Nