Sherlock Holmes teaches us that when all possible explanations have been eliminated, the only remaining answer – no matter how improbable – must be correct.  As prospects are diminishing that Australia will be able to receive a nuclear-powered submarine before the 2050s, policy makers are faced with two choices: do nothing, or fast track something that will add significantly to the undersea warfare capabilities of the three AUKUS partners.

The latest development is that two US Senators – one serving and one just retired – Democratic Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee Jack Reed and his Republican predecessor Senator James Inhofe, have warned that the US does not have the capacity to build submarines for Australia.  Previously, Australian officials have dismissed any negative commentary about the nuclear submarine plan as “noise”, but this is getting hard to ignore.

Maybe the report by the nuclear-powered submarine task force due in March will prove the critics wrong, but unless it comes up with a concrete schedule with dates, legally enforceable commitments and so on, Australia needs to have a Plan B.  A document that emphasises intentions, good will, more discussions, dialog, harmonising requirements, committees, and further investigations gets us nowhere.

Even the most vocal critics of conventional submarine technology concede that they nevertheless retain some performance advantages, such as in complex, shallow water littoral environments.  They are also comparatively cheaper to build and – depending on their size and complexity – a nation can acquire at least three conventional submarines for every nuclear-powered boat.

A new generation fleet of Australian conventional submarines could see some of them permanently based in Guam – or even Japan – making an important contribution to USN-led coalition operations in areas such as the South China Sea.  Some could also travel to the UK, though what contribution they could make to joint security from there is unclear, but the gesture might be politically worthwhile.

A commitment to actually doing something to help ourselves would also go over well in Washington.  US figures are reportedly surprised and disappointed at the supine position of Australia, which seems to believe a solution for our defence needs will be handed to us on a platter.  Why should Australia expect the US to solve our submarine problems for us?  First and foremost, this a challenge to be met by the sovereign Australian government and not offshore it like some sort of strategic help line.

The quickest solution for Australia would be to forget about the Collins Life of Type Extension due to start in 2026 and fast track the local construction of the South Korean KSS-III Batch 2 design – now owned by Hanwha – which could see boats in the water from 2030.  These are long-range conventional submarines that achieve a very low indiscretion rate by using lithium-ion batteries and other advanced technologies that were never part of the cancelled Attack class program.  Their endurance could be further expanded by building a resupply base on Christmas Island – surrounded by deep water and easy to protect – that would give them an extra 25% time on station.

Another option would be a Next Generation Collins class – a larger version of the Swedish A26 submarine, similar to the one favoured to be chosen by the Netherlands to meet their need for a long-range oceanic submarine.  A Third Generation Collins in the 2050s could be nuclear-powered, with the involvement of both the US and the UK.  That’s called long term planning and is probably closer to the spirit of AUKUS because it would contribute to sovereign capability.

For all the boosters of nuclear-powered submarines, we say this: unless Australia has a highly skilled construction base, we will be condemned to forever seeking to buy them from the US or the UK – and, as we are witnessing, the chances of that ever happening are receding.  As those two nations learned from the Sea Wolf and Astute programs, without a continuous submarine construction program, the loss of skills can be catastrophic.

The only sure way to guarantee that Australia will be able to build nuclear powered submarines – other than the reactors themselves – is to be able to transition from building large, advanced conventional submarines to something with a different propulsion system. Put simply: those arguing that an interim submarine is too inconvenient are condemning to death the idea of the local build of a nuclear-powered boat.  We will need a skilled, experienced, existing workforce, existing program management and existing local supply chains.

As a nation we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can start preparing now for the construction of nuclear-powered submarines in the 2050s – and the best way to get there is to use a next generation of advanced conventional submarines as an essential steppingstone.  The only way to fast track a nuclear boat would be to work with France – and that seems beyond the capacity of Australian policy makers, completely dazzled like a kangaroo in the headlights by AUKUS.

Sherlock Holmes was a fictional character.  The problems for Australia are real.  It’s time we started addressing our own issues, which will give us some credibility on the world stage, particularly in Washington.

