https://www.babcock.com.au/?utm_source=Asia+Pacific+Defence+Reporter&utm_campaign=66b9ebf6a6-RSS_News+BuEMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_513319f9bb-66b9ebf6a6-52449029The words of any U.S. President are hugely consequential and when Joe Biden said that Virginia class submarines will be sold to Australia, many people seem to assume that the deal has been done.  However, this overlooks the reality of how Washington operates.  It is also a statement based on two important assumptions, both of which could change in the decade or so before the submarines are due to be delivered.

President Biden said of the Virginia class:

“They feature cutting-edge propulsion technology, provide unmatched stealth and manoeuvrability.  And with the support and approval of Congress, beginning in the early 2030s, the United States will sell three Virginia-class submarines to Australia with the potential to sell up to two more if needed, jumpstarting their undersea capability a decade earlier than many predicted.”

The first thing to focus on is the timing – why the early 2030s?  The Americans say that Australia needs time to prepare for their arrival with the need to build facilities and train crews.  This is true – but it ignores the most important part of the equation: the need for the U.S. to ramp up the construction tempo of the Virginia class.

At the moment, they are being launched at a rate of one or two per year, averaging out at 1.5 every twelve months, or to put it more realistically – because no one wants half a submarine – three Virginia class are completed every two years.  We don’t know what has been said behind closed doors, but it is highly likely that Australia will be sold submarines when the U.S. has excess capacity to build them – and reaching that goal is still some time away.

Nothing else makes sense – and certainly the USN will not deprive itself of submarines deemed vital to the national interest just to be nice to Australia.  There seems to be general agreement in Washington that just to maintain a healthy edge over China and other rivals such as Russia, the drumbeat for Virginia class production will need to increase to at least two per year.

This ramp-up is indeed currently taking place.  There are only two companies in the U.S. able to produce nuclear-powered submarines: General Dynamics Electric Boat (EB) and Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII).  In the case of the Virginia class, Electric Boat undertakes final assembly and integration, with construction of hull modules evenly distributed between the two builders.

Both companies are investing in people and facilities to support increased submarine production, which also needs to factor in the Columbia class SSBNs that are the highest priority of all.  The wording of the AUKUS statements indicates that Australia will now also pour money into this expansion process.

Nuclear-powered SSNs are complex beasts, with each one comprising an estimated ten million components – so that’s an enormous supply chain that needs to be mobilised.  Gearing up for more nuts and bolts is easy – but stepping up the construction of naval reactors are orders of magnitude more challenging.

If all goes well, the U.S. industrial base might have enough excess capacity by the early 2030s to sell Virginia class submarines to Australia – although a far more likely scenario will be to keep the USN happy by giving them the new boats, allowing them to offload older ones in the series.  This might also suit the RAN since the first in the series, being slightly less complex, might be preferred for training purposes.

They will still presumably have plenty of life left in them – the very first Virginia was commissioned in 2004 – because otherwise that would defeat the point of the exercise.  Even a few oldish submarines will have considerable deterrent capability, though at a truly eye-watering cost.

The second factor is the rate of growth of the Chinese navy – the PLA(N).  The current expansion of the U.S. industrial base is predicated on the linear growth in China’s submarine numbers.  However, if Beijing really presses the accelerator pedal – using the AUKUS submarine announcement as justification – then the production of the Virginia class will need to match that, meaning that there will be no spare submarines for Australia until way in the future.

China’s industrial base is larger than that of the U.S. – which has been shrinking for three decades – though still lagging in some areas of very advanced electronics.  In another ten years this dynamic might have changed, putting Washington under even greater pressure to prioritise the needs of the USN.

If in the early 2030s the U.S.N. Chief of Naval Operations advises Congress that there is a dangerous shortfall in SSN numbers because a) the ramp up has not been as successful as planned; or b) China has more submarines than expected; or c) a combination of both; what will Congress do?  Will it honour the words of a President spoken 10 years previously, or will it prioritise the interests of the U.S.?

This is even without the possibility of the re-election of an isolationist figure such as Donald Trump – or the future election of a Trump-like figure.

Asia Pacific Defence Reporter


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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.

56 COMMENTS

  1. The plan is the first three would be second hand, the optional two would be new build.
    The Australian decommissioning plan has them being retired from Australian service between 2055 and 2065 and the first one entering service in the early 2030’s. Given an average 33 year life for the reactors that would mean they were an average of 5-8 years old when transferred to Australian service meaning we are likely looking at hulls completed between 2025 and 2030. I will go out on a limb and say that means its likely to be the last three Block IV boats completed that will be transferred.

