Features Australia

Our classy new subs

Sink or swim in defence debate

25 September 2021

9:00 AM

25 September 2021

9:00 AM

The good news from the government’s defence announcement in mid-September is that the absurd $90 billion deal between Australia and the French shipbuilder Naval Group to build Australia’s next generation of submarines has met a well-deserved end.

The bad news is that the often disastrous policy of building complex weapons platforms in Adelaide is to continue, even to the point of building nuclear submarines.

Although the French government has chosen to become upset about the deal being cancelled by recalling its ambassadors to both Australia and the US for consultations, the 2016 decision by Malcolm Turnbull’s government to redesign the existing Suffren-class of nuclear submarines to use a diesel-electric power system was an affront to common sense.

As noted in this publication (‘Collins class all over again’, The Spectator Australia, 6 March) changing an existing design is bad enough as the saga with the Collins Class of subs now in service clearly showed. But the navy and the government were asking for what almost amounted to a new class of submarines.

This bad decision by the Turnbull government has since been compounded by the apparent French determination to keep as much as possible of the construction work in France, while also insisting that even minor design changes will add greatly to the final bill.

However, by decreeing that the as yet unspecified nuclear subs will be built in Adelaide the Morrison government has kept some of the bad features of the French deal. This decree is, in turn, part of a long tradition of increasing costs for naval ship-building contracts – estimates of up to 40 per cent have been mentioned – and compromising quality all in order to gain political points in Adelaide. But the difficulties inherent in using Adelaide ship yards have been highlighted by the fact that the new class of submarines will use nuclear technology.

Meeting a requirement for the abandoned French contract that 60 per cent of the value of the contract be spent with Australian suppliers was a tough ask, even without the apparent French reluctance to look at suppliers beyond their own borders. Australia’s industrial base for anything more complicated than food processing is now quite small, especially since the car manufacturers ceased operation in 2016 and 2017. What’s left is mainly consultancy work and making niche products for overseas manufacturers, such as the giant, integrated manufacturing operations of Asia.

A similar requirement for the Collins Class subs was only met by sleight of hand – relabelling various imported components as ‘Australian made’ on various pretexts. As well as being nuclear-powered the replacement for the Collins Class submarines that now patrol Australian shores will have lots of sophisticated, advanced features. Where are the contractors for such work to be found in Australia and will any of them be lured to Adelaide on the promise of only intermittent naval work?

Part of the deal announced in mid-September, and one of the major factors in the Morrison government agreeing to it, is that the US and the UK will allow Australian access to their nuclear technology. What this seems to mean is that Australian navy crews will be permitted to operate the power plant supplied by the contractor. Once the fuel rods, also supplied from overseas, are installed no further refuelling will be required for years – perhaps the entire service life of the submarine – and it is possible that the plant itself will require little maintenance.

Manufacturers in the nuclear powers – including the US and the UK – now offer small, modular power reactors. These are single units capable of generating up to 100 megawatts of power which are manufactured as one unit then transported to where they are needed. Manufacturers tell the buyers that they will be back in five years to change the fuel rods, in the meantime they should not mess with the plant’s inner workings, just use the software to instruct the unit on how much power is required.

Some supervision is still required and a nuclear plant on a naval vessel would not be so straight forward, but Australia’s almost total lack of expertise in such nuclear matters will not be the handicap it would have been with past generations of this technology.

Then what submarines will Australia be getting?

The government will set up a committee to look at whether the new vessel should be the latest versions of the UK’s Astute Class or the US’s Virginia Class with the smart money on the Virginia Class, which is designed to operate in the Pacific.

This class has been in operation for some time but is constantly evolving. The first vessel of a greatly improved version known as the SSN(X)/Improved Virginia model is expected to take to the water some time in the 2030s. The Collins Class subs, the last of which were built in 2003, were expected to last up until the mid-2020s but that service life is to be extended. The possibility of leasing a couple of the Virginia class subs to cover capability gaps has been mentioned.

Just what technologies this improved vessel will have remains a matter of speculation, but the available material points to capabilities such as being able to hit a target with a torpedo hundreds of kilometres away. The targeting information and control of the torpedo in the final stages would come from a patrol aircraft or a drone launched from the submarine. The vessel could also be able to control multiple unmanned underwater vehicles and move by expelling a jet of water rather than by using propellers.

This formidable, mostly silent weapons platform will not be cheap. The existing Virginia Class subs cost about $US3.4 billion ($A4.7 billion) a copy, and that’s without the inefficiencies and delays that will result if any substantial part of the construction is done in Adelaide. However, if the navy can be persuaded to leave the basic design alone, and the unrealistic 60 per cent local content target is drastically reduced, the result may be a useful addition to Australia’s defence capabilities that might arrive on time.

One major surprise of the Morrison government’s announcement that it intended to go nuclear for the next generation of submarines was how little opposition it generated, at least so far, given that even a storage facility for used medical radio-isotopes has proved controversial.But the apparent willingness of China to throw its weight around, and to even try to bully Australia through trade restrictions has increased tension in the Asia-Pacific region. Buying nuclear submarines is an answer to Chinese aggression that most voters understand, and even Labor seems to have accepted that point.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments