The political and strategic ramifications of the AUKUS pact announced in September continue to reverberate but the details of how Australia will actually acquire nuclear-powered submarines have been rather overlooked. Here we focus on the daunting technical, industrial and financial challenges to be overcome on the long road to joining the SSN club.
Even the acquisition of conventional submarines is not easy and submarine construction projects completed on time and budget are rare. Nuclear propulsion adds another layer of complexity and cost and has been described as an engineering challenge more demanding than building the space shuttle. There are good reasons why SSN ownership is currently limited to a small group of elite nations consisting of 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).
From an operational perspective, the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) conclusion that it needs SSNs makes complete sense. The distance from its bases to the likely areas of operation are considerable and even the best SSK will take many more days to get into theatre – it’s around 3,500 miles from the RAN operating base in Perth to the South China Sea. The RAN will also have to match up against a Chinese submarine fleet that already operates SSNs. PLAN boats may not currently be of the quality of western equivalents but if progress with their surface fleet is any indicator, they are likely to grow rapidly in quality and numbers over the next decade.
Amongst some commentators, there seems to be a perception that the first boats at least could be “bought off the shelf” from UK or US “production lines”. Alternatively, there is a suggestion that old or “surplus” submarines could be leased to the RAN until new vessels are available. These assumptions are at odds with the reality of struggles the USN and RN have to bring new boats into service and maintain ageing vessels.
Try before you buy
Australian Defence Minister, Peter Dutton has said the RAN is considering leasing boats from the USN or RN. This attractive proposal would provide operating experience and a stop-gap to cover the decommissioning of the Colins class while new boats are built but whether it can be achieved is far from certain. The RN is already severely short of active boats – nominally down to 6 active SSNs, able to field 2 or 3 on a good day. The USN is trying to maintain its existing SSN force, struggling to build enough new Virginia class while its aging Los Angeles class are being phased out. However supportive of Australia the UK maybe, it simply has no suitable boats available for lease. The US has a far bigger fleet with 28 Flight II and III Los Angeles class still active but its submarine force is already over-committed and Washington is unlikely to offer anything, except perhaps a recently retired boat as a static training vessel.
Neither navy keep submarines ‘in reserve’. In the case of the UK, it has already expensively extended the 1980s-vintage Trafalgar class in service 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 but more critically, the submarine has a finite hull life. Every dive, especially to greater depths, fatigues the pressure hull and pipework to a point where the safe diving becomes severely restricted or the boat becomes unseaworthy. Older boats also become increasingly hard to maintain and struggle to retain their all-important minimal acoustic signature.
The US has a more effective submarine dismantling programme than the UK and their LA class boats built in the 1980s 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 is 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.
Astute off the shelf
Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead, RAN has said “It is our intention that when we start the build program, the design will be mature and there will be a production run already in existence”. Some have suggested that the Astute design is the best solution, optimistically proposing the first couple of boats are built in the UK before a technology transfer enables the remaining 6 to be made in Australia. In many ways Astute would appear to be ideal, already in production, far cheaper than the US options with smaller crew requirements as well as being highly rated. Unfortunately, there are almost insurmountable obstacles to the class ever numbering more than seven.
In the case of the UK, completion of the remaining Astute-class boats is finely balanced with the construction of the Dreadnought SSBNs and there is currently not space in the shipyard or skilled people available to add additional boats into the schedule. (If it were possible then many would argue the RN should be buying more Astutes as priority one). BAES and the specialist UK submarine supply chain broadly welcome the opportunity but is still in the early stages of exploring how it could assist the Australians. Potential for involvement in nuclear submarine export was not really something anyone had prepared for, AUKUS coming as an unexpected bolt from the blue.
Assuming money was no object, new engineers recruited and the facilities at Barrow could be enlarged, the project would still be in trouble because the PWR-2 reactor at the heart of the Astute is no longer considered to meet modern safety benchmarks and production has almost ceased. These items require very long lead times (the core for the last boat, HMS Agincourt, was ordered from Rolls Royce in 2012) and assembly of the reactor begins well in advance of cutting steel for the hull. The RR nuclear steam raising plant manufacturing facility in Derby is being comprehensively rebuilt and production is now focused on the larger PWR-3 for Dreadnought SSBNs and eventually SSN(R). (Design work on PWR-3 began as long ago as 2006).
Even if somehow additional PWR-2 reactors could be acquired and the Astute boats constructed in Australia, the boats would be facing semi-obsolescence by the time they began to arrive in service (late 2030s at the earliest). The Astute is amongst the best SSNs yet produced and will continue to be the gold standard in stealth terms for another decade at least. However, the design has its roots in the early 1990s and by the 2040s is likely to be superseded by even quieter opponents. The next generation of SSN will also need much greater capacity than the Astute to launch, recover and communicate with UUVs that will become an ever-growing part of the undersea battle.AUKUS-Submarines-5
Virginia off the shelf
The original Virginia class design (Block I) is older than the Astute but has benefited from an iterative programme of development with 34 boats built or on order to date. Among many improvements, from the Block III boats onward, they have been fitted with two Virginia Payload Tubes (VPT), vertical launch cells which can each hold six Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs) as well as other future missiles and potentially uncrewed vehicles. The latest Block IV boats have been stretched by 25m to include a further four 7-cell VPT tubes. The Virginia class are being produced at about two per year, although last year the USN announced a plan for an SSN force of between 72-78 by the 2040s which would require production to increase in the 2030s to about 3 boats per year, concurrent with building the very large Colombia class SSBNS.
