Flat White

Australia cannot ignore the submarine wars

3 August 2022

10:00 AM

3 August 2022

10:00 AM

On my first trip to sea as a 16-year-old cadet, I was on the main deck observing the ship gracefully slide into Cairncross dry-dock in Brisbane and peered down at the workmen handling the lines and closing the dock gate. Three hours later, I was looking up at the same workmen as my ship settled on the blocks of this cavernous dock.

The 265 metre Cairncross dry-dock is an impressive feat of engineering by the Americans who built it during the second world war as a strategically located dry-dock for the war effort. Concurrently it was built with the only other large dry-dock in Australia, the Captain Cook Graving Dock at Garden Island in Sydney.

The strategic importance of these docks is acknowledged by both the Defence Department and America. Over the years, essential repairs have been carried out in these two dry-docks on commercial ships and warships that would otherwise have required a 4,000-mile tow to Singapore, assuming a potential enemy will allow you.

In the 1970s, the British Defence Department drew up another 265m dock, which they built at Devonshire docks, Barrow-in-Furness in the early 80s with a full cover to construct nuclear submarines, which it continues to do.

Despite my columns in maritime journals in 2016 trying to wake up state and federal leadership as to the high importance of Cairncross dry-dock, which was being closed down for the inevitable sale to the urban creep of waterfront high-rise developers, I failed.

This dry-dock, capable of handling ships up to 263m long and 33.5m in beam, makes it capable of handling the naval vessels from the Canberra Class LHDs, the Bay Class LSD, and the Auxiliary Oilers. It can handle merchant ships up to Panamax bulkers and cruise vessels up to 230m

If covered by a large shed with 400 tonne gantry cranes, Cairncross could be an ideal fabrication place for building large warships, even a submarine! The submarine budget is a significant initiative to make use of what we already have.

Ignoring marine industry suggestions such as mine continues to illustrate the government’s critical infrastructure committee requires new blood. As a centre of marine engineering excellence with a steady source of engineering jobs and training, Cairncross could have been superb. Alas, the high-rise permits are getting close.

Is anybody there? Hello?

As we have seen, there has been too much politics at play as our leaders wandered from having a key Australia-Japan strategic relationship, to being Francophiles, to being UK/American fans They were not focused on the key issue of naval capability.

Then there is the industry side of things. ASC (formerly the Australian Submarine Corp) was a mess, and was typical of most bureaucracies but has reportedly lifted their game of late.

As for the required capability itself, opinions remain polarised. Some argue that our subs need to be able to supplement the US Navy in any war in order to promote our influence on them and to deter China if they turn sour.

Nuclear subs are the only Australian capability the Chinese would give a rat’s about. Once a nuclear sub gets to sea, everyone else’s calculus changes. The Argentinian Navy was a competent force, but once one British nuclear sub showed up they scuttled back to port pronto. Others argue that if the two elephants are fighting, we are too small to make any difference, except as a handy big island refuge for the Americans.

The Japanese Soryu submarine technology would be a thing of beauty, but still significantly inferior to any nuclear boat. Even the best diesel boat exhausts its batteries quickly when going fast, then it is at high risk of detection while recharging them. Air Independent Propulsion hasn’t eliminated this basic problem.

Even a relatively slow nuclear submarine can go at its top speed all day every day for years if it wants to and only has to go back to port to collect food for the crew. It never has to do that vulnerable recharging thing. It can also feed power-hungry modern combat systems and it has the size to accommodate larger sensor arrays than any diesel. Increasing the size and power of flank sensor arrays gives a disproportionate increase in effectiveness. The fat-hulled Astute Class achieve amazing flank sonar performance.

The French Barracuda solution provides low-enriched uranium reactors similar to their domestic nuclear-powered stations, which of course can be refuelled endlessly every five years or so. Consequently, the French have an effective nuclear regulatory system that is compliant with all relevant international regulations and they have an excellent safety record.

The UK Astute class and US Virginia class utilise high enriched uranium which lasts the whole life of the sub (around 25-30 years). End-of-life disposal of high-enriched reactors is significantly more problematic than low-enriched ones. There are credible reports that the USN is investigating a move to low-enriched fuel for its next generation of naval reactors. ,

The obvious problem is that despite the Nation’s wealth that we have in the ground, more specifically, South Australia’s wealth, of uranium and thorium, and previous Prime Ministers such as Bob Hawke advocating developing nuclear technology in 1993, we have neither a nuclear electricity industry nor the associated regulatory bureaucracy.

Why is it that our State and Federal leaders fail to focus on what we have, as opposed to a myopic focus on what the minority hallucinate about, such as green energy and a crisis that is only in their nightmares? Despite rocketing energy prices and clear evidence of what has happened to other foolish nations that have followed Pied Pipers Greta and the UN, our leaders have achieved a new low in the word. Leadership is all about convincing people to do what they don’t want to do, and achieve a better outcome.

South Australia is finally making sensible statements about embracing the nuclear industry, and as the basket case of all state economies, so it should.

The US nuclear safety system is humongous and would probably vaporise our GDP all by itself before we even got a submarine. While the British nuclear regulatory rules are a little lighter, overcoming our national ‘nuclear fear’ will take education and we may not be able to go from Collins to nuclear in the time available. We might need an interim type but, ultimately, Queensland needs to line up with BAE. There are almost as many attractions in this for the UK government as for us in critical mass, continuity, strategic image, etc.

If I was the Queensland Premier, I would be looking for a unique selling point to put to the Prime Minister. If she offers to do the same as ASC but cheaper, Cairncross should be the place.

I would argue the case on the basis that a diesel sub cannot remotely achieve the significant endurance and capability required, so we need to go nuclear and here’s how to do it:

The ‘Astute’ acquisition strategy, partnering with the UK for a mixed-build and parallel exploration of a nuclear electricity industry. The challenge will be schedule. Anything that drives a life extension for Collins will play in ASC’s favour. It would make great sense to get the UK to build the stern of the vessel, including the nuclear propulsion package and Queensland builds the front at the upgraded Cairncross perhaps with UK help.

Australia acquired an unparalleled understanding of French submarines during the Shortfin Barracuda program. We threw millions of man-hours of hard-acquired expertise down the drain when we abandoned it. It wasn’t the fault of the French builder that the Australian government asked them to do something spectacularly stupid. There are good reasons no one else has ever tried to develop a diesel-powered version of a nuclear-powered sub! Are French nuclear subs as good as US or British ones? No one really knows, but the industry consensus seems to be ‘not quite but close’. Are they better than anyone else’s, including Chinese? Yes. If, and it is a big if, the French government will play, then their Barracuda is smaller, cheaper, quicker to build, and needs a smaller crew (the critical path for Australia) than the alternatives and will achieve 99 per cent of the effect of its Aukus equivalents.

The other choice is to foolishly believe that our nation will never go to war again and let Cairncross become another habitat of the petulant cappuccino set, so that even more people can lounge around and grumble about our inept and spineless governments.

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