JON STANFORD and JOHN MENADUE. The submarine confusion continues. Is the way being prepared for Australia to acquire nuclear submarines?


In an interesting development relating to Australia’s new submarine acquisition, Peter Jennings, Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), has written a piece in The Australian (7 June 2016) that is clearly at odds with the Institute’s previous public stance. Jennings says that while conventional power for Australia’s submarines has previously been an article of faith, “the capabilities required for our future submarine would in many ways be better performed by nuclear-powered boats”.

This may not be news to readers of Pearls and Irritations. In a series of articles earlier this year, before the decision on Australia’s submarine acquisition was made, Jon Stanford argued that the capabilities required for the future submarine, as set out in the White Paper, could only be performed efficiently and effectively (and much more safely) by a nuclear submarine. If Australia was not prepared to do the substantial work required to procure nuclear submarines, he argued, then we should significantly reduce our strategic ambitions for the submarine’s future role. Articles in Fairfax Media, by Jon Stanford and Mike Keating, also articulated this proposition. Jon Stanford and Michael Keating. A more efficient submarine solution.

Given the lack of depth in this area in Australia’s media, it would have been useful had ASPI provided some comment on this view. It is important to note that no players came out and challenged our proposition – not the Navy, not the Defence establishment and not ASPI. But nobody publicly supported it either.

Further, while not challenging us directly, ASPI’s Peter Jennings did provide strong support for the government’s choice of submarine at that time. In an article in The Australian after the decision had been announced, Jennings said:

“The truth about the submarine program is that a careful evaluation process conducted by experienced submariners led to a sensible outcome based on delivering what the navy actually needs. How boring is that?

Contrast that with much of the hysterical commentary following the announcement: the wrong boat was picked; we should have ‘gone nuclear’…”[1]

Although enjoying significant funding from Defence and defence industry, ASPI claims to be an independent think tank. Yet if it were truly independent and holds the views now expressed by Peter Jennings, then surely it should have been publicly challenging the parameters around the government’s choice of submarine throughout the process. It is not credible to suggest that a specialist agency like ASPI has only just realised that there was always a major disconnect between the capabilities required by Defence for the new submarine and the choice of conventional propulsion. So, in the course of the debate, why did ASPI so tenaciously keep its head below the parapet?

The second question is why ASPI has now changed its view. Providing that the tender process was fair dinkum, the decision to buy a French submarine for $50 billion as against a German boat for $20 billion always seemed peculiar. After all, not only was the TKMS bid much cheaper but the Germans (who have sold more conventional subs round the world than anybody else) had also promised to build the submarines in Adelaide for the same price as a German build and to introduce valuable digital technologies to Australian manufacturing. Yet the reason Defence gave for rejecting the TKMS bid was that they were worried about the German design producing excessive noise on a particular acoustic frequency that was important for intelligence gathering. TKMS could be forgiven for regarding this as questionable. First of all, Defence could have alerted them to the problem during the bidding process and given them the opportunity to fix it. Secondly, since the French submarine has not even been designed yet, how can Defence be confident it is superior in this and other respects?

What the French do offer and the Germans and Japanese do not, however, is access to highly sophisticated nuclear submarine technology. In this context, we note that the conventional Shortfin Barracuda submarine has not even been designed yet. If Australia were to acquire a nuclear submarine, the French Barracuda class would be a better fit for the RAN than either the much larger US Virginia class or UK Astute class, neither of which we may be able to acquire anyway because they embody sensitive US technology restricted by Congress. On the other hand, and noting how French government representatives are now spruiking a strategic relationship with Australia in the Asia Pacific, the partnership with France for the future submarine does provide the benefits of keeping Australia’s options open to acquire a nuclear boat.

If this interpretation is correct, without a nuclear industry Australia will need to begin very soon to create the infrastructure required to operate nuclear submarines in the late 2020s. First, however, this new policy direction will need to be communicated to the Australian community over the next few years. What better starter for the debate than a thought piece from ASPI during a caretaker period of government?

[1] Peter Jennings, “Vive Australia’s choice of a French submarine”, The Australian, 30 April 2016.


In a former life, Jon Stanford was a Division Head in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Currently, as a Director of Insight Economics, he is undertaking significant research on Australia’s future submarine project, generously supported by Gary Johnston, owner of the Submarines for Australia website.

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8 Responses to JON STANFORD and JOHN MENADUE. The submarine confusion continues. Is the way being prepared for Australia to acquire nuclear submarines?