    • Your maths seems accurate. To put it another way: Australia will be pumping untold amounts into the US system so that they can build more new submarines for themselves, but in turn will sell us second-hand Virginia class boats (if they are even available).

      That doesn’t sound like a particularly good way to spend a lot of money. On the other hand, it’s a great deal for the US and the UK.

      • It’s 2.5 billion to the US and 500 million to the UK hardly untold amounts. That was in the Government briefing on the day of the announcement, sorry Mr Bergman but DSME won’t be building us an interim conventional submarine.

        • I actually had in mind the overall project costs of around $300 billion, but let’s not worry about that. You might not think $3 billion is particularly consequential – but I do. What are we getting for that? Has someone negotiated a contract or are we handing over money in the hope that it will do us some good?

          Of course we won’t be contracting with DSME – or anyone else in the short term – because it’s going to take several years for the full extent of this to become unglued. Maybe it will all be fine but after all of the assurances we received from Defence and the RAN about the wonders of the “regionally superior” Attack class I’m amazed that these people have any credibility left. In the meantime we will get the chant from Defence that everything is on time and on budget.

          • getting bugger all for $368Billion. Like all US defence contracts, the bill will increase

      • from Rex Patrick
        @MrRexPatrick
        ·
        Feb 8
        ·
        So uncertain is the #AUKUS submarine scheme, defence experts are already canvassing alternatives. But the reality is that @DefenceAust
        ‘s chronic mismanagement is such that everything and anything will come unstuck without sweeping leadership change #auspol

  2. Why is Trump isolationist? Because he didn’t start a war and insisted europe pay its way? Your article stinks of TDS.

    • 1. Scrapped the Iran nuclear deal; 2. Withdrew from the Paris climate change accords; 3. Threatened to pull US troops out of the RoK unless Seoul paid more cash; 4. Mulled pulling out of NATO; 5. Preferred the advice of Putin over that of US intelligence agencies; 6. OK this might not be an example of isolationism just stupidity – tried to buy Greenland when it wasn’t even for sale. My article was about the AUKUS and nuclear submarines – Trump is mentioned once in the final sentence.

      • all good. Wise man. Also, we will have a better chance of getting subs from Trump as he has stated publicly he wants allies to pull their own weight. I agree

  3. Precisely Kym ! and even if reality follows yesterday’s apple pie in the sky script, there’s that inconvenient 1 in 3 rule re sub availability (1 operational, 1 in maintenance and 1 coming out of maintenance – engaged in training) that many are ignoring with the no doubt staggered arrival of 3 used Virginia’s, effectively saddling Australia with just 1 operational nuclear vessel amid a pile of rotting Collins, until the first of the non existant SSN AUKUS class arrives, right on time with zero delays – teething issues, two decades from now…dream on Australia. The mindless outright rejection of the Barracuda’s PROVEN zero proliferation issue LEU reactor, inside its PROVEN state of the art automated body that operates with a Collins size crew, has this little black duck praying for a quantum leap in UCV technology, delivering a Ghost Shark fleet on steroids over the next decade.

    • The lack of interest in the nuclear-propelled version of the Barracuda is completely astounding, as is the blind faith that AUKUS will fix all of our problems for us.

      • “I’ll tell you something else which I don’t think the media knows, but I know. The French government have offered the Australian government a new deal on the new French nuclear submarine, the newest one in the world, 5 per cent only enriched uranium, not 95 per cent weapons grade. Delivery firm date 2034, fixed prices. No response have the French had to that.”
        Paul Keating – AUKUS response, National Press Club Address, Wednesday 15th of March, 2023

          • The reason Australia was not interested in the French offer, especially given the lessons learned from their disgraceful contract compliance with the Attack class, is that the subs would have had to be refuelled, in France, every decade, meaning we hand over the operational control of our subs to a country not committed to the same priorities as Australia, one year every ten.
            If France doesn’t like our national policies on something they have strong feelings on, they slow down or stop work on our subs to force Australia into compliance.
            Think that’s unlikely? Ask Russia about their two French built LPDs, now flying the flags of Egypt against Russia’s wishes.
            As for Keating, he’s a bitter old politician with a chip on his shoulder about America, suffering from relevancy deprivation syndrome.

          • You are correct about refuelling but it would be interesting to explore if that could be done in Australia by Australians. It’s complicated by the fact that we don’t have a civil nuclear power industry. We refuel the Lucas Heights reactor with LEU every 10 years – with the assistance of France.

