A sovereign SSN capability and Australia’s national security strategy

Feb 11, 2023
Submarines US Australia Collins class.

There is no way that the UK or the US would ever contemplate surrendering sovereignty over the control of its military operations to any other power. Australia should not either. If Australia is to acquire a fleet of SSNs, the government needs to negotiate an agreement that avoids counter-productive short cuts and ensures sovereign control of what would be an immensely valuable capability for the Royal Australian Navy.

In this final part of this four part series on Australia’s national security strategy, we discuss Australia’s requirement for SSNs and some of the challenges around the proposed acquisition.

Acquiring nuclear-powered attack submarines for the RAN

The mainstay of the AUKUS agreement, announced in September 2021, was the intention on the part of the US and UK to facilitate the acquisition of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) by the RAN.

Submarines represent an offensive military capability. In western navies their main role in wartime is anti-submarine warfare (ASW), closely followed by anti-surface ship warfare. In Part 3 of this series we described the destruction that a hostile submarine could visit on the ADF and the Australian homeland if it were able to reach our shores undetected. ASW is therefore a critical military capability in the defence of Australia.

Yet ASW is a difficult mission because, by their very nature and unlike warships, submarines are difficult to find. The most prospective place to look for an adversary’s submarines is proximate to their base. In peacetime, Australian submarines undertake intelligence gathering operations, often related to their potential wartime mission and therefore in the same location. Submarines have an advantage over other intelligence-gathering platforms – including satellites – because they are much less likely to be detected.

Australia’s defence strategy has been conditioned in part by the rapid increase in China’s military capability and assertive behaviour in the South China Sea and elsewhere. It is logical to assume, therefore, that a major area of operations (AO) for our submarines would be the waters surrounding China’s naval bases. Since these are located nearly 7,000 kilometres from the RAN submarine base near Fremantle, this means that we need submarines with a very long range and endurance. This would also apply to any other potential adversaries in the future.

A critical requirement for effective undersea operations is access to a network. In the Cold War the US developed a sophisticated intelligence and communications network so that NATO could counter the threat from Soviet submarines. Now known as the Integrated Undersea Surveillance System (IUSS), the network has been improved in this century with new sensor systems and the increased processing speed of modern computers.

Since RAN submarines operate ‘up threat’ far from home and need access to a network, we can reasonably assume they undertake joint covert operations with the US Navy, including in the ‘grey zone’ of the South China Sea. No details of RAN submarine operations are provided by the Defence department. But, as Chris Uhlmann once said, if you ever want to find out what the Australian military is doing, it’s best to ask the Americans.

The US Navy Submarine Force Commander produces a regular statement of intent. In the 2018 statement, for example, he states that his force works very closely (‘integrates’) with other navies: “We also integrate with our U.S., partner, and allied Navy undersea forces – including ASW aircraft and ships – that have vital undersea warfare roles.” One of his objectives was to “formalise US/Japan/Australia TASW [theatre anti-submarine warfare] initiatives”.

The Force Commander also set out the task of American submarines in their operations:

The main role of our Submarine Force is to hold the adversary’s strategic assets at risk from the undersea, the same list we want to protect: their homeland, SSBNs on patrol, carriers, critical undersea infrastructure, cyberspace, strategic ports and chokepoints, and submarines.

In pursuing these objectives, the Submarine Force will:

  • Conduct undetected operations such as strategic deterrent patrols, intelligence collection, Special Operations Forces support, non-provocative transits, and repositioning
  • Penetrate adversary defensive perimeters to deny safe haven, reduce defences, and exploit opportunities created by being inside their fence line.

Australian submarines may not undertake all these activities, yet they would provide an excellent basis for successfully enforcing the government’s new strategic policy of denial north of the archipelago. The problem is that with six conventional submarines and facing a two ocean area of operations, Australia does not currently possess anywhere near the capability necessary to achieve this. It is challenged both in terms of efficiency and effectiveness.

In regard to efficiency, the main problem is distance to the main AO. At least half of a Collins class submarine’s 70-day operation is spent in transit. This means that with six submarines in the force and accounting for maintenance, on average one submarine can be on station for only half the time, leaving no spare capacity for other operational tasks.

In terms of effectiveness, an Australian submarine’s capacity to be ‘cued’ by the network controller to track another submarine is limited by its speed. The PLA Navy is now building SSNs at a very rapid rate. As was demonstrated in the Cold War, you need an SSN to track another nuclear submarine.

One overriding problem is that from time to time a conventional submarine needs to “snort” to recharge its batteries by approaching the surface and running its diesel generators. This makes it much more prone to detection and compromises both its effectiveness and survivability.

This analysis implies that for reasons of efficiency, effectiveness and survivability, the RAN has a clear operational requirement for a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. They would constitute a powerful deterrent to any country contemplating an attack on Australia.

The deterrent effect of an SSN is demonstrated by the fact that, during the Falklands War, when the nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror revealed its presence by sinking an old cruiser, the whole Argentine Armada, with the exception of one small submarine, returned to port and never again left it.

