Very bad advice: $368b nuclear submarines and the Federal budget

May 9, 2023
Adelaide, South Australia - January 26, 2014: Australian Submarine Corporation Collins Class submarine construction progress for the Royal Australian Navy in Osborne dock at Port Adelaide.

At a time when the Reserve Bank’s interest rate rise is adding to cost of living pressures and increasing the chances of a recession, Albanese is finding it hard to justify the staggering $368 billion cost of AUKUS nuclear submarines.

Anthony Albanese says it only took him 24 hours to decide to back the AUKUS pact between Australia, the UK and the US. And not much longer, it seems, to decide to get nuclear submarines, if not precisely how. The rush shows. At a time when the Reserve Bank’s interest rate rise is adding to cost of living pressures and increasing the chances of a recession, Albanese is finding it harder to justify the staggering $368 billion cost of these submarines. As explained below, this is 20 times more than 12 superior conventional submarines would cost.

So he’s taken to claiming the job creation benefits of building a handful of subs in Adelaide is just as important as the national security benefits. During his visit to England for the Coronation, Albanese visited Barrow-in-Furness where the Astute class nuclear submarines were built. The shipyard employs 11,000 people­, which is due to rise to 17,000. Albanese said, “I see this is being very similar to what the car industry provided for Australia in the post-war period.” In fact, employment in car manufacturing in Australia was much higher at its peak. Employment dropped by 80,000 between 1973 and 1980, yet it was still 45,000 in 2015. Large sums of government funding failed to ensure car manufacturing survived.

Albanese’s government estimates that 20,000 jobs will be created by building seven submarines, called the AUKUS class, at Adelaide. Although sharing the design work for a highly complex product is rarely successful, it will be done in this case between the three AUKUS countries. The construction jobs won’t start to flow at discernible rate until shortly after 2040. Yet Albanese implies the job benefits will be available before the next election. If job creation is the goal, there are much better ways to achieve it.

Given Albanese’s excitement about the quality of the work done at Barrow-in-Furness, it’s worth looking at what actually happened. The National Interest reported in November 2021 that, although the first boat, HMS Astute, had been laid down in 2001, the key design and production facilities had atrophied, resulting in delays and cost overruns that continue to harry the program today. Basic drafting and engineering skills had deteriorated. Problems emerged with software used to design the sub. After HMS Astute entered service in 2014, the crew suffered from excessive heat. It ran aground during sea trials a month after delivery.

Earlier, the Guardian reported in 2012 that during exercises that year a pipe carrying seawater from the back of the submarine to the reactor sprang a leak, forcing the boat to surface. An investigation revealed that a cap was made from the wrong metal, but construction records said the right metal had been installed. The Guardian also said a lead-lined water jacket surrounding the reactor core was fitted with substandard lead, creating a risk that electrical charges in the lead could generate false readings in instruments monitoring the state of the reactor.

A confidential Ministry of Defence memo obtained by the Guardian says extensive corrosion is “a cause for major concern”. The memo said the damage means “severe problems” can be expected in future and warns that the submarines will have to spend more time than planned under repair. All is now supposed to be going well.

Although he knows almost nothing about submarines, Albanese gave the go-ahead to acquire nuclear ones without insisting on a cost effectiveness study showing how they compare to modern conventional versions. An objective study would’ve shown the latest conventional ones are superior – they are much harder to detect and are operationally available far more often because they don’t suffer few serious maintenance problems. The program cost of twelve high quality conventional subs is only about $18 billion compared to $368 billion for 11 nuclear ones that repeatedly break down.

In the circumstances, Albanese’s failure to consider conventional submarines before going nuclear was deeply irresponsible. Perhaps he wasn’t told by his advisors. In any event, no Australian official has publicly mentioned this huge drawback in acquiring nuclear submarines.

Quoting from secret US Navy documents, Newsweek on April 19 confirmed earlier authoritative reports showing that only a quarter of America’s Virginia class submarines are operationally available at any one time, due to highly complex maintenance problems. The highly regarded American defence analyst defence analyst Winslow Wheeler gave the same figure in 2021. Surely someone in Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead Admiral Mead’s 350 strong advisory team group advising Albanese on nuclear submarines should have stumbled across it.

Mead gave an astonishing interview to the Guardian published on March 8 and 9 this year. Mead wrongly described Australia’s existing Collins class conventional submarines as “the most advanced in the world”. They are certainly not. They lack modern equipment such as fuel cells and advanced batteries that let submarines operate extremely quietly for sustained periods without having to rise to the surface to recharge their batteries every day or two, unlike the Collins class. Modern German, Japanese and South Korean ones are in this category. These submarines have low sustainment costs, unlike the Collins class where this burden has hit almost $700 million a year, not including fuel and crew costs. Taking the Collins out of service would free up billions in funding for new conventional submarines.

Because nuclear subs are significantly bigger than most conventional subs, they are easier to detect as they move through the earth’s magnetic field and the water column. Rapid advances in sensor power and computer processing increase the chances of subs’ detection – and destruction. Mead said he had taken account of the prospect oceans would become more transparent by 2050. His solution is to use underwater drones in places where you don’t want a nuclear submarine to be detected. That would be just about everywhere that the presence of nuclear submarine was supposed to be important. Apparently, the nuclear sub would control a drone at a safe distance. In this case, far cheaper platforms can be used to control the drones.

Mead claimed that nuclear-powered submarines enabled them to remain undetected. On the contrary, nuclear submarines are comparatively noisy because they rely on a reactor to heat the water for steam engines to propel the boat. The process creates noise from cooling pumps, turbines, alternating currents, and steam flowing through the pipes. These subs also expel hot water that can be readily detected, as can the wake they leave when travelling at high speeds.

Mead says the submarines will aim “to deter anyone seeking to do harm to Australia” and notes the country is heavily reliant on international trade and underwater telecommunications. Given that Australia will only have two nuclear submarines operationally available at any time after the full complement arrive, this will be of little use when Australia’s international trade relies on tens of thousands of shipping movements every year. Moreover, China as a major trading country, has no motive to block any trading ships outside a war. If a war occurs, shipping companies will not risk their ships straying into danger. Many countries try to protect their underwater telecommunications. Submarines (both conventional and nuclear) are only one of many contributors to this task.

Mead said the Navy would implement the most stringent security protocols to make sure the submarines’ sealed reactors are not opened for the life of the boat. This is relatively easy. It’s what happens after they retire that’s hard. For safety reasons, the submarines should be dismantled. The severely radioactive waste fuel left from highly enriched weapons grade uranium used in the reactors must be stored in stable rocks, deep underground. This is the critical issue that Australian ministers and officials do not want to confront.

It also another horrendous problem that conventional submarines don’t have.

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