Submarines – part 3 of X – the nuclear option

In response to the issues identified in Part 2 of my series of posts, we come to the proposal that Australia should consider buying or leasing nuclear-powered attack submarines.

While Brazil and India are getting into the nuclear-powered submarine business, China has an expanding and improving fleet, and the Russians continue to operate their fleet, the three vaguely plausible sources for Australia to acquire or lease nuclear submarines are France, the UK, and the United States.

Of these, while the French Barracuda class and UK Astute class have one potential advantage – smaller crews – the American Virginia-class attack submarine has one huge advantage – our primary military ally operates a large fleet of them in the Pacific Ocean, some of them from a base at Guam and with a major refit facility in Hawaii. So most of the discussion around nuclear submarines has focused on the Virginia class.

A Cooperative Effort

In a nutshell, the thought bubbles about Australia operating Virginia-class submarines involve submarines manufactured entirely in the United States, undergoing refits at US-operated facilities, refuelled by Americans using uranium enriched in the United States. While it wouldn’t quite be a turnkey operation – minor maintenance and replenishment would presumably be done by Australians – the idea is that the costly parts of the job would be handled by the United States, or possibly, in the future, at joint facilities.

On the upside, this reduces the costs and risks of the exercise hugely, and avoids some of the thorniest political issues.

On the downside, it does mean that Australia’s submarine fleet would be dependent on American goodwill for its continued operation. ASPI puts it this way: “The extent to which such an arrangement would be consistent with Australia exercising sovereign control over the vessels would require careful examination.” My personal opinion is that I am unconvinced about the level of sovereign control we really have over any software-intensive military system (ie, anything more sophisticated than a rifle) where the software is supplied by a foreign supplier. Were the United States to decide that they didn’t like what they were doing with our fighter planes, early warning aircraft, or air warfare destroyers, subtly misbehaving software would render them militarily useless anyway. Cybersabotage is pretty easy when you build in your own back doors.

Nuclear powered, but not armed

American-built nuclear-powered submarines run on highly-enriched uranium, possibly the most dangerous substance on Earth because of the ease with which it can be fabricated into a nuclear weapon. Making a nuclear weapon out of plutonium is very hard. Making a nuclear weapon out of highly-enriched uranium, once said uranium is available in sufficient quantity, is a piece of cake.

Were Australia to operate the Virginia class, however, it would not significantly assist Australia in acquiring a nuclear weapon. The HEU fuel would be fabricated by the USA, out of existing stockpiles (the USA has not made any additional HEU for many years; it’s working through its stockpile from the cold war), and loaded and unloaded in US or joint facilities. Used fuel would, as part of the agreement, be handed back to the United States. Once in the reactor, as soon as they are used, they become so radioactive that it is impossible to remove them without hugely expensive, bulky, and exceedingly obvious equipment. If Australia wanted HEU for a nuclear weapon, it would be easier and far less obvious to make our own.

While nuclear-powered submarines would represent a major escalation in Australian military capacity, if managed in the manner described it doesn’t really add much to our capacity to become a nuclear weapons state.

Safe enough

Would Australian-operated American-built nuclear-powered submarines represent a safety or environmental risk? While there is no such thing as zero risk, I would argue that that the risk is small.

Thanks to the culture instilled Hyman Rickover, the US Navy’s nuclear safety record really is impeccable. The USA has operated dozens of nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers for over 50 years; none of them has ever had a nuclear accident.

Australia would be operating the same boats, using precisely the same training and manuals, with the assistance and advice of the US Navy, with similar political incentives to operate in a safe manner.

Capable?

The short version is – much more capable than any conceivable conventional submarine, partly over a large ocean.

There are only two things that smaller conventional submarines do better than a nuclear submarine. When operating on battery power, a conventional submarine is quieter than a stationary nuclear submarine – even when the reactor is throttled off the reactor still produces decay heat, which must be cooled through moving water around. When its diesel motors aren’t running, a diesel sub makes virtually no noise.

The second thing that conventional subs potentially do better is operate in shallow water, for intelligence gathering.

But, for me the simplest case to suggest that neither of these things is a compelling reason to prefer diesel subs is that neither the British, French, nor the Americans bother with diesel submarines.

Costly?

Yes, hugely. But so are all the other alternatives except the New Zealand option.

There seems to be some incredulity that nuclear submarines could possibly be cost-competitive with diesel subs. Thanks to the power of the mighty Australian dollar and the advantages of being the second customer rather than the first, it just might be the case.

The ASPI’s report states that the US is currently building Virginia-class subs for 2.67 billion USD a pop, and might well get it down lower to the point where we could buy them (assuming they’d sell them to us) for around $2.5 billion USD. So, on the face of it, the costs per submarine actually sound lower than a “bells-and-whistles” next-generation Australian-built conventional submarine, with a few billion margin for the extra infrastructure. Furthermore, if the extra capabilities of a nuclear-powered sub mean we can get away with fewer of them, that puts us further in front, at least while the Australian dollar remains at its current sky-high values!

The real question, of course, with weapons system is not the sticker price. It’s the life cycle cost. But, particularly with shared infrastructure, I don’t think you can rule out the possibility that the Virginia-class solution would be at least comparable in cost with the other alternatives.

Crewing issues

Problematic.

The Virginia-class takes a crew of 135, more than double that of the Collins class. While I personally remain unconvinced that crewing Australia’s submarines is an insurmountable problem, Virginia-class submarines will certainly make it worse.

Again, however, if we can get away with a smaller fleet than was otherwise planned because of the Virginia-class’s extra capabilities, that mitigates the issue a little.

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One Response to Submarines – part 3 of X – the nuclear option

  1. wilful says:

    This really skates over the big issue of whether the US would let us lease Virginia subs or not. Given that they wouldn’t let us buy F-22s, and this tech is just as pointy as that, I would doubt it.

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