Jon Stanford. Australia’s New Submarine: What is its Mission?

Oct 22, 2015

Recent papers published in Pearls and Irritations by Jon Stanford and Rear-Admiral Ian Richards have suggested respectively that:

  • the case for providing significant financial support to the naval shipbuilding industry is flawed, both on defence policy and industry policy grounds
  • there are unacceptable risks involved in building Australia’s proposed new fleet of submarines locally.

In this article I seek to move back from the issue of local or overseas acquisition of the new submarines and attempt first to address the more fundamental question of what exactly the Australian government wants these submarines to do. That then leads on to the second question of what technologies the submarines will need to deploy in order to undertake this mission most effectively and at minimal risk to their crews.

What is the new submarine for?

The role for the new submarines was set out in the 2009 Defence White Paper prepared by the Rudd government. This remains a remarkable document, particularly in the context of a genre usually characterised by emollient phraseology, platitudes and evasion.[1] In setting out how Australia’s strategic circumstances have changed, largely due to the rise of China, it ventured into territory where previous Defence White Papers had feared to tread:

“It is conceivable that, over the long period covered by this White Paper, we might have to contend with major power adversaries operating in our approaches – in the most drastic circumstance, as a consequence of a wider conflict in the Asia-Pacific region. In such a circumstance, it is not a current defence planning assumption that Australia would be involved in such a conflict on its own. But we do assume that, except in the case of nuclear attack, Australia has to provide for its own local defence needs without relying on the combat forces of other countries. The Government considered such contingencies because although they are unlikely, they are not so remote as to be beyond contemplation. …In such circumstances, in order to defend ourselves we might also have to selectively project military power beyond the primary operational environment described in this White Paper, for instance in maritime Southeast Asia.” (Page 65.)

The key requirement here is for the ADF to be capable, not only of operating independently and without the protection of a ‘great and powerful friend’, but ultimately of unilaterally projecting military power a long way from home, in maritime Southeast Asia. Indeed, the White Paper explicitly states that “we will use strategic strike if we have to” (page 59).

It soon becomes clear from the White Paper that the new submarine would discharge a number of roles, including that of being the primary asset for the delivery of strategic strike:

“The Future Submarine will be capable of a range of tasks such as anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare; strategic strike; mine detection and mine-laying operations; intelligence collection; supporting special forces (including infiltration and exfiltration missions); and gathering battle space data in support of operations. “(Page 70.)

How will the strategic strike capability be delivered? The acquisition of cruise missiles was seen as a key priority, to be delivered by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), and, if operating in waters a long way from Australia, it seems clear that submarine launched missiles would be the preferred means of delivery:

“The Government places a priority on broadening our strategic strike options, which will occur through the acquisition of maritime-based land-attack cruise missiles. These missiles will be fitted to the AWD, Future Frigate and Future Submarine. …The incorporation of a land-attack cruise missile capability will be integral to the design and construction of the Future Frigate and Future Submarine”. (Pages 70 and 81.)

The 2009 White Paper has been quoted at length because it set out in quite precise terms what the future submarine’s multi-role mission would be. The 2013 White Paper, produced by the Gillard government, was far more reticent in every way than the 2009 version, and was virtually silent on the role required of the new submarine.[2] Yet while the tone may have changed, neither the strategic posture nor the requirements for the future submarine as laid out in the 2009 White Paper have been refuted or significantly amended in subsequent government statements.

More recently, for example, as evidence of the changed emphasis since 2009, the previous Chief of Navy (2011-14), Rear Admiral Ray Griggs, defined the major operational task for the future submarine as “sinking hostile ships and submarines. In contrast, other roles such as intelligence collection, transporting special force teams and land strike using cruise missiles are very much secondary and not significant design drivers.” Yet force projection operations far from home for the submarines still appear to be high on the agenda. “The area of operations seems clear. Admiral Griggs considers the South China Sea as the area of most interest.”[3]

In summary, therefore, while the tone may have become more diplomatic, in public at least, the overall mission of the future submarine is very much along the lines set out in the 2009 White Paper. If some roles have been downplayed by Admiral Griggs, none of them has been deleted from the list. Indeed, in proposing that the main area of operations for the future submarine will be the South China Sea, a contested and congested location not easily accessed from Australia, Admiral Griggs has endorsed a high risk, proactive role for the new boats a long way from base. This is entirely consistent with the 2009 White Paper.

Technology: what kind of submarine does Australia need?

What does this imply for the design of the new submarine? The problem is that some of the roles set out in the 2009 White Paper and later described by the then Chief of Navy can only be effectively discharged by a nuclear powered attack submarine (SSN). Undertaking strategic strike missions, for example, landing special forces or attacking warships and submarines in the South China Sea requires a submarine to have two important attributes apart from state-of-the-art sensors and weaponry.

The first vital attribute is high speed. The 2009 White Paper tacitly acknowledged this (page 70): “long transits and potentially short-notice contingencies in our primary operational environment demand high levels of mobility and endurance in the Future Submarine”. A SSN can make 35 knots underwater indefinitely, while a conventional submarine (SSK) may travel at 20 knots using its batteries but only for very short distances. Using air independent propulsion (AIP) it proceeds at a leisurely four knots. The second attribute is a low indiscretion rate. A nuclear submarine never needs to surface when in its patrol zone whereas a SSK without AIP needs to come to periscope depth, where it can be detected by hostile forces, relatively frequently in order to charge its batteries.

