Australia’s ‘damn the torpedo’ path to nuclear-powered submarines


I have often thought that Australia’s underwater transition is a thorny issue, perhaps one of the thorniest in public policy. A thorny problem is one that is difficult, if not impossible, to solve because key stakeholders have fundamentally different interests and requirements. No solution can satisfy them all. It is not only possible, but inevitable that intelligent people will engage in very different solutions to thorny problems.

I remembered this recently after my colleague Andrew Nicholls and I wrote a series of articles in The strategist unpack the timeline for the transition from the Collins-class submarine to a future nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN), examine the likelihood of a capability gap, and determine whether a new conventional submarine could fill that gap difference. After the last article, I received lengthy responses from two retired senior naval officers. They agreed among themselves that we had made a mistake in our analysis of the issues. This is not unusual; I’m used to people pointing out my mistakes. What was more interesting was that the two officers took positions diametrically opposed to each other. But, of course, that’s the nature of thorny issues: subject matter experts will disagree.

Officer 1 was strongly opposed to a new conventional submarine, arguing that the Royal Australian Navy could not support three classes of submarines (the Collins, New Boats and SSNs) and that Australia could not simultaneously conduct three major submarine programs (the Collins life-of-type-extension, the new boats and the SSN). Instead, “maximum effort should be expended on acquiring some SSNs as quickly as possible, with the earliest likely to be built overseas.”

Officer 2 agreed with the ultimate need for SSNs, but argued that the days of conventional submarines were far from over, although they might need to be used differently to remain relevant. The best way forward was to accept the long lead times involved in the transition to SSNs and fill the void by building more Collins-class boats. They would include all upgrades installed since the original build program as well as those planned for the type’s life extension program.

There are, of course, many sub-variants of this second position, each advocating a different conventional underwater solution. In the end, the two positions are irreconcilable: either you acquire a new conventional submarine, or you do not buy it. But they outline two broad paths: strive to get SSNs as quickly as possible and live with the risks that arise, or engage in a deliberate and protracted transition that revolves around risk management. of this process.

We have examined the second of these two approaches in previous work. Indeed, when you take a standard approach to skill acquisition, it seems to be the safest. But what if we accept that AUKUS is not the standard approach to capability acquisition? Moreover, if we accept the argument of SSN proponents that conventional submarines will become obsolete in key areas where Australia might want to operate, then the thorny issue looks somewhat different. No conventional submarine capability will meet our needs. And if we take the navy at its word that Australia cannot handle three huge submarine programs and operate three separate classes of submarines, a new conventional boat would only compound our problems.

So what would an accelerated development of SSN capability look like? Above all, it would have to be accepted that an Australian VSS capability will not be a sovereign capability; Australia will always depend on our main partner to acquire, maintain and, to some extent, operate capacity. But once we accept this, several possibilities open up outside of the traditional approach which encompass the concept of harnessing the capabilities of our AUKUS partners.

Various elements of this potential path have already been suggested and, in fact, some are already underway. They understand:

  • training Australian submariners to WE and UK facilities then on their boats
  • rental and/or purchase of older US boats for training, either as seaworthy submarines or moored training ships
  • supply to Australia of US Navy boats already in service or in production
  • joint U.S.-Australian investment in expanding U.S. industrial capacity to build more boats faster
  • joint Australian-American crew of United States Navy operational boats
  • extended tours or even US boat base in Australia
  • forward deployment of a USN submarine tender in Western Australia to support SSNs there
  • the start of the maintenance of these American boats in Australia as soon as possible to develop the skills and capacities of the local industry
  • extended visits Royal Navy submarines in Australia.

Each path has different levels of probability and risk, but in combination, could they produce AUKUS SSN capability in Australia in a faster timeframe than the traditional, best-of-breed approach? If we adjust our risk appetite to the urgency and severity of our strategic circumstances and throw the capability acquisition manual out the window, would a combined capability of four to six SSNs operating from Australia consists of a mix of RAN, USN and RN boats and crews achievable by the mid-2030s?

And if we doom the torpedoes, burn our bridges, and cross the Rubicon, other great capability options could open up. Potentially, we could undo the Collins type life extension. After all, one of the main rationales for LOTE’s scale and scope that led to it becoming a “son of Collins” was that the new systems being installed would provide Collins with significant commonalities with the canceled Attack-class submarine. and act as a transition stage between the two. This reason has now disappeared. And if conventional submarines are outdated, why spend billions to keep them going into the 2040s? We could limit the scope of LOTE to something closer to standard full-cycle docking and dedicate the money and human resources saved to accelerating the SSN program. Or we could upgrade part of the Collins fleet and retire the rest in the early 2030s without a final LOTE or full-cycle docking.

Admittedly, this approach raises many serious questions. For example, as Agent 2 wrote, you can’t rush the development of nuclear stewardship. And it certainly wouldn’t be a traditional Australian owned and operated capability, at least in these early stages. While this is a viable path, we would still need to invest in capability risk mitigation through systems other than a new conventional submarine. There are also many options, from the “small, smart, multiple” approach of disposable autonomous systems and guided weapons, to the “big stick” approach provided by a long-range strike system such as the developing system of the United States Air Force. Bomber B-21. But avoiding spending the very large sum of money that would be needed for a new conventional submarine could make these additional capabilities financially possible.

Many of the items I have listed here will be required regardless of Australia’s path to SSNs. In all honesty, I’m not yet convinced that this approach will do anything by the mid-2030s. on nuclear-powered submarines. It is good that the government has asked the task force and the defense strategic review team to work closely together, as the choice of the SSN path will likely have major implications for the rest of the force structure. and the defense acquisition program over the next few decades.


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