Australian news, and some related international items

Options for Australia’s nuclear submarines – all of them impractical

Nuclear-powered submarines for Australia: what are the options? The Strategist , 20 Jan 2022, Pete Sandeman   The political and strategic ramifications of the AUKUS pact involving the US, UK and Australia continue to reverberate, but the details of how Australia will acquire nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) have often been overlooked. There are daunting technical, industrial and financial challenges on the long road to joining that club.

Even the acquisition of conventional submarines isn’t easy and projects completed on time and budget are rare. Nuclear propulsion adds another layer of complexity and cost, and the engineering challenge has been described as more demanding than building the space shuttle. There are good reasons why SSN ownership is limited to a small group of elite nations—the US, Russia, China, the UK, France and India. (With considerable French assistance, Brazil is on track to have its first nuclear boat in the late 2020s.)

………. Some commentators suggest that Australia’s first boats at least could be bought off UK or US production lines. Alternatively, old or ‘surplus’ submarines could be leased until new vessels are available. These assumptions are at odds with the US Navy’s and Royal Navy’s struggles with bringing new boats into service and maintaining ageing vessels.

…….Defence Minister Peter Dutton has said the RAN is considering leasing boats from the USN or RN but that’s far from a certainty. The RN is already severely short of active boats—nominally down to six SSNs, and able to field two or three on a good day. The USN is trying to maintain its existing force, struggling to build enough new Virginia-class SSNs while its Los Angeles-class boats are phased out. However supportive of Australia the UK may be, it has no suitable boats available to lease. The US has a far bigger fleet with 28 Los Angeles boats still active, but its force is already overcommitted and Washington is unlikely to offer anything, except perhaps a recently retired boat as a static training vessel.

Neither the US nor UK keeps submarines ‘in reserve’. The UK has already expensively extended the 1980s-vintage Trafalgar-class boats well past their 30th birthdays. None of the growing collection of decommissioned hulks could be returned to service with all the funds and will in the world. Their nuclear fuel is spent, and they would need colossally expensive refits and refuelling. More critically, submarines have finite hull lives. Every dive fatigues the pressure hull and pipework to a point where safe diving becomes severely restricted or the boat becomes unseaworthy. Older boats become increasingly hard to maintain and struggle to retain their all-important minimal acoustic signature.

The US has a more effective submarine dismantling program than the UK and its LA-class boats are gradually being scrapped. The inactive boats that remain intact are equally tired and some were withdrawn from service prematurely to avoid the cost of mid-life refuelling. There’s a slim chance that one or two of these boats could see further service with the RAN but only at enormous expense, and refitting them would put more strain on overburdened US industrial capacity.

………. Some suggest the Astute’s the best solution, optimistically proposing that the first couple be built in the UK before technology transfer enables the remaining six to be made in Australia. ……   Unfortunately, there are almost insurmountable obstacles to the class ever numbering more than seven.

In the UK, completion of the remaining Astute-class boats is finely balanced with the construction of the Dreadnought-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and there’s not space in the shipyard or skilled people available to add additional boats….

People didn’t prepare for nuclear submarine exports and AUKUS was a bolt from the blue.

Assuming money was no object, new engineers could be recruited and the Barrow facilities could be enlarged, the project would still be in trouble because the Astute’s PWR-2 reactor no longer meets modern safety benchmarks and production has almost ceased……

Even if additional PWR-2 reactors could be acquired and the Astute boats could be constructed in Australia, they’d be semi-obsolete when they began to arrive in service by the late 2030s.

…………..  Although the USN benefits from an established design and an industrial base that’s vastly more efficient than that of the RN, the yards and supply chain will need to expand significantly to fulfil the ambitious plans to grow the USN fleet. A recent report to Congress noted that ‘observers have expressed concern about the industrial base’s capacity for executing such a workload without encountering bottlenecks or other production problems in one or both of these programs’.

The USN also has issues maintaining its existing submarines. …………………..

When the AUKUS announcement was made, the Australian government promised to acquire at least eight nuclear submarines to be built by ASC in South Australia. There’s limited submarine building experience left at ASC since the Collins boats were completed in the early 2000s. The deal with the French to build Attack-class boats included technology transfer to regenerate the skills base. Whatever SSN design is selected, greater assistance will be needed from the UK or US. With limited nuclear infrastructure, Australia is unlikely to be able to enrich uranium to fuel the reactors. It’s likely that the reactor compartments will have to be imported pre-fabricated from the US or UK. The entire submarine enterprise will require Australia to establish a new safety and regulatory framework.

……….   Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said of the AUKUS deal: ‘There is no design, no costing, no contract. The only certainty is that we won’t have new submarines for 20 years, and their cost will be a lot more than the French subs.’ This is broadly correct. The eventual acquisition of SSNs is possible, but there are many potential showstoppers. The single biggest factor will probably be just how much the US government is willing to prioritise industrial assistance to the RAN at the expense of growing and supporting its own submarine fleet. The US has only ever exported nuclear technologies to Britain and must amend its laws to do the same for Australia.

A couple of elderly SSNs might be available for lease in the 2030s, but realistically it will be the 2040s before the RAN has sufficient SSNs to exert a strategic effect. The geopolitical situation could be vastly different then, and growing Chinese power and influence won’t wait for others to attain parity. The Australian public will also have to buy in to a project needing political commitment for decades and the RAN will have to lean heavily on allies and provide an enormous budget to cover the true financial costs of nuclear ownership.

Pete Sandeman is the main writer and editor of the UK site Navy Lookout, which he founded in 2007. He is a regular contributor to Warships International Fleet Review magazine and a member of the UK’s Independent Defence Media Association. This is an edited version of a piece he wrote for Navy Lookout.

January 22, 2022 - Posted by | AUSTRALIA - NATIONAL

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