Astute vs. Virginia: Which nuclear-powered submarine is best for Australia?


Choosing the right design for the Royal Australian Navy’s nuclear powered submarines is extremely complex and tough choices will have to be made. There are two competitors, the Royal Navy’s Astute-class submarine and the US Navy’s Virginia-class submarine, which refers to the “Block V” variant of the boat.

Both designs are very good, and in some ways they are equal. Both come with reactors that never need to be refueled, both come with advanced pump thrusters, both support Tomahawk cruise missiles and both will force Australia to put on a diet. rigorous and flawless regulatory and safety regulations.

There are also a number of issues that the government will need to consider, including the size of the fleet, the lifespan of submarines, the autonomy of Australian defense and the content of Australian industry.

This article highlights eight important differences that will need to be taken into account: design risk, size, crew, payload, delivery, sustainment and operations, training regimes and controls at export.

First, the risk of conception. The Virginia natively supports the AN / BYG-1 combat system and probably RAN’s preferred Mk-48 torpedoes, unlike the Astute. Modifying the Astute to suit RAN preferences could disrupt the precisely tuned attributes of space, weight, buoyancy, balance, power and cooling, potentially triggering a cascade of unintended problems. Modifying existing designs can cost hundreds of millions and take years: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Alternatively, the RAN could accept the British combat system and Spearfish torpedoes.

In terms of size, the Astute and Virginia class boats are larger than the conventionally powered Collins class. Adapting either of these may require significant upgrades to Australian assembly halls, slipways, drydocks and berths, and it won’t be cheap. . The Astute-class ships are 97 meters long and move 7,800 tonnes, while the Virginia Block Vs are 140.5 meters long and move 10,364 tonnes. In contrast, Collins Class vessels are 77.8 meters long and move 3,407 tonnes.

A reduced crew is also desirable as it was difficult to find crews of around 60 for Collins. The crafty require a crew of around 90, while the Virginia require a crew of around 130.

The Block V Virginias have a significantly larger payload than the Astutes, with the added ability to cascade dozens of Tomahawks and support likely future payloads. The British submarine only supports torpedo weapons, with a 38 torpedo loader Spearfish and Tomahawks. The Virginia Block V carries around 65 weapons: 25 torpedo launchers, plus 12 Tomahawks in two payload tubes at the front of the sail, and 28 Tomahawks in four large-diameter payload tubes at the rear of the sail. Virginia’s large-diameter payload tubes can also support future payloads such as autonomous vehicles, AIM-9X surface-to-air missiles, and hypersonic accelerated-slip missiles.

If the United States agreed, a first batch of Virginia Block V could be acquired off the shelf and put into service in Australia relatively quickly, to facilitate nuclear security and RAN crew training, command courses and nuclear qualifications. At the same time, a full production of eight boats could take place in South Australia. A 2018 ASPI report determined that a ‘critical mass’ of 10 Australian SSNs would be needed to maintain enough certified personnel, at sea and ashore.

This plan would require USN support in terms of reactor oversight, at least in the early years, and the allocation of USN production slots to RAN, but only if the US changed its priorities. The USN operates 19 Virginia class boats with plans for 66. This concept could work with the Astute, but it would force the UK to continue building them beyond the planned seven boats and delay production of its ships. new Dreadnought class submarines.

The Virginia Class might be easier to maintain and operate, given the USN’s rapidly expanding fleet and its replenishment interoperability. Research and development of advanced technological improvements is always expensive and justifying high R&D costs can be more difficult if there are fewer boats of a certain type. If we assume that Australia ultimately acquires eight to 10 SSNs, that would mean a total fleet of 17 Astutes against 76 Virginia. In fact, the USN is already planning a more stealthy Virginia Block VI.

Wartime resupply is another issue to consider: the choice of the Virginia would allow the RAN and USN submarines to be resupplied with ammunition in Australia, Japan, Guam, Hawaii, and San Diego. However, the UK is also part of UKUS, so it would be beneficial to keep a Spearfish torpedo cache in some RAN / USN facilities.

The choice of the Astute class could potentially shorten the time needed to develop the pool of Australian commanders and senior officers. RN COs and XOs are marine officers who have completed the required nuclear systems course and are supported by RN nuclear reactor engineers who do not command submarines. In contrast, the COs and XOs at USN are all nuclear reactor engineers who have monitored an underwater reactor at some point in their careers. This difference is significant because it could take 15 years for an Australian nuclear engineer to gain sufficient sea experience to become an Australian CO SSN.

The export control factor is where the choice of Virginia could run into serious problems. The US State Department’s International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) rigorously governs the transfer of all US military technology. Under ITAR, naturalized Australian citizens could be considered to have dual citizenship and may have difficulty obtaining US government approval. A person with dual nationality from a prohibited country would likely be rejected out of hand.

Ignoring ITAR is not an option as the penalties are severe and extraterritorial, for example a fine of US $ 1 million per offense and / or 10 years in prison and / or inclusion on government refusal lists American. Ultimately, the ITAR dual citizenship restriction is problematic as Australia is a country of immigrants. In contrast, UK government export controls could be more flexible regarding dual nationals and in particular naturalized Australian citizens.

Whatever the angle of view, choosing the optimal nuclear submarine for Australia is incredibly technical, complex and difficult. Even the most optimistic delivery schedule will take years, and it will probably be 15 years before skilled Australians are able to operate the boats on their own. Making this decision correctly will determine how difficult it is for Australia to operate, maintain and maintain its SSNs well beyond the 2060s.

Few government decisions have so many long-term implications with so little margin for error. This is one of them.


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