            As I recall, the French action regarding Russia was over that country’s illegal annexation of Crimea and was required under sanctions widely agreed to including the US. Germany pulled the plug on a huge and lucrative training centre contract in Russia for the same reason. Maybe if those sanctions had been tougher and more countries complied with them circumstances would now be different.

            I strongly disagree with the way that Keating expressed himself, but not necessarily with all of the content.

  4. You’ve made some fair points above which should be on the ‘risk register’, however putting the French option aside for a moment, what other options are available to us re a nuclear boat? If we want to transition to SSNs as soon as possible, the Virginia is the only option. Saying that, If the US said we’ll deliver you one next month, we couldn’t take it as we are just not ready and won’t be for a while.
    While yes there is a risk of a future administration backing out, we have to take that with all the other risks.

    There’s been a lot of commentary in the last few days around why we’re opting for two classes of boats and how complicated it would be. However, when you transition between one class to another normally you would have an overlap of two classes. As far as I can see it, the Virginia’s will be an interim gap filler and training capability that will likely be returned to the US as the SSNR comes online, primarily because they’re all that’s available. If there were ‘spare’ Astutes available, then I wouldn’t mind getting that that’s what we would’ve gone to until SSN R is ready.

    On the topic of the French option, it’s likely going to be 20 yrs before we’re likely to see any archived cabinet info on what led to that projects scrapping. However, and please no tomato throwing, I’d like to think that somebody saw a decent red flag behind a French Nuclear Barracuda option that lead us to avoid it. We in the public realm are never going to be privy to the classified side of things, so we need to accept that.

    • My preference has always been for an interim conventional submarine with the most promising option being the Korean KSS-III Batch 2, which if ordered quickly could be delivered in 2030. The RAN never wanted that – and I think it’s a bit too convenient that the US has come up with this very surprising offer of 3 Virginia class about 10 years from now. Regarding the nuclear Barracuda, I think you give our government far too much credit. I believe it was never given serious consideration not because of any technical issues but because the previous government – and now seemingly this one – are happy to return to the comfort of the Anglosphere and not worry too much about sovereignty and an independent foreign policy.

      • The reason we don’t want Korean subs is they are unable to deploy across the distances the RAN deploys the Collins, not without the creation of a number of forward deployed sub tenders to support them, jacking the cost up significantly.

        The Korean subs deploying to RIMPAC have to refuel and restore at Guam before making the journey to Hawaii, and the same on the return journey.

        • I’ll check that – it doesn’t line up with my information. It certainly isn’t the case for the new KSS-III Batch 2 which will exceed the range/endurance figures for Collins. It has a 6-cell VLS that could be removed for even greater range. Personally, I would keep the VLS.

      • i would have gone for the type 212 or A26 and then gone with the New generation British boat or French nuke boat. Have a mixed fleet. D/E subs will always be useful

        • Yes, I think that strategy would have made more sense. As I’ve written, the KSS-III Batch 2 is also worth a look. By 2040 the PLA(N) will be holding drills in the Tasman Sea if they want to. At that time being able to conduct lengthy patrols in the South China Sea will be a very low priority – and would best be done by XL-AUVs.

    • BH, you don’t have to wait 20 years for the truth about the nuclear Barracuda’s suitability or Morrison’s duplicitous sabotage of the contract, both were exposed in early 2022.
      Documents obtained under FOI which included email between Secretary of Defence, Greg Moriarty and project head Rear Admiral Greg Sammut, confirmed that the submarine program for the new Attack-class subs was on track, was in good shape, was progressing well, and was well within its budget.
      Moriarty stated he was so pleased with the project that he was going to ensure positive messages were passed on to the French Government at the 2 + 2 ministerial meeting held on the 30th of August 2021 – barely two weeks before Morrison cancelled the contract and announced the AUKUS deal.
      Reflecting on what strategies he would have recommended if Morrison’s decision to move from a conventionally powered subs to nuclear was shared with the program, the document’s author Kym Gillis (former Department of Defence deputy secretary brought into contract negotiations by former defence minister Christopher Pyne) said “an open and honest dialogue with your submarine partner” as “first point of call” — and all the options for a nuclear vessel being openly evaluated.
      “It would be prudent for the Commonwealth to include the [French] Suffren Class submarine option in any evaluation of a future nuclear submarine capability.
      “It is the most modern nuclear submarine in the world. It is at a size, crewing and capability that best fits the Australian requirements. It is the most cost-effective nuclear submarine solution both for construction and sustainment and critically it utilises Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) as a source for power generation making it fully compliant with both the rules and intent of the IAEA and Australia’s commitments to support Nuclear non-proliferation.
      “And finally and critically to the defence of Australia it is the only option that offers full sovereignty over the deployment of the asset. Neither of the US or UK options will provide a sovereign capability and we would be reliant on operational preapprovals from the US to operate and deploy our most important Defence assets.”