Overall, the high transit speed of a SSN and its ability to remain submerged for weeks on end provide immense strategic advantages. As the British demonstrated in the Falklands War after sinking the General Belgrano, the threat posed by the presence of one or more SSNs can lock up an enemy fleet in port and take it entirely out of the game.

The government, therefore, has written a job description for a nuclear powered submarine. Yet the 2009 White Paper states clearly (page 70) that the “Government has ruled out nuclear propulsion for these submarines”. This decision has been endorsed by subsequent governments. There is an inherent contradiction here that needs to be addressed.

To be sure, Defence has stated that Australia’s new submarine will have a greater ability than Collins to remain submerged for longer. Of the three contenders for the contract, both the French and German shipbuilders are offering AIP. This solution would allow the submarines to remain submerged for about two weeks. Speed, however, is limited to less than five knots and the AIP units are heavy and expensive.

The third contender, the Japanese evolved Soryu class, proposes a different technology, with Lithium-ion batteries replacing lead acid batteries and without recourse to AIP systems. This is potentially a more effective solution and with the rapid development occurring in Lithium-ion technology may well become much better still in the future. More powerful batteries would allow a higher underwater speed, greater endurance and a lower indiscretion rate. Yet there are some significant problems to be overcome. For example, Japanese Lithium-ion batteries used in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner have been known to catch fire, an unacceptable outcome in a submerged submarine, particularly one that is operating in hostile waters.

While an SSK using AIP or Lithium-ion may be quieter than a nuclear submarine, the advantage when compared to a modern American or British SSN such as Virginia or Astute is now marginal. This benefit is outweighed by a considerably slower transit speed for the SSK, slower speed when operating submerged and higher indiscretion rate.

Until recently the RAN did not need to consider the acquisition of nuclear submarines in order to retain its technological edge in the region. Only the Americans and Russians operated nuclear submarines in their Pacific fleets and the games they played were predominantly with each other. In the Asian maritime region, first Australia’s Oberon class and then, in their early years at least, the Collins class were leaders in technology. A few other countries operated less effective conventional submarines but nothing that would cause any concern to the RAN.

That situation has now changed substantially. Several countries in the region operate boats that are technologically more advanced than the Collins class. Even some SSKs, particularly those that are equipped with AIP, outclass Collins in important respects. Of more concern is the upsurge in nuclear submarine acquisitions. Apart from the United States and Russia, both China and India now operate nuclear submarines in the maritime Asia-Pacific and are building up their fleets. Some of these boats have the capability to attack Australian cities with ballistic and cruise missiles. China and India are also building SSNs designed to hunt and destroy other submarines, with the slower SSKs being most vulnerable to such attacks.

The role of China’s nuclear submarine fleet is fairly clear. If positioned west of Hawaii, the new Jin class of ballistic missile submarines could threaten the whole of the continental United States as well as Australia. On the other hand, the role for the Shang class of SSNs apparently is to establish a strong presence in the South and East China Seas. According to one commentator:

“One goal of Chinese submarines is to create an anti-access/area denial zone up to what it refers to as the First Island Chain, consisting of the Kuril Islands, Japan, Taiwan, and the South China Sea. The chain represents the absolute minimum to defend the Chinese mainland. The second goal would be to enforce China’s claims on the East and South China Seas.”[4]

While China’s current fleet of nuclear submarines may lag behind western technological standards at this stage, that nation’s ability to catch up with the west in a short period of time should never be underestimated. Currently, for example, the civilian nuclear industry is developing at a rapid pace in China, with considerable resources devoted to small modular nuclear reactors (aka nuclear submarine power plants). China is also leaping forward in the area of defence electronic systems, particular sensors. Given that Australia’s new submarine will remain in service for perhaps 40 years, it is important to ensure that it is not outclassed before the first boat has left the shipyard.

In a paper on the Future Submarine presented in 2014, Andrew Davies, a naval specialist at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), has analysed future trends in anti-submarine warfare. He concluded that developments in technology, particularly in sensors, would make life increasingly difficult for all submarines, but particularly SSKs. He stated that:

“The design of the future submarine has to be cognisant of these trends, which will make penetration of adversary space or operations in contested chokepoints by the submarine itself very much harder. Basing our investment around traditional ideas of submarine operations isn’t likely to be a winning strategy a couple of decades from now”.[5]

Davies goes on to summarise the implications of his analysis for Australia’s future submarine:

“The net summary is that future submarines will need to:

  • operate away from chokepoints and contested spaces but be able to project influence into them
  • have a low indiscretion rate
  • be a hub for a suite of long-range sensor and weapon systems
  • be networked with other units, including electronic warfare platforms and systems
  • be able to manoeuvre quickly in response to a rapidly changing threat environment.”[6]

Davies goes on to say: “of course, that list pretty much says ‘SSN’, but that’s not going to happen”. Because of that restriction Australia needs “to decide whether our subs are going to play in the highest end operations. If we decide we need to, we’re necessarily going up the risk reward curve for a conventional boat.” In layman’s terms, that means that if Australia decides to employ a SSK to undertake missions suitable only for a SSN, the lives of the crew would be put at high risk.


