Good news on nukes: US can’t sell Australia nuclear subs

Jul 12, 2023
nuclear-powered attack submarine PCU Virginia (SSN 774)

The good news is the US can’t sell Australia the three to five used Virginia class nuclear subs that the Albanese government has announced it will buy. Nor will it sell us any new ones.

The chief of US Naval operations Admiral Michael Gilday was recently reported from Washington as saying the US shipyards are only producing subs at a rate of about 1.2 a year. He says a minimum of two a year is needed to fill the Navy’s own requirements. Until then, he said, “We’re not going to be in a position to sell any to the Australians”. A senior Biden advisor, Kurt Campbell added there was also “a troublingly large number of submarines in drydock that needed to be back into the water quickly”.

If Albanese were genuinely a good friend of America, he would say, “We don’t want to deprive you of any nuclear submarines, so we’ll buy readily available conventional subs that serve our needs”. Instead of grabbing this chance to get out of an impossible commitment, he behaves as if everything is still on track.

Another reason to abandon the whole idea of getting US nuclear subs is that Campbell also said that if any were sold to Australia, they would not be “lost to America”. In other words, the US could use them whenever it liked under the policy the Defence minister, Richard Marles has announced of making Australia’s equipment “interchangeable” with the Americans. Contrary to Albanese and Marles’ claims, we can’t have a sovereign capability if we have to hand back US equipment we’ve just bought from it.

Selling Australia second hand subs is not feasible either, as it would reduce the total number available in the US fleet. At present, the US has 21 Virginia attack class submarines and 29 older Los Angeles class that make up its previous target of 50. Serious maintenance problems mean that only a quarter of the Virginia class are available for operational duties. As a result, only a quarter of the total fleet is operationally available at any one time.

In April, Newsweek explained the maintenance problems with the Virginia class have led the Pentagon to increase the total number of attack submarines from 50 to 66. Newsweek said nuclear submarines “have become so complex, the only way the Navy can appreciably increase its level of operations against Russia, and China is by building many more”. The Albanese government has promised to inject $3bn into the US shipyards. The US spends almost $900 bn a year on its notoriously wasteful military. Our $3 bn won’t make a difference.

The US has two good agencies overseeing procurement problems with military equipment – the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office, plus knowledgeable American journalists. The reports from these sources are readily available, so why hasn’t the Defence department kept the government aware of the pitfalls in its chosen path to obtain nuclear subs? One plausible possibility is no one in the Defence department reads these reports. Another is that the Albanese government doesn’t want to hear bad news with a pet project.

The second hand US subs were due to start arriving in 2035 to fill the gap until we build eight of our own in Adelaide each displacing about 10,000 tonnes. However, it is highly likely that less than two will be available for operational duty. Part of the reason is that these subs, called the “AUKUS” class, will be designed by a combination of Australia, the US and the UK – a recipe for confusion, squabbling and delay. Yet the government has estimated that, including contingencies, they could cost $368 bn by 2050.

In contrast, most modern conventional subs have very low maintenance costs. It would enhance Australia’s defence preparedness if it did the obvious thing and dropped it attempts to get nuclear subs and bought readily available smaller conventional ones that are superior in almost every respect to nukes.

One big disadvantage of a US nuclear reactor is it uses weapons grade uranium fuel that has to be dismantled after the sub finishes its 33-year life. The fuel then has to be processed overseas, returned to Australia, buried in thick drums a minimum of 400 metres below stable rock and monitored for several hundred years.

These subs don’t even use nuclear propulsion. Instead, they are propelled by steam engines, like Puffing Billy. All the nuclear reactor does is heat the water to make the steam. It’s a glorified hot water system. Another big drawback is that hot water from the reactor is continuously expelled from a nuke, creating an infrared signature detectable from space. Other than at low speed, nukes leave an easily detected wake on the surface.

Worse, Rex Patrick, a former submariner and ex-Senator, has pointed out that once nuclear submarines go above a low speed, acoustic tiles on their hulls become loose and start to flap, making an easily detected noise, before some fall off. After startling photos of the extensive damage were shown to a Parliamentary committee hearing, Admiral Hammond protested the photos were taken at the end of a long patrols. But long voyages at high-speed are supposed to be a great advantage of nuclear submarines. Patrick said, “I wonder how comfortable the Admiral would be landing at Heathrow Airport in London from Sydney, with the captain advising that the parts of the wings normally fall off on long haul flights”.

It’s now widely accepted that advances in sensor technology and data processing will render oceans transparent by 2050. Large metal boats travelling underwater will be more easily detected and destroyed than smaller ones. But Vice Admiral Mead, who had 350 staff working on the best way to get nukes, said in an interview with the Guardian that the answer to this problem is to use small underwater drones controlled from a nuke at a safe distance. Underwater drones have a big future. However, it is much better to control them from a cheap platform rather than a massively expensive remote control device called a nuclear submarine that can’t risk being detected doing what it was purchased for.