      https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-09-16/leaked-document-officials-kept-in-dark-over-french-submarines/101445670

      https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-02-03/malcolm-turnbull-slams-the-%E2%80%98diplomatic-debacle%E2%80%99/13740378

        • A couple of downright falsehoods here. LEU does not make it compliant with IAEA. Simply because that LEU can be easily removed when the boat is refuelled every 10 years and could be if the political will and intent was available be further enriched to HEU, which again a misnomer is not weapons grade at all, highly enriched but weapons grade it is not it would need further processing in order to do that. As it stands we are not in breach of any IAEA or NPT protocols no matter which way you want to spin. Don’t like the outcome then lobby the IAEA to change the rules which is precisely what China is trying to do although without a great deal of success. As the President of the IAEA recently stated he will not be coerced by any country no matter what their objections to AUKUS may be.

          • i did read elsewhere LEU propulsion is not subject to any treaty, I personally wouldn’t know

      • it is possible if we went with French nuke boat, the USA may have objected. They tend to stick their noses into our submarine concerns, always spruiking we need their combat system. Doesn’t matter what nation we see, they make is but their product

        French boat would be great

  5. The French Nuclear option would of seen Australia sending the Boats back to France up to two times each for refuelling, given we have no Nuclear industry, facilities, or indeed experience.
    Of course, the French, bless them, would be tripping over themselves to offer this after sales support. But the cost would make our current offer look like good value.
    I agree with you though Kym regarding the interim Conventional option. Diesel Boats can still do some things better than an SSN, and since we are opting for a choice that involves operating two classes of Sub, then we would be no worse off.
    Or………..The Collins are pretty good overall, but have suffered from the usual press sniping, invariably initiated by poor, lazy ‘reporting’. The proposed LOTE would bring them up to date and get us closer to the early 2040’s. But in reality, who cares if we have a sovereign capability gap whilst waiting for the SA built AUKUS Boats. With British and American SSN’s based at HMAS Stirling, partly crewed by RAN personnel, some under training, we effectively have coverage until we can effectively contribute materially to force numbers.

    • I think more work should have been done to understand exactly how a Barracuda is refuelled. The nuclear heights research reactor uses LEU and it is refuelled every 10 years – with assistance from France.

      • Precisely Kym ! furthermore, LEU Naval reactors that deliver the same one off fuelling capacity as current US/UK HEU reactors are anticipated by the 2040s according to US experts.

        • I simply don’t understand this hankering for LEU. Your still having to deal with HLW regardless. Plutonium, Strontium-90 and Caesium 134-137 is a by product of nuclear fission you cant have nuclear fission without producing this waste regardless of whether you use HEU or LEU. Refuelling every 10 years up from every 7 years from the previous Rubis class is a very dangerous and not a simple job. As is conversely removing and spent reactor and associated products. What using HEU allows us to do is not have to go through that process every 10 years I see nothing wrong with that. For those that have issues and arguments regarding the NPT those arguments in their minds would be valid whether you use HEU or LEU.

          • The objection to HEU is mainly because of the very bad example it sets regarding nuclear non-proliferation. In theory, there should now no longer be any objections to Russia or North Korea selling an HEU-powered submarine to Iran or Myanmar. The experts say that converting that HEU into nuclear warheads is a relatively straightforward process that could be carried out in between IAEA inspections.

            By the way, someone needs to explain to the State premiers that there is no nuclear waste associated with the AUKUS submarines because they will never be refuelled. However, there is a very serious issue of what to do with the submarines after they have been decommissioned. Britain hasn’t solved that problem and there are about 20 old submarines tied up in the hope that future generations will solve the problem. The situation is the same for Russia. The US disposes of theirs, but that’s an expensive process that hopefully has been factored in to the $368 billion estimate for the project.

    • agreed re conventional. Type 212s or A26 as well as Nuclear boats. Mixed fleet for different duties.

