’t do. The secret squirrel shit needing a smaller submarine that can navigate quietly in littoral waters. Some of the Collins will obviously be extended for years so that might be an option or buy some Swedish, German or Japanese hulls for the short term like we did with FA-18F/G…… and I expect those airframes will will be with us for decades

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