more that is known about the circumstances leading up to the September 16 announcement that Australia will acquire nuclear powered submarines the clearer it is that this was a high-level political decision. There is nothing wrong with that, but this one seems to be almost completely lacking in substance with Defence having to simultaneously wrap up existing contracts with Naval Group and Lockheed Martin while also starting work on how to go down the nuclear path.

According to the British media, the first indication that Australia was up to something was when our Chief of Navy VADM Noonan invited his UK counterpart First Sea Lord Sir Tony Radakin for a chat at the London High Commission in March. Without any forewarning or preparation, the Australian asked whether the UK and the US would be prepared to help Australia develop a fleet of nuclear submarines to better counter the growing threat of China.

The First Sea Lord apparently passed the buck to Sir Stephen Lovegrove, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence who then set up ‘Operation Hookless’ – a Top Secret effort to bring the Biden Administration on board and which involved a very small number of people. It appears that the UK negotiated with Washington on Australia’s behalf – which sounds a bit colonial and fits other parts of the narrative.

Meanwhile in Australia, the handful of people who knew about the deal kept the information to themselves and the impending move to completely scrap SEA 1000 and kick out the French was kept secret. Several sources have indicated that most of Defence – and all CASG, including the Attack class team – only knew what was happening the night before the announcement. Another part of the arrangement was that Australia was given the job of gently and tactfully explaining this to the French – and we can see how well that went.

This is an excerpt from APDR. To read the full story, click here.


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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.


  1. “Kick out the French”

    Best idea I have heard all day! But I blame the RAN Admirals more than the guvmint myself.

  2. Australia could have actually provided the french with an off ramp by agreeing to buy a one for replacement Scorpenes for the Collins instead of going for a LOTE. Conventional subs are going to be needed in any case and the Scorpenes with a TKMS Siemens PEMFC AIP could have been obtained in a reasonable timeline.

    Additionally, a direct explanation about opting for a US/UK HEU based fast attack fleet for operational ease could have been provided at an appropriate juncture. (This bit should fall on the RAN top brass who should have known better than to play along with this ‘diplomatic arson’.)

    That would have been a way better option rather than the egregious dog’s dinner of a communications hash that eventually unfolded. History of nuclear opposition in Australia and the systematically built up case for a large SSK over an SSN was conveniently ignored as having never happened. Canberra became the local franchise of ‘Bunglers R Us’ instead.

    PS: I wonder what gives some folks in the RAN the confidence that the US would simply make available the Block V Virginia SSN in toto as is…I will not be surprised if unpleasant surprises are sprung by uncle sam when the negotiations enter into ‘serious valley’.

    • I take the view that Australia should be looking at all possible realistic near term options. We seem to be repeating the mistake of SEA1000 Mk1, which had no Plan B and which the greatest Defence and RAN minds insisted for years would deliver a regionally superior submarine force. Let’s assume for a moment that in 18 months time the task force examining the nuclear propulsion option comes back and says: a) it’s not realistic without a domestic nuclear industry and b) creating that industry will take 25 years and $300 billion. What happens then?

      The Scorpene is a fine conventional submarine, though critics will say that its range is too short for RAN needs. That, in turn, is based on the view that Australia’s strategic interests are best served by the ability to conduct long patrols in the South China Sea (without refueling in Guam or even Singapore) – something of which I am not convinced.

      I agree absolutely that the idea of leasing a UK or US submarine in the next decade seems extremely optimistic – and optimism alone isn’t actually a plan.

  3. I agree with you that it is highly unlikely any RAN patrols within the first island chain might go unchallenged. Be it SSNs or even the once planned Shortfin Barracuda SSK, neither the ability nor the need to do so is rationally explained.

    I quite liked one Indian Navy presentation that looked at AEW, ASW, ASuW, Land attack etc as a single chessboard with offensive and defensive ‘pieces’. SSKs had their outer EEZ ranged role while midgets, UCAVs and UUVs had multiple roles from littoral brown waters to blue waters when used as part of a battle group. SSNs again were mainly attached to the battle group but could also be detached if need be.

    The beauty of it was all the networking between all the assets from India’s satellite constellation NaviC to the UAVs, P-8/IL-38 MPA, MH-60R ASW, Kamov-31 AEWs etc and the surface fleet and UUVs, SSNs and SSKs. While this networking idea is not rocket science, I believe instead of overt fixation of SSNs as some sort of proverbial silver bullet, I think Australia’s defence ministry needs to be spending time thinking of how a Chinese ORBAT might unfold and accordingly come up with a integrated networked strategy that rationally envisions roles for SSNs, SSKs, UUV, UCUVs etc. including levering up strike power through networking with USN and JMSDF etc…

    Anything else might simply end up becoming the equivalent of the biggest marble white elephant that Australia ever spent money on…hopefully Aus can soon get things right soon.

    • The idea that a submarine needs to lurk just outside an enemy harbor seems based on the outdated notion that in the middle of a moonless, foggy night their fleet will slip anchor and silently make it to the high seas undetected. As you very effectively point out, with the surveillance resources available today such scenarios are extremely unlikely. Australia benefits from access to US surveillance data as well as having considerable resources of its own, including the very capable JORN HF radar network. MQ-4C Tritons are on the way, along with electronic surveillance aircraft. To argue that a crewed platform needs to be physically present in an area of interest to know what is happening is misplaced in an era when advanced networked sensors combined with AI are producing results better than those coming from the human brain.


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