With nine platforms, the RAN could maintain two powerful submarines on station all the time in their main AO, with others able to join them in any emergency. Armed with a substantial number of heavy weapons – long range guided torpedoes, missiles and sea mines – they could cause significant destruction to an adversary’s submarines, warships and essential infrastructure.

Beyond denial, a fleet of SSNs could potentially deliver sea control in Australia’s distant maritime approaches. SSNs would be ideally suited to enforcing Australia’s new strategy of defeating an attack as far as possible from the homeland. Remaining dived throughout and with a sustainable speed up to four times that of a conventional submarine and 50 per cent greater than a surface task force, they could create havoc in an adversary’s fleet seeking to attack Australia. This video of a Collins class submarine sinking an old frigate illustrates the destructive power of the US/Australian Mark 48 CBASS heavyweight torpedo. An SSN can embark up to 40 of them.

Yet the challenges around acquiring a sovereign SSN capability for a middle power are very substantial.


Over a decade ago, Rear Admiral Peter Briggs (RAN retired) undertook a study of what would be required for Australia to acquire SSNs. He concluded it would take at least 20 years before the RAN could commission and fully crew its first nuclear-powered submarine.

Briggs found that we would need to develop a much larger pipeline of highly trained submariners and increase the size of the uniformed Submarine Force by a factor of three in order to generate the crews for a larger SSN fleet. Not only would this take several years to achieve, but we would need to build new conventional submarines to provide the at-sea operational training necessary to develop the required competencies even before advanced training in nuclear engineering and stewardship and SSN watchkeeping.

Secondly, we should build the submarines here. Not only is there no room in overseas production lines to produce SSNs for Australia, but for reasons of sovereignty we would have to produce perhaps our most important defence capability in country. Important components such as the reactor would need to be imported, but all Australian military platforms contain imported systems.

Australia hasn’t built a submarine for 20 years. The skilled workforce has moved on long ago. It would be sensible to build more conventional submarines before wrestling with the complexity of building new nuclear-powered submarines in Australia. There is also a need for new submarines to bridge a looming capability gap as the Collins class approach retirement.

The final two challenges are cost and sovereign control of the new capability.

No defence capability should be acquired regardless of cost. We don’t yet know the cost of an SSN program and Australia would be the smallest economy to acquire them. It could be worth paying a premium for a powerful asymmetric capability like SSNs because they can do things that other assets cannot. Yet the government needs to keep an eye on the size of the premium and be very aware of the opportunity cost.

The issue of cost also plays into the need for a sovereign Australian capability. Without Australian sovereign control, it is difficult to see how the high cost of SSNs can be justified. The Defence Minister has stated that new conventional submarines will not be built. Without a much larger pipeline of submariners, providing crews for a fleet of SSNs would be highly problematic. An Australian flagged SSN force with joint RAN/US Navy crews, for example, would not constitute a sovereign capability.

Australia needs to be able to use all its defence capabilities independently in its own national interest. Perhaps of even greater importance is the ability to withdraw from involvement in any conflict initiated by an ally if it is not in Australia’s national interest. After all, while Australia should always conform with its treaty responsibilities, our alliances are defensive and should not be invoked in the event our partner makes a unilateral decision to go to war.

At the outset of AUKUS, Paul Keating warned that Australian SSNs would become a division of the US fleet. Malcolm Turnbull said that “in Europe, the AUKUS submarine deal is seen as an abandonment of Australian sovereignty”. Kurt Campbell, President Biden’s Co-ordinator for the Indo-Pacific and the father of the AUKUS agreement, is quoted as saying that with AUKUS America has succeeded in “getting Australia off the fence. We have them locked in now for the next 40 years.”

This would not be acceptable.

Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Fieldhouse RN, British commander-in-chief during the Falklands war and a submariner, once opined that “ultimately the Americans want Australian submarines to do in the Pacific what British submarines do in the Atlantic”.

There is nothing wrong with the RAN undertaking joint undersea operations with the US Navy in the Indo-Pacific in the same way as British submarines do in the North Atlantic theatre. Indeed, Australia probably gains at least as much from access to the American IUSS network as the US derives from a commitment of Australian submarines that represents a relatively small contribution to the overall force.

But there is no way that the UK (or the US for that matter) would ever contemplate surrendering sovereignty over the control of its military operations to any other power. Australia should not either. As proposed in Part 2 of this series, Australia has considerable agency in the ANZUS alliance, far more than we have had in previous decades. If Australia is to acquire a fleet of SSNs, the government needs to negotiate an agreement that avoids counter-productive short cuts and ensures sovereign control of what would be an immensely valuable capability.

Refer to the the first three parts of this series:

Part 1:

Australia’s National Security Strategy

Part 2:

The role of alliances in Australia’s national security strategy

Part 3:

Hard power and Australia’s national security strategy


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