Why are the Liberals talking about nuclear subs? Part 1 of X

According to Christopher Joye, the Tories have developed an enthusiasm for replacing the much-maligned Collins-class submarines with American-built Virginia-class attack submarines – or at least, that they “…want to open the debate over the purchase of nuclear submarines to replace the navy’s diesel fleet”.

Remarkably enough, this is one Coalition policy that is not completely crazy; it is worth “opening the debate” on the topic.

Firstly, a quick primer. Australia currently operates six Collins class attack submarines. The Collins class is operated by no other navy; it is a Swedish design, built in Australia by the Australian Submarine Corporation.

Submarines are the pointy end of the Australian Navy’s warfare capabilities. The Collins can, or at least was designed, to do three things; sink other submarines, sink surface ships, and support intelligence gathering. They are of very limited use in peacekeeping, stabilization operations on small island nations; and I don’t think even our most infantile and thuggish politicians have suggested that they have a role in deterring people smugglers. They exist for combat with other nation-states with navies of their own, and to deter such nation-states from trying anything in our neighbourhood.

More precisely, attack submarines are primarily a weapon for sea denial. A submarine can’t guarantee, on its own, your own ships safe passage to where they want to go – a submarine can do nothing if the other side attacks your ships with aircraft, for instance! But, unassisted, a fleet of submarines can make it impossible for your enemies to use the sea for their own purposes. This, in a nutshell, was the thinking behind the German U-boats during the Second World War. Worked pretty well for a while, too, until the Allies got their anti-submarine warfare act together.

Submarines have one other purpose as a weapon of war, of course. With the development of cruise and ballistic missiles, they can be used to attack things on dry land. Most infamously, the ballistic missile submarines of the five NPT-approved nuclear powers continue their endless laps around the oceans. More prosaically, attack submarines lcan also be equipped with cruise missiles, such as the Tomahawk. The Collins-class does not carry such weapons, but could relatively easily do so if they were acquired. Wikipedia claims that 2,000-odd conventionally-armed Tomahawks have been used by the US armed services; a nuclear-tipped variant also exists.

As this ASPI paper notes, the Collins class has been, and remains, a bit of a screwup. Its ability to do any of the things noted above is dubious. For a very large amount of money, their propulsion system remains unreliable and we can’t reliably keep them at sea, refits and maintenance costs are far higher than expected, and even while they are at sea, the military utility of their weapons system is unclear. And, to top it off, it’s not clear how long we can keep them operating; even if we start now it’s doubtful we can design and build a successor submarine in time to replace the Collins-class without a “capability gap”.

For all of these reasons, a fair bit of thought as to what do to about the submarine capability is going on right now, and the musings Joye reports should be seen in that context.

In an upcoming post, some discussion about the various options open to the ADF with regards to the subs.

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6 Responses to Why are the Liberals talking about nuclear subs? Part 1 of X

  1. wilful says:

    ANy option is expensive, but I think Chrissy Joye just ticked the most expensive box

  2. c j says:

    I have an op-ed, “Nuclear subs would end our strategic free-ride”, in the Australian Financial Review today, which includes an exclusive interview with Dr Thomas Mahnken, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of US Defense for Policy Planning between 2006 and 2009. Mahnken says Washington is concerned about Australian defence cuts, and that the door should be “wide open” to Australia leasing nuclear-powered boats from the US. You can read the column outside the AFR pay-wall here:


    John Kerin and I also have a front-page news story, “Labor split on nuclear submarines”, in which current Labor MP and former defence minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, sensationally reveals, “I now believe it was a mistake to rule out a nuclear option.” We also have an interview with former Liberal defence minister, Peter Reith, and quotes from Ziggy Switkowski, both of whom express support a nuclear-powered solution.

    You can read the front page yarn here:


    • Thanks Chris. Interesting stuff, though I do have to wonder about Fitzgibbon’s motivations for commenting, given that his primary political interest since losing his frontbench spot seems to be mischief-making.

  3. wilful says:

    The Collins class has a complement of 58, yet we cannot man half of them.

    The Virginia class has a complement of 135. So if we bought or leased 12 of them, we would presumably be able to man 1 or 2 of them.

    Also, the assumption that the US would let us anywhere near their Virginia class subs needs to be questioned. They wouldn’t let us buy F-22s, why would subs be any different?

  4. Pingback: Submarines – part 2 of X | A Bent Ghost

  5. scot mcphee says:

    not “support intelligence gathering”, but also “gather intelligence” quite directly.

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