Although benefiting from an established submarine design and industrial base that is vastly more efficient than the UK, the yards and supply chain will need to expand significantly if it can hope to fulfill the ambitious plans to grow the USN fleet. A recent report to Congress noted “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”. Like its British counterparts, the US Navy is also encountering issues just maintaining the submarines it already has. The report also states that: “SSNs have had their deployments delayed due to maintenance backlogs at the Navy’s four government-operated naval shipyards (NSYs), which are the primary facilities for conducting depot-level maintenance work. Delays in deploying SSNs can put added operational pressure on other SSNs that are available for deployment.”
The Virginia Block IV and V have considerably greater land attack capability than the Astute and are a more modern design. But despite the economies of scale, the US boats come with a significantly bigger price tag and have a crew of 132. The RAN is already short of people for its six Collins-class boats which have a complement of just 58. If the RAN was, for example, to acquire 8 Virginia Block IV or equivalent, it would need to mount a major recruitment campaign and training effort. It is estimated the RAN needs 2,300 trained submariners, a number that will take years to attain and will need to allow for a typical wastage rate of about 30% of recruits that drop out or fail to qualify.
For the more senior roles, the process is even more demanding, it takes at least 16 years from initial entry to qualify as the engineering officer of a nuclear submarine. The RN and USN can certainly assist with submariner development and provide hands-on opportunities at sea. Both navies have very similar submarine reactor technology and operating procedures and RAN personnel would gain valuable and relevant experience on exchange with either navy, whatever type of SSN the Australians eventually select.AUKUS-Submarine-Options-3
X and R
Very little can be said with certainty right now about the US SSN(X) and UK SSN(R) designs which are in the very early concept phases. Both will probably feature aspects of the preceding SSBNs, Colombia and Dreadnought respectively, be bigger than the boats they replace, have X-tail hydroplane arrangements and turbo-electric drive instead of direct drive from the steam turbines. If the RAN is willing to wait until at least 2040 to get new SSNs, then partnering with one of these programmes would make sense. The RAN would have input into the design from the outset and development costs could be shared along with economies of scale in the supply chain. SSN(R) will almost certainly be more affordable and there is already some synergy between BAES and Australian industry with the Hunter class frigate programme. SSN(X) would be more costly but might be more attractive as US combat systems and weapons are already in use on the Collins Class boats. All-US solutions also benefit from the relative proximity of Guam and Japan where they could share common support facilities with USN boats.
Tail before teeth
When the AUKUS announcement was made the Australian government promised to acquire at least 8 nuclear submarines to be built by ASC Pty in Osbourne, South Australia. There is limited residual submarine building experience left at ASC since the troubled Collins class were completed in the early 2000s. The deal with the French to build the Attack class boats included technology transfer to regenerate the skills base. Whatever SSN design is selected, a greater level of assistance will be needed to be provided by the UK or US. With limited nuclear infrastructure, Australia is unlikely to be able to enrich uranium, the fuel used in the core of long-life Pressurised Water Reactors. It is likely that the submarines reactor compartments will have to be imported pre-fabricated from the US or UK. The entire submarine enterprise will also have to be run within a newly developed safety and regulatory framework that will have to be established in Australia.
In order to have enough Suitably Qualified and Experienced People (SQEP), Australia will need to embark on a recruitment campaign to train and educate some of its brightest and best to build up a significant cadre of civilian engineers for the construction and shoreside support tasks. Secondment of personnel to gain work experience with BAES, GDEB and HII should be started as soon as possible. The way personnel resources are allocated needs to be carefully coordinated across the 3 nations. Directly poaching scarce technical staff from the UK or US with offers of well-paid jobs in sunny Australia will quickly cause friction and undermine AUKUS.
Besides the high-profile investment in the main construction facility, Australia will have to be prepared to spend substantial sums on ‘unsexy’ new supporting infrastructure such as dry docks, jetties, weapons handling and storage facilities, personnel accommodation and more. To support the 10 submarines in UK service requires three nuclear-certified dry docks (two at Devonport and a covered shiplift at Faslane) and this does not include the construction facilities at Barrow and another two docks dedicated to the disposal of old boats. Nuclear-certified docks and jetties have to be expensively over-engineered to withstand once-in-a-lifetime seismic, tidal or storm events as well as have multiple redundancies in power and water supplies. The UK demonstrated that it was possible to create this kind of infrastructure from scratch in a tight timescale during the Polaris project of the 1960s but such works are a major undertaking, costly and require highly competent management.
The long road
Former Prime Minister and political opponent of the current Australian government, Malcolm Turnbull has 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.” While this may seem overly negative, Turnbull is broadly correct. The eventual acquisition of SSNs is possible but there are many potential show stoppers. 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 will also have to 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 in two decades’ time and growing Chinese power and influence won’t wait around for others to attain parity. The Australian public will also have to buy into the project that will need a sustained political commitment over a long period. This article only skims the surface of what the submarine project will involve but the RAN will have to be prepared to lean heavily on allies and set aside an enormous budget to cover the true financial costs of nuclear ownership.