We can’t expect other nations with their own priorities to focus on our problems if we won’t help ourselves.


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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.

49 COMMENTS

  1. Nobody would go to war in a conventional boat if they had the option of a nuclear vessel. Your South Korean mates would drop that death trap your spruking in a heart beat if they could find either the US/UK to partner with but they can’t so therefore are condemned to a conventional boat. Its not just about unlimited range/endurance. No conventional boat can generate the energy to run the most advanced sensor/combat system loads which a nuclear boat can. The days of relying solely on passive sensors are over.

    • Why are Russia, China and India building both nuclear and conventional submarines? As for passive sensors, what you write is not correct. Submarines – both nuclear and conventional – rely heavily on passive sonar. The moment that you use active sonar (typically used only for navigation) you are liable to be detected. The only other active sensor is radar – and if you think submarines come to the surface and switch that on during hostilities you are sadly mistaken.

      • Those Russian, Chinese and Japanese diesel subs are being built to operate in very shallow seas (e.g. Baltic Sea, Black Sea, Yellow Sea, Sea of Japan) with short patrol ranges (enemy < 1000km away) where they make sense. Even a small nuclear sub like French Suffren would make more sense for RAN going into Indian and Pacific Oceans. A program to build first three Attack class and transition to SSNs in 2030s would have made a lot of sense. Morrison lied about SSN refueling. We could have refueled LEU subs here, same as Lucas Heights reactor. PMB Adelaide could have fitted more modern battery to Attack.

      • Sorry Kim but the days of picking up contacts in a very noisy ocean with passive arrays are fast coming to a close. Sonars have an active mode as you would no doubt be aware. The Chinese and Russians use conventional boats because they are a cheap option to use in their near seas they simply cannot afford an all nuclear fleet.

        • Feel free to provide details of an active sonar on any submarine, anywhere. I repeat, they have none – except for navigation / obstacle avoidance. All submarines have large passive arrays – bow; flank and towed. While the Russian defence budget is somewhat constrained at the moment, that of China most definitely is not. India is somewhere in the middle.

          • BQQ-10 and 2076 spring to mind both are active/passive arrays. And no the active component is not used for the sole purpose of obstacle and mine avoidance.

  2. The path always existed with the French sub to eventually go nuclear. Perhaps the previous government was a little rash in cancelling the Attack class. We could have seen the first of the Attack submarines in service by the mid 2030 swapping over to producing a nuclear version for the later tranches.

    • I agree that the pathway to a nuclear powered Barracuda would be the easiest was to go. I was a critic of the Attack program for many reasons, including that the RAN insisted on using old technologies – lead acid batteries, no particular arrangements for UUVs – along with the basic engineering issues of propelling an extremely large hull with a diesel electric system. The Barracuda itself is an excellent submarine.

  3. Makes perfect sense but I fear our politicians will remain blind to what is quite obvious.
    The nuclear submarine option by the 2030’sor even the 2040’s is a pipedream

    • It’s a depressing outlook, isn’t it? Maybe Vice Admiral Mead’s nuclear task force will surprise us with a clear, unambiguous pathway to a rapid acquisition.

  4. Wholeheartedly agree with this article. Australia needs something for the interim if the nuclear subs go ahead or not. Our governments have put us in this position by being a decade late to the geo-strategic problems that have been bubbling for some time. Nuc subs by 2040/50 seems futile. Conflict over Taiwan has to be the timeline. We need something by 2027-35. How we do that I don’t know but I think working with that timeline is a must.

    • Thanks. I think there are ways of doing it quickly, particularly if we work with the RoK. The Koreans are masters of rapid prototyping of advanced military technology – and are flexible enough to work with us. Unfortunately our decision makers seem to have completely and happily withdrawn back into the Anglosphere.

  5. I’ve been a fan of the KSS-111 option since it was first bought up. With the Sth Korean offer we get the technology and Submarines in around 7 years as well as being in on the ground floor when the Sth Koreans evolve the design into a nuclear version, a project that they are pursuing with the assistance of France I believe, This option ticks all the boxes that Australia wants. The only problem is,it’s not going to happen because it’s not made or designed in the US. Australia should get used to being without the most potent deterrence asset we ever had.