  1. Avatar Alexander Judzewitsch says:

    The key criteria for our Future Submarine should be based on capability, availability and price. On the capability front it must be nuclear powered. The most capable nuclear powered attack submarine today is the USA Virginia class. Our Future submarine needs to be not only superior today but also for the whole of its service life. The only submarine that is constantly being changed to ensure it stays ahead of the others is the Virginia class. Only the USA has the financial and technical capability to do so. Ideally we need a boat that we can put into service before we retire the very costly Collins because extending the Collins will be very expensive indeed and will still not give us the capability we need. The lowest priced nuclear powered attack submarine is the Virginia because it is available off the shelf and would require little if any modification. That means the risk of cost overruns or schedule delays are eliminated. We would need fewer Virginia boats to provide a superior capability – say 6 Virginia boats at $2m (current price) is the most cost effective option – even 9 would be cheaper than the Barracuda. So, before we commit to the Barracuda option (we have only committed to some design work so far) let’s at least explore the Virginia option. Talk with the USA! To create jobs, build a maintenance facility for HMAS Virginia boats in Australia and sell maintenance services to the USA for their boats serving in our region – we both benefit!

  2. Avatar RemoveWat says:

    Both sides are using software to detect the acoustic and faking acoustic characteristics and submarine is moving slowly in the environment. What happens if a submarine can fake a natural moving whale s acoustic characteristic? Modern stealth s main goal to reduce the enemy s detection range i.e. it s not a cloaking device.

  3. Avatar Peter Goon says:

    Despite what many, including our politicians, have been led to believe, ‘interoperability’ is not about having the same piece of kit and, in fact, doing so can lead to single points of failure in coalition force structures. The AIM-120 AMRAAM is but one of several current day examples.
    As every Engineer worth their salt knows, interoperability is all about interface protocols and ensuring these are designed and managed to be able to communicate and interoperate as suitably and effectively as possible. After all, the old adage of ‘strength in diversity’ still holds true, today.

  4. Avatar Hans-J Ohff says:

    Interesting and highly relevant comments even though building costs of the FSP have been quoted without an apparent understanding of what the TKMS numbers entail and without the knowledge of how much the French program will cost. But, ASPI has well and truly opened the debate of whether Australia should move from the relative secure position of a Middle Power, to the bellicose projection of a nuclear-powered Australian naval defence force.

  5. Avatar Dennis Argall says:

    The stranglehold is surely the alliance with the United States and the power of the defence force to demand complete interoperability with United States forces, which justifies acquisition of ultimate toys which become the centre of debate in place of strategic interest. We thus shift debate from broad strategic interests to the reelectability of Christopher Pyne. The Collins class surely had similar problems of trying to fit the American kitchen sink into a diesel tin can. These big beasts heirs to the magical now too small Oberon class submarines which reportedly had to run one propellor backwards to avoid calls of spoilsport from aircraft and surface vessels that would otherwise, unable to find the rotten submarine, find exercises disappointingly fruitless.

    There is analogy in all that for the hunt for strategic nobility by Australia. Tucked away as H Kissinger allegedly remarked on the strategic route to Antarctica, we thrash our propellers around the world chomping at coat tails of the strategic follies of the big bloke who justifies our top notch defence toys, such as also the F35, a superspend whose notional strategic purpose soon to be abandoned by the US, but likely still to be built for the benefit of American Pynes.

    The submarine is another legacy of a Rudd enthusiasm, the quantity of submarine requirement measured by crown jewel mirror assessment. Seen as imperial clothing submarines look ridiculous. Some leader, sometime, has to develop the nouse and courage to challenge the defence force’s domination of strategic planning. This week the United States Studies Centre at Sydney University has issued a survey report showing that Australian public opinion, away from thr enticing distortions of South Australisn politics, is at a distance from the bipartisan anxiety to be in accord with the United States. In relation to which we now face the option of Clinton under whose leadership we will be even more deeply in thr tentacular grasp of the alliance, or the Big Blonde, away from whom Australia would surely shift… as he destroys the village.

    The submarine discussion is surely in the room of ultimate hypertrophy, designing the most beautiful and expensive spots on the wings of the butterfly. In the 1970s systems analysts estimated that to protect one ore carrier going north through the Indonesian archipelago required something a bit more than the whole Australian fleet. Naval estimates are always like that. Compare with what built competitive naval programs before WW1. Sometime an adult has to come into the Australian national security council and ask “Just what are we trying to achieve here?”

    • Avatar Peter Goon says:

      Do you mean the Potemkin village, Dennis?
      A rather apt description to be sure and some might say worthy of destruction.
      Little doubt a Trump Presidency would be disruptive.

  6. Avatar Horde_ says:

    In the SEA1000 FSP, once again we see the voices of collaborative, competitive contestability (just what the ‘First Principles Review’ doctor ordered) being ignored and drowned out by those who think ‘One Defence’ rather than ‘One Australia Defence’ and whose interests/reputations along with those of their mates (past as well as present) are considered paramount over everything else; even the national interest. As has been said many times about Defence and the now defunct failed experiment known as the DMO, when you have a ‘Yes man’ working for you, one of you is redundant.

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