The first of the eight we build in Adelaide might not be operationally available to almost 2050 and the last by 2070. This assumes nothing will change in the strategic outlook before then. No one knows what the future holds. Peace might have broken out if we take arms control seriously, or a war may start in response to fake intelligence about Taiwan. In the circumstances, we would be wise not to get big, expensive, easily detected submarines which will be increasingly useless.

This means choosing smaller modern conventional ones, but not the Navy’s plans for a newly built version of the clapped-out Collins class, called the “Son of Collins”, that is meant to fill the gap between when Collins class starts retiring in 2026 and the nukes eventually arrive. This stop gap sub will still use lead acid batteries which have to be charged every couple of days. This requires surfacing to put up a snorkel that can be detected by radar, when the sub can be sunk.

Because the Navy insists on keeping lead acid batteries, the Son of Collins can’t achieve near silent operation by using modern high-performance batteries that only have to be charged every three weeks or even later. Much quieter operation can also be achieved by using a hydrogen fuel cell or sterling engine for propulsion, but the Navy doesn’t like those either. Apparently, survival of the crew and the sub it’s not a priority for the current Labor Party leadership.

Options include a German designed sub similar to those by Singapore and others. It has a long range, a fuel cell and crew of 28 – a big advantage when the Navy finds it hard to recruit crew. The Collins class has about 52 crew; a nuclear sub about 130. The Japanese Navy is already operating a fully electric sub with a crew of 70. It insists the chemical compound in the batteries is safe and achieves a high speed and long endurance. Because lithium ion batteries can catch fire, its essential to use a safe compound for the battery chemistry. The Germans are offering a lithium iron [ion] phosphate battery that should be safe and cheaper. The Swedish A26 sub has a small crew and a sterling engine. South Korea will soon launch a big sub with what it says is a crew of 50 and safe modern electric batteries. However, bigger subs can be easier to detect.

Figures Rex Patrick got from the Parliamentary research service show we could get 12 of these modern, high-quality conventional submarines for a project cost of $18 bn. This is a bargain compared to the government’s estimate of $368 bn for N subs. The next most expensive program is $16 bn for 72 F-35 trouble plagued fighter planes.

The value of submarines is often overstated. In many cases, fighter planes, maritime patrol planes or drones would be more useful. A fighter plane could sink an enemy ship in the Indian Ocean in the morning, refuel at its base at Tindal in the Northern Territory, and sink another one in the afternoon. A nuclear submarine would take much longer to cover the required distance from its base at Fremantle.

The value of being hard to detect was demonstrated in two exercises. In one off Hawaii called Rimpac, a German designed South Korean sub “sunk” the entire US surface fleet without being detected in a two week exercise. A Swedish sub did the same in an exercise in the Mediterranean. The US Navy then leased two Swedish subs to let their carriers practice finding them.

Nuclear subs also don’t have an impeccable safety record. In October 2021 the USS Connecticut ran into an undersea mountain in the South China Sea, injuring 11 sailors. The Navy subsequently relieved the commanding officer, executive officer and the boat’s chief of their duties. An official inquiry found, “Grounding at this speed and depth had the potential for more serious injuries, fatalities and even the loss of the ship”. Photos of the Connecticut show it tethered to a tug to stay afloat and with its bow sheared off and its sonar dome missing. Although the South China Sea is a very crowded, the US sub turned off its sonar pings which basically let it “see” where it’s going. Next time it could run into a friendly sub in the SCS.

Australia doesn’t need to regularly deploy submarines into Southeast Asia, let alone up near China. Our subs are not needed because Japan, South Korea, Singapore and US all have submarines closer than us to China, the target. The Defence Strategic Review clearly recommends that Australia’s “northern approaches should be the primary area of military interest”. That’s where our submarines should mainly be deployed to dissuade an enemy entering waters where they could be sunk by one of our submarines.

To justify buying Nukes, Albanese and Marles have revived the discredited doctrine of forward defence. It failed Australia with destruction of the big British naval base at Singapore that was supposed to provide forward defence before WW2. The Vietnam war was supposed to do the same but didn’t.

Now Marles and Albanese justify buying Nukes because they could be forward deployed off the Chinese coast to fire cruise missiles into the mainland. Once the first missiIe was fired, it would be detected and the sub could be sunk, leaving us with only one operational one.

To his great credit, the coalition defence minister in 1969, Allan Fairhall accepted there was no threat from Vietnam to Australia and scrapped the forward defence doctrine in favour of defending Australia closer to home.

It should never be forgotten Vietnam won the war at an estimated cost of 3 million lives. It still shows no sign of invading Australia. Nor does modern China. It has never started a major war of aggression, unlike the US and Australia.

Albanese showed little interest in defence before becoming PM. He has a loose grip on the subject. He said in interview in December last year, “Because of our values, Australia won’t attack any other nation”. But it did so in Iraq in 2003 and Vietnam in 1965. As far as I’m aware, the rest of the mainstream media did not report this staggering display of ignorance.

The Albanese government refuses to rock the boat on most domestic policy issues. But it is extremely radical in pushing so hard to get nuclear submarines, despite all the reasons outlined above not to do so.

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