    • Thanks for that. You are well informed – the RoK is interested in French technology because of the use of Low Enriched Uranium as fuel for their naval reactors. I share your concern that the way Australia is going, we will end up with nothing.

  6. I worry that something as difficult as introducing nuclear powered subs is being fast tracked or “shifted left” as has been said. Surely something so challenging must be done properly? There are just so many areas which could cause delay, technical, political, regulatory etc too many to mention so an interim conventionally powered solution is a must.

    Rather than bringing in another party such as the RoK, I would favour evolving the Collins Class but seek assistance for this from the US and UK to keep faith with our AUKUS partners. Evolving the Collins Class would allow Australia to essentially run its own program like the US and UK do, but then lean on each other for support when required. An evolved Collins Class would be easier to support for the local industrial base and easier to bring into service for the RAN, it is therefore a less risky option. Progressive evolution in partnership with the US and UK could continue until all of the many requirements to support the construction and operation of nuclear powered boats have been established in Australia.

    • Thank you for your thoughts. I agree that building on the experience of the Collins class (as dated as that is now getting) is worth exploring. So many other countries take advantage of previous experience.

  7. What’s wrong with you people ,? Aus Govt just paid out 800Mil to the French to cancel large Diesel Electric subs. Yanks have agreed to 8 X nukes. $100 question is when. Pointless to throw the the whole idea away cause your clients want to sell the stupid Aussies a conventional sub.

    • The total figure that went to Naval Group was more like $3 billion. As I tried to make clear, nuclear submarines are fine – but it’s a matter of when can we realistically hope to acquire them, particularly if they are to be built in Australia.

      • Assuming the premise of your article is sound (which I do), do you believe that Australia will maintain the domestic political capital to justify both conventional AND nuclear submarine programmes concurrently?

        Is it not more appealing to the voting public to be solely funding a best-in-class programme, versus dual-funding an “old school” and a nuclear?

        Personally, I think your position is more pragmatic; it is highly in Australia’s interest to have a fully-operational domestic submarine industry to support the future nuclear subs. But will the voters see it that way?

        • It has always been a mystery to me why the Australian voting public – the taxpayers – seem to care so little about how much is being spent on Defence or how much of that is being wasted. It is a danger being seen as soft on national security – which is why the ALP is especially touchy on the subject – but the details don’t particularly seem to resonate with much of the electorate. AWDs 4 years late and $1,5 billion over budget – yawn. Cancelled Attack class program $3 billion down the drain – yawn. In other countries these types of financial scandals would bring down the relevant Minister – but not here.

          That’s a long introduction to answering your question, so for what it’s worth I don’t think the huge money needed for nuclear submarines is going to cause a ripple. It hasn’t to date. Maybe if people start to visualise it in personal terms – like “this is $4,000 for every man, woman and child in the country.” Or in infrastructure terms: this money would completely fund a Melbourne-Sydney-Brisbane high speed rail link with services travelling at 500kph. Otherwise it seems to be case that the military should just go ahead and buy whatever they want – as long as it’s built from good Aussie steel, of course.

          • That’s simultaneously both intriguing and surprising, thank you for your insight.

            I am from the UK, so I am acutely aware of how spending scandals can bring down senior ministers. I guess it is surprising that the Australian population aren’t wired that way.

            It seems that, in some sense, the Australian public are becoming more aware of the need for strong defence in asia-pacific. It certainly helps that the budget is not scrutinised to such extremes.

          • I think that Australia has the advantage of an economy that is overall in good shape and a tax and welfare system that functions reasonably well. The last time Australia had a real recession was in 1991. We survived the GFC without any major problems and from an economic perspective the response to Covid was effective. Putting this together, Australia has been able to afford a modest and proportional amount of money to fund defence for decades. It hasn’t been necessary to cut pensions in half or anything unpopular like that, so it seems that as long as people are reasonably comfortable they don’t object to Defence receiving $45 billion a year (and growing).

  8. This guys is spreading a best case option for the Chinese government. No way would anyone use a conventional submarine against a near peer. That is a metal tomb.
    This guy is just saying agreeable points which he may have heard somewhere and it’s dangerous.
    Conventional is fine if your at war with someone not using state of the art equipment or peace time.
    An argument starting with ‘what about’ proves my point. China and Russia are not only contending with the US but also smaller nations.
    Conventional would be fine for us also if it was for a 3rd world military.
    Conventional ratio of 3 to 1 in price lol.
    I wonder what the stats will be a in a modern war of nuclear submarines verus a noisy Conventional boat. Likely 10 to 1
    The CCP and Russia also don’t care if there people die as long as they get a shot off.
    Australia is different and needs to be different.
    Please do more research about the noise of a Conventional submarine and how easy they are to be hunted regardless of signals.
    China has never cared about our Conventional submarines before but boy did they throw a tantrum at us getting some nuclear powered ones. You should ask yourself why and follow that trail.
    Instead of hiding your agenda in vague comments like “conventional retain SOME performance”
    Your either spreading CCP propaganda/narratives on purpose or by accident.

    • Alex, I think you are the one who needs to do some home work and actually read what is being written. Nobody is saying conventional subs are better than nukes, the discussions are about time lines and options to avoid capability gaps. Australia needs a replacement for our present capability now not in 30years and nothing would please CCP more than not having to worry about an Australian Submarine threat, conventional or nuclear ,for decades. Even someone with a bow and arrow is more threat than someone without one.

  9. Finally some common sense ,What parallel dimension are Australian decision makers living in . trying to buy a platform we have no ability to maintain and operate,we have no idea what it will cost but let’s be honest it’s way more than what we can realistically afford as a barely middle power and ultimately no one can supply them in any kind of usefully timeframe. nuclear subs for Australia, it was a nice dream but that’s all it was just a dream , the r.a.n should have been given a good kick in the backside when they said the Japanese subs that Tony Abbott tried to buy where not good enough for them…. that decision has put the entire country at risk, it’s hight time the decision was taken out of the hands of bumbling buffoons dreaming about what they would like instead of what they can actually have . We can have the Korean boat or maybe a Japanese boat in the needed time frame that’s it! Someone please just make a choice and get on with it before we waste another decade .

  10. Australia has an strong history when it comes to purchasing military equipment, the submarine procurement is no exception. I’m no submarine expert yet gave series doubts that Australia will acquire Nuclear boats.

  11. Apparently no online comment section is immune from trolling, the premise of this article is perfectly sound.
    What isn’t sound was the Morrison government ignoring how appropriate the French Barracuda’s Low Enriched Uranium reactor would’ve been for Australia,
    1.it circumvents China’s objections and regional concerns re non-proliferation of weapons grade material.
    2.Australia has an abundant supply of uranium.
    3.so what if the reactor – vessel has to be taken out of service for 2-3months once a decade to refuel, submarines are routinely taken out of service for major refits that take years.
    If the Albanese government won’t risk the LNP media sh*t-storm of returning to France for the latest – most advanced & proven design of SSN available, then clearly a conventional stop gap or nuclear son of Collins project are the only options.
    What part of the US & UK’s repeated rejection of building Australia an SSN in the near future don’t people understand ? Both nations have made it abundantly clear they’re struggling to meet their own demand.
    As for vacuous claims about how much noisier conventional subs are compared to SSNs, when it matters most, a conventional vessel’s lethality lies in it’s capacity to ‘run silent’ by switching off its engines, SSN’s can’t shut down their reactors – reactor cooling systems.THAT is precisely why coventional submarines have delivered nasty surprises to the US Navy during excercise on several occasions, and why China, Russia and others continue to build them.
    Enjoy your commentary Kym, keep it coming.

