Australian news, and some related international items

Scott Morrison’s booby trap: Buying US nuclear submarines is a huge mistake. Clinton Fernandes. Academic and former intelligence officer. 28 Dec 22,

Submarines are in the news a lot these days. Nuclear-powered ones especially.

There is no doubt that submarines are an essential defence capability for a maritime nation like Australia. They raise the stakes for any adversary contemplating hostile action against us. Submarines are expensive, but countermeasures against them are much more expensive. They allow the government to act at a time of its choosing and under any realistic threat scenario.

Australia’s defence interests would be better served by conventionally powered submarines, not nuclear-powered ones. Air-independent propulsion (AIP) submarines are a proven technology. They go as deep as nuclear-powered submarines and can lurk in an area for months. They convert chemical energy into electric power at high efficiencies, and can go for up to three weeks without having to surface to recharge their batteries, a process known as “snorkelling”. Their hydrogen fuel cells and Stirling engines are much quieter than nuclear-powered submarines, which have large meshing gears between their steam turbines and propellers and must also keep their reactor cooling pumps running

AIP submarines are lighter as well. They are better at shallow water operations. They are considerably cheaper than nuclear-powered boats, meaning many more could be purchased, with more local maintenance jobs throughout the life of the boats.

Japan, South Korea and Singapore use air-independent propulsion submarines, as do Norway, Sweden, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Italy. So does Israel, a nuclear-capable state.

As former submariner and senator Rex Patrick has argued, Australia could have 20 modern, off-the-shelf submarines built in Australia and enhanced by Australian industry, for $30 billion. By contrast, the eight nuclear-powered boats may cost as much as $171 billion. Conventional submarines would free up funds so that Australia can acquire more fighter jets, a $40 billion industry resilience package, a national shipping fleet, long-range rockets and other artillery systems, utility helicopters, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, and more.

As the weeks and months pass by, the mirage of Australian nuclear-powered submarines will stay as alluring as ever, and as out of reach as ever, with the Labor government persisting, however absurd and expensive this theatre becomes.

They don’t seem to understand that Scott Morrison booby-trapped the defence self-reliance of this country. Some submarines will eventually be located in Australia, with Australian flags and personnel, but they’re essentially US boats operated in the US’s great power interests. We’re paying for them to set up part of their current and future fleet in Australia.

Nuclear-powered submarines create another problem. When the nuclear-armed states signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, they insisted on exempting fissile materials used in nuclear-powered ships and submarines from inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). They wanted to preserve the secrets of their naval reactor designs.

The US and Britain’s submarines operate reactors that use 93.5 per cent-enriched uranium as fuel. The US Navy’s reactors currently use about 100 nuclear bombs’ worth of highly enriched uranium every year, more than all the world’s other reactors’ production combined. Civilian reactors typically use 3 to 5 per cent-enriched uranium as fuel. (The French Suffren-class submarine runs on fuel enriched below 6 per cent).

Australia will become the first non-nuclear-armed state to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, and these will require the same high-grade uranium as the rest of the US fleet. Australia will have to work with the IAEA to figure out how to account for the fissile material without disclosing secret naval reactor design information. Iran, Brazil, South Korea and other countries could use the Australian precedent to develop or acquire nuclear-powered vessels too, enjoying similar exemptions from IAEA inspection.

There are powerful arguments for Australia to modernise its submarine fleet. Conventionally powered submarines make the most sense on grounds of performance, defence relevance, cost and non-proliferation.

Professor Clinton Fernandes part of the University of NSW’s Future Operations Research Group which analyses the threats, risks and opportunities that military forces will face in the future. He is a former intelligence officer in the Australian army.


December 29, 2022 - Posted by | AUSTRALIA - NATIONAL, politics, weapons and war

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