Drawing these threads together, it is not difficult to conclude that, unless the government downgrades the tasks it expects the future submarine to undertake, Australia’s next submarine needs to be nuclear powered. First, any SSK, even a leading-edge boat using Lithium-ion batteries, cannot dominate the battlespace in a region of the world where other countries are deploying nuclear submarines. Secondly, to send a conventional submarine into the South China Sea to attack hostile warships and submarines, to launch cruise missiles or conduct infiltration and exfiltration missions on a hostile shore would not be an efficient or effective use of naval assets and it would place naval personnel at very considerable risk.

The next question is whether Australia is capable of acquiring and operating a fleet of nuclear submarines. Clearly there would be major hurdles, apart from the domestic political issues (incidentally, it would be impossible to build a SSN locally). First, we would need US support which is not likely to be forthcoming. This may well be negotiable, however, particularly if Australia agreed to assume a greater defence responsibility in the region in the context of the US strategic tilt to Asia.[7] Secondly, because we have no nuclear industry, conventional wisdom suggests Australia cannot maintain a nuclear submarine’s reactor. Perhaps the US Navy could be engaged to undertake this task, preferably in Australia but if necessary in Hawaii.

If Australia were to acquire an established class of nuclear submarines from the US or Britain the cost could be substantially lower than acquiring a fleet of newly designed SSKs, particularly if they had to be built in Adelaide. We would certainly not require more than six SSNs and, in contrast to the three conventional submarine offerings currently on the table, we would be buying a tried and tested model. We could also acquire them much more quickly and allow the troubled Collins class to sail into a merciful sunset.

Alternatively, we could accept that Australia would never go to war with a major adversary except as a member of a coalition led by the United States. In that case we could appropriately leave force projection activities in the South China Sea to the US Navy. The role of the ADF, inter alia, would then be to deny any adversary access to the approaches to Australia’s littoral. This may well be a much more realistic and less risky strategy.

But that raises a critical question. Do we need to spend up to $40 billion on new submarines in order to defend Australia’s maritime approaches? The answer to this may well be in the negative because Australia is already acquiring a number of other advanced defence assets that can accomplish this. These include a new generation of frigates that will be highly capable in anti-submarine warfare (ASW). These will be networked into very substantial RAAF assets, including the six airborne early warning Boeing Wedgetails, up to 12 Boeing P-8 Poseidon long-range maritime patrol aircraft, 36 Super Hornets (including 12 of the very advanced electronic warfare ‘Growler’ version) and 72 F-35 joint strike fighters. We already have an excellent aerial refuelling capability. With its ability to locate and destroy hostile submarines as well as surface ships, the new Poseidon in particular will be an important asset in denying access to Australia’s approaches. It is therefore difficult to see how a SSK would be required to play a role here.

Finally, to venture into more sensitive territory, it is not difficult to deduce that the main reason the US is keen for Australia to acquire a new generation of SSKs is not power projection but rather the contribution they would make to intelligence gathering, specifically in the area of communications electronics support measures (CESM). The Kestrel CESM system fitted to the Collins class, for example, provides “wideband signal search, narrowband audio interception and direction finding (DF) over the HF, VHF and UHF bands”.[8] Apart from the considerable strategic benefit offered by the intelligence it provides, this capability presently gives Australia valuable ‘coin’ in the intelligence sharing agreement with the US. Whether or not it could be provided safely and effectively by sophisticated aircraft (manned and unmanned) or satellites rather than submarines is a key question.

Prime Minister Turnbull has stated that, across the broad spectrum of government policy, all options are on the table. In that context, mature analysis of these strategic considerations, before committing to buy very costly submarines, is a major priority. The issue of whether or not the submarines should be built in Adelaide pales into insignificance next to these fundamental questions.


Jon Stanford is a Director of Insight Economics. He had a significant career as an economist in the Australian Public Service, ultimately in the department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. He has worked extensively on economic and policy issues around defence procurement and naval shipbuilding both in the public service and subsequently as a consultant. 


[1] Australian Government (2009), Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century, Defence White Paper, Canberra.

[2] Australian Government (2013), Defending Australia and its National Interests, Defence White Paper 2013, Canberra, pages 81-82.

[3] Peter Layton (2015), “Australia’s next submarine – will it be the Soryu”, Defence Today, Vol 11, No 4, page 8.

[4] Kyle Mizokami (2013), “Asia’s Submarine Race”, USNI News, US Naval Institute, November,

[5] Andrew Davies (2014), Trends in submarine and anti-submarine warfare, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Canberra,

[6] Ibid.

[7] In recent times the US has been more forthcoming in terms of its willingness to transfer sensitive defence technologies to Australia. To date, for example, Australia is the only country outside the US to acquire the highly advanced electronic warfare EA-18G ‘Growler’ version of the Super Hornet fighter-bomber.

[8] Daronmont Technologies,

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