      French boats refuelled once. However it’s worth it as French don’t interfere with our sovereignty, and even the frogs couldn’t go to $368Billion

    • Suffren needs refuelling once in it’s lifetime at 10 year mark. Happy cruisin another 10 years. and could be refuelled in Australia from Lucas heights if arrangements were made as they refuelled from civilian power stations

        • indeed. They could do it if equipped for it. Not that technically difficult French have 53 civilian nuke power stations. They refuel their subs from those stations. All it would take would be to make it part of the contract and equip Lucas Heights, same with any other required servicing

  6. The State premiers know if one casually reads the Nations tabloids that there will be waste to be disposed of in Australia. It has been stated that by Mr Marles that it will be on defence land already held or yet to be purchased. Its a bit rich to use another countries reactor and technology and then expect them to dispose of it. North Korea is a nuclear weapon state, they don’t need Russia or China to supply it for them they are well capable of producing it themselves. Incidently who do you think provided them with with the technology and industrial capacity to do that? The very same one which is moaning and groaning about our SSN’s, hypocritical isn’t if thats not proliferation I don’t know what is.

  7. The issue facing the RN in disposing of radioactive waste, is primarily one of cost and lack of political will. The most problematic part of the process is the issue of core decay which generates a lot of heat and this needs to be managed appropriately no matter where your geography is. You simply can’t bury a reactor and its components and call it a day. These spent reactors will need to be cooled for x amount of years until the issue of thermal decay is, well no longer an issue. Countries the world over for 70 years have been able to do it, there is no plausible reason we cannot.

    • When you say countries around the world have been doing it for 70 years that doesn’t seem to apply to all nuclear-powered submarines. As I wrote, both Russia and the UK have no solution other than to tie up their retired subs in a distant harbour and hope for the best. I suppose that’s better than sinking them in a deep ocean trench, but not much.

      • With the Russians it is simply the product of a corrupt, broke system. With the UK and one can only assume it is more likely the fact that it must cooled until nuclear decay is no longer an issue. Therefore it is highly likely that those boats are still well maintained regarding the primary cooling circuit allowing for the management of thermal decay unlike the Russians who would do something similar, but under a much looser regulatory framework. To not do it means almost certain rupture of the containment vessel with all of the attendant hazards that will entail.

  8. Apologies I missed your reference to Iran and Myanmar. Firstly to Myanmar, they would never be able to afford to enrich it, they would never be able produce an appropriate delivery system, their industrial capacity is more anaemic than ours, I could go on and on. Iran is already well advanced and its efforts to become a nuclear weapon state known for decades. Again ask yourself who has given them that expertise, I would say to a certainty the same countries who are the loudest critics of AUKUS.

    • Iran’s nuclear program was launched in the 1950s with the help of the United States. On 5 March 1957, a “proposed agreement for cooperation in research in the peaceful uses of atomic energy” was announced under the Eisenhower administration’s Atoms for Peace program.

      According to U.S. intelligence assessments, Tehran has the capacity to produce nuclear weapons at some point, but has halted its nuclear weapons program and has not mastered all of the necessary technologies for building such weapons

      • Thanks Mr B’stard. Iran became the pet of the U.S. after they managed to get rid of that democratically elected irritating Mr Mossaddegh in a CIA backed revolt in 1953. That, in turn, led to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 – and here we are today.

  9. I know this is an old report but as yet nobody has explained to me how the R.A.N. Is going to man the Virginia Class Boats ( a crew of 153 ). The Collins has a crew of only 58 ( originally 42 and by all reports unable to crew all the Boats all the time). By my reckoning that means in total we have 348 Submariners,not counting reserve crews (one would assume we have reserve crews) Simple maths tell you at best we can only fully crew two Virginias and that’s assuming every R.A.N. Submariner is qualified to operate a nuclear boat. It just doesn’t add up unless I’m missing something. This isn’t a satirical post, I’m genuinely intrigued how they intend to do it.

  10. I know This is an old report but Nobody has explained how the R.A.N will be able to crew 3 Virginia Class Boats (each with a crew of 153) when by all reports they struggle to crew 3 Collins Class Boats (with a crew of 58) . I’m genuinely intrigued how they propose to do it..

    • You are correct in identifying this as yet another problem that needs to be overcome. I guess the easiest solution in theory is to substantially increase the pay for submariners – and that will not only lure more Australians in that direction but also ex USN and RN personnel. It all adds more uncertainty and more money required for a capability that – in my opinion – has not yet been justified. At least not to the extent of justifying the enormous amount of money that is going to be spent. I have only half-jokingly written that for maximum deterence it would be cheaper and simpler to develop our own nuclear weapons.

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