    • Thanks. I agree with family much everything you have written. I have my suspicions that the French were dumped for little more than (then) Prime Minister Morrison’s desire to return to his comfort zone in the Anglosphere. Having said that, the management of Naval Group did not exactly cover themselves in glory either. The entire process that led to their selection was deeply flawed – but having said that the best nuclear powered submarine for Australia would have been a Barracuda. My understanding is that the refuelling process has been highly automated and only takes a few days.

      • Aha, I heard Professor Alan J. Kuperman declare lifetime LEU reactors were just aound the corner during his Australian visit last year, but obviously missed his claim in this Bulletin of Atomic Scientists piece that France can deliver periodic LEU refueling in less than a week. My original understanding was that refuelling of the Barracuda was scheduled to coincide with significant additional refurbishment in a 2-3 month timeframe, thanks for inspiring further research.
        https://thebulletin.org/2022/05/how-australias-new-leader-can-fix-the-submarine-deal/

        • Both are correct! See https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/france-can-help-albanese-fix-aukus
          “French submarines are equipped with refuelling hatches, so the time needed to remove the used fuel and insert fresh fuel is only about a week. Preparatory work, including removing the reactor’s steam generator, lengthens the process to as long as four months. Australia’s submarines would also need to transit from the Pacific to France and back, adding another two months. Thus, refuelling would require Australian submarines to be out of service for about six months every ten years. That downtime would be relatively minimal compared to the midlife maintenance that all submarines undergo, including US ones, typically requiring at least two years.”

  12. And we speak of the desire for sovereign capability whilst also putting out the bowl to beg. If Australia wishes to put to sea the fleet of SSN’s that AUKUS has so boldly declared then let us build all the foundations on which this future force will rely. Including a domestic nuclear power industry partnered with university academic research programs which will ultimately form a union with the Navy that will infact be a complete sovereign nuclear capability. As does every other nation whom possesses SSN’s today.

  13. I dont understand why neither Swedish subs or Kockums is getting a mention here. Their 4000 ton sub looks like a very good upgrade on our Collins class, yet nobody has mentioned them.

  14. Sorry Kym, this is a pretty bad article. Basically you are using a simple open letter from a pair of US senators who are concerned about the US military industrial base (hardly some earth shattering criticism of AUKUS) to push your pet ideas about you favorite conventional submarines. We don’t even know what the proposal is yet and you are making very grand claims about Australian industry’s capability and what is, and isn’t, possible. That seems to be rather presumptuous.

    We had a next generation conventional submarine that was about to enter production AND was specifically designed to meet Australian requirements, it was called the Attack class. We looked at all of the conventional options that were available and would meet Australia’s requirements (including the Swedes) and selected the Shortfin Barracuda. In the areas that matter most to the ADF (range, endurance, crewing amenities, firepower, stealth, CDS and performance) the Attack outclassed everything you mentioned here. Why, on god’s green earth, would we go through all of that effort to then cancel Attack because we have decided that conventional submarines do not meet our capability requirements, and then build something worse??? That seems to be a rather nonsensical position on its face. If we wanted an interim conventional submarine the Attack class was it. If the Shortfin Barracuda didn’t meet our capability requirements, then we can be sure nothing you have raised here will.

    Now, after the military has clearly stated that only a nuclear submarine will meet its next gen capability requirements, you want to just start building random conventional submarines, all of which need to be modified at the deign phase to meet Australian operational requirements (just as Attack was), with all the associated cost and risk, condemning the RAN to operating an entire generation of boats that it itself says will not allow it to complete the mission demanded of it? What an utter waste of time, money and capability. Plus, if the taxpayer is going to see a sound return on investment for these next generation conventional submarines, we should expect a 30 year service life. That means we wont see a nuclear boat until what, 2065? Great plan there mate. And that would be a “nuclear Collins” would it???

    Finally, you are just factually mistaken on some points. Both Lithium and AIP were absolutely considered in the competitive evaluation process for the Attack class (the TKMS proposal had both). Both were rejected for specific reasons, both safety, energy density, internal volume and indiscretion rate. Neither were deemed to be critical to the Attack’s capability (if they were they would have been included) and neither is a replacement for nuclear propulsion. Additionally, SSK’s are as much limited by the endurance of the crew as they are the physical amount of fuel they carry, so building naval bases on Christmas island (an expensive endeavor in and of itself), isn’t going to meaningfully increase your patrol time. Honestly, you don’t think the RAN has thought of this???

    Sorry mate, but this is not a constructive addition to the debate right now, given how much confusion there is in the general public.

    • Thanks Tim. There’s a lot to unpack there and I’m a bit pushed for time at the moment, so let me throw in a few quick observations: 1) the process leading to the selection of the Attack class was deeply flawed as it was a 3-way beauty contest, from which (bizarrely) Saab-Kockums were excluded. It only came about because of a failed bid to unseat Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, who had to create a “Competitive Evaluation Process” to save his own skin when it was clear that his preferred choice of buying submarines built in Japan was not going to work.

      To me, it always seemed like a thoroughly bad idea for the Attack class to take a perfectly good nuclear submarine and convert it to diesel-electric propulsion. In 1985 – when the RAN had far more experienced engineers than they do now – they rejected a similar proposal from France to sell us a Rubis nuclear powered submarine converted to conventional propulsion for what because the Collins program. It was a silly idea in 1985 and even sillier in 2016.

      This hangup about lithium-ion batteries is always a struggle for me. Japan has moved to them; South Korea is moving to them; even France – admittedly for the export market – is moving to them. A modern conventional submarine such as the KSS-III combining lithium-ion with AIP can patrol underwater completely silently for almost 20 days – performance that the Attack class could only have dreamt of. Not only were (are) Australia submariners averse to lithium-ion, but they are the only navy in the known universe that isn’t interest in AIP (another feature lacking in the Attack class).

      Finally (for now), Christmas Island – fly the crews in and out! It seems so blindly obvious and if the RAN has actually thought about it I would be fascinated to learn the details.

      The choice seems to be: a) do nothing and wait until 2050 in the hope that someone does something for us; or b) go for the best possible conventional submarine using the most advanced technologies available. I prefer b. If Australia relied solely on the professional judgement of the RAN we would still be operating an aircraft carrier with zero budget left over for either the RAAF or the Army.

    • Tim , Pretty much all of what you say about the Attack Class is correct, except one glaring omission. The Attack Class Project was all the things you claim, ON PAPER, very little in the way of actually getting it in the water was accomplished, by that I mean ticking all the boxes, including Budget, and laying a keel. If (and that’s a big if) the Attack Project could have been successfully completed all of what we wanted would have been delivered. Unfortunately it was never going to happen in the time frame or at the price Australia signed on for.

      • Michael, I’m only in partial agreement with that. In another post here I point out that taking a nuclear submarine and redesigning it for diesel-electric propulsion is a very bad idea. On top of that was the RAN’s insistence on using outdated technologies. It would be like trying to build them a new car but with the limitations of no automatic transmission, no ABS, and no airbags.

  15. Defence is the problem as always. When it comes to sub building every single sub builder has started with a version 1.0 and improved each version of that class, then built the next generation. That’s what submarine evolution is. The Collins had problems and like every first generation sub the bugs are worked out and designed out on the next generation. With all this time and money wasted, we are further behind than ever. We managed the ANZAC with a German company, why can’t we take the Collins design, add a mid section, employ Kawasaki Heavy Industries to supply the largest generators and use half the amount of diesel generators, add Li batteries. This in itself would give a substantial performance boost. There is nothing wrong with the Collins, except systems upgrades and longevity of the hull. Just update what we have to a generation where an add on nuclear propulsion which can be Pre-planned. We really are over thinking this whole submarine affair. The Collins is still one of the best conventional subs on the planet.

  16. India has nuclear subs. Couldn’t Australia work with them? Both would benefit from building something both can use?

    • Unfortunately I think that AUKUS is all about returning Australia to the Anglosphere. The quickest path to acquire a nuclear powered submarine would be to work with France, but there are no indications that will happen.

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