Australian news, and some related international items

Nuclear zealot Jonathon Mead – in charge of the nuclear submarine deliberations? Wants to “cultivate a nuclear mindset”

Mead’s Nuclear Powered Submarine Taskforce will deliver recommendations on options to the government….. it can only be done with the unfettered support of all three nations.…… the support of the Australian people will be essential for the plan to work.


Cultivating a nuclear mindset, By Brendan Nicholson, October 27, 2022

After a year of intense research, the head of a 350-strong Defence taskforce is confident the Royal Australian Navy will be equipped with nuclear-powered submarines.

Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead tells The Australian’s Defence Special Report he believes “absolutely” that the massive and highly complex industrial-scale endeavour is viable.

Set up after the AUKUS technology sharing agreement was signed by Australia, the US and UK a year ago, Mead’s Nuclear Powered Submarine Taskforce will deliver recommendations on options to the government by March next year and he says the work is on track.

The government will choose the design. Mead says a range of options has emerged. He won’t be drawn on specifics but says it can only be done with the unfettered support of all three nations. “We are providing options to our government on what we think is the optimum pathway, and we are working on that with our partners. I am very confident that we will be in a position for government to make an announcement next year on an optimal pathway, in conjunction with the other nations’ leaders.”

Mead cautions that a whole-of-government approach with very strong backing from industry and the support of the Australian people will be essential for the plan to work. “Defence cannot do this by itself. This social licence is a very important aspect for us. We need Australians to have confidence in our ability to build and operate these submarines.”

Submarines operate at the highest end of war fighting capability, says Mead, and they deliver significant deterrence. “When you put a nuclear-powered submarine (SSN) in the mix, you’ve got almost an exponential increase in speed, manoeuvrability, survivability, endurance, lethality in their ability to launch long range missiles, to operate around the region and to protect Australia.”

The government had made it clear that submarines were a fundamental part of Australia’s defence capability. Defence Minister Richard Marles has said the need for haste is dictated by deteriorating strategic circumstances, sharpening competition and rapid military modernisation.

The task force recommendations will go to the government at the same time as the Defence Strategic Review by former defence and foreign minister Stephen Smith and former Defence force chief Sir Angus Houston.

“We are briefing them so that they can take on board our body of work as well,” Mead says.

Members of Mead’s team often work through the night in talks with the US and UK partners. They include personnel from all three services, the Lucas Heights reactor, from the nuclear regulator and a range of departments.

He won’t comment on the argument that an interim conventionally powered submarine will be needed to avoid a capability gap, but he says the government has given him very clear direction to develop options that will deliver the nuclear-powered capability “in an expeditious manner”.

“I’m only looking at nuclear,” he says. “We are working with the US and UK on a range of options that we think can deliver the capability in an expeditious timeframe.”

Any decision to opt for an interim conventional submarine would be up to the government and Defence.

No one doubts that the submarine force will be eye-wateringly expensive.

The taskforce proposal will be presented to the government at the same time as the results of the Smith/Houston strategic review – and at a time of economic pressures and invidious trade-offs when the world is emerging from the Covid pandemic while facing a dangerous strategic environment. Marles has undertaken to strengthen the lethality and deterrent effect, but that assurance comes as demands for support for services such as the NDIS and veteran’s welfare increase.

With a strong social agenda, the government faces painful choices as it deals with a complex set of interlocking problems, and clear choices on ADF capabilities will be vital.

The review will focus on strengthening the ADF’s deterrent effect by getting sophisticated weapons and platforms into the hands of its men and women faster. Areas for rapid development include hypersonics and cyber. Some programs will be accelerated. The reviewers will be looking at options, possibly other than submarines, for long range strike capability. Missiles and long-range bombers such as the B-21 will be in that mix.

Australia needs to be able to defend itself against sophisticated threats – and to give an adversary pause to consider whether an attack is a good idea. While much is discussed about potential flashpoints such as Taiwan, Australia must be able to defend itself against unexpected threats.

Threats may come in the traditional “domains” of sea, land and air – or in the shape of cyber-attacks, or threats to democracy. Greater interdependencies mean threats coming from different domains at once, more lethal and with greater range. Great power adversaries can operate in all these domains making defending against them much more complex and expensive.

While there’s a need for hard power to deter, that can’t be the only focus. Defending the nation means putting more resources into diplomacy to develop deeper relationships with neighbours, and improving intelligence gathering to ensure threats are identified and understood as they develop. While Australia must be strong enough to deal with actors who see conflict as a means of getting their way, it needs to reassure friends that it has a defensive mindset…………………………

As these debates evolve, Mead has identified the optimal pathway to SSNs, with nine components underpinning the daily work of the task force. “If we can’t put a green tick to each of those nine components, then the boat becomes almost a meaningless concept,” he says.

First is Australia’s strategic situation and the policies set by the government to deal with it.

………. Mead won’t say where the design choice will land – on the US Virginia or the SSNX to follow it, Britain’s Astute which is about to go out of production, or the SSNR which will follow it. Or something else.

“Clearly these are decisions for government, and not just our government, but also the partners. They need to put it through their political systems.”

He says nuclear submarines will be built in Australia. “That’s very important to ensure Australia has a sovereign capability. They are likely to be built on land earmarked for the previous Attack-class submarine project on land adjacent to South Australia’s Osborne Naval Shipyard.”

Number five is the need to set up an industrial base that can support nuclear-powered submarines and a supply chain to build and maintain them – and to provide components for partner submarines, optimising the industrial bases of all three countries.

“If we are building a component for an Australian build and that’s what our partners need, then it would be wise for us to identify things we can assist them with. All countries have constrictions and bottlenecks.”

Teams from the US and UK have visited Australia to see what might be available here………….

An option is for Australia to do a deeper level of maintenance on US and UK submarines during their visits to bases such as HMAS Stirling, in WA. That could gradually increase to major maintenance.

“We need to start sending people from our industrial base to the US and UK to be embedded in their construction and maintenance yards so that when submarines visit Australia our people will have the necessary experience. ……….

For six months, Australian submariners have been working in US submarines “at the back end where the reactor is”. The UK has also committed to embarking Australians on its boats.

…………….There are signs all over the task force precinct stressing the importance of building a “nuclear mindset”, and each member’s ID card comes with that message.

Mead notes a report by the US director of Naval Reactors that in 65 years of operation, US Navy nuclear-powered warships and their support facilities have had no discernible effect on public health or the environment.

“It’s safe for the people, and it’s safe for the environment. We intend to learn from the US and UK so that we can demonstrate identical standards,” he says. “This nuclear mindset is a way of thinking within our people, within navy, and within other areas of the department…………..

………………………..Mead says the ninth crucial element is the need to clearly explain to Australians, and to the US and UK, what the program is all about and how the safety and reliability of the submarines can be assured.

-Brendan Nicholson is editor of ASPI’s commentary and analysis site, The Strategist.


October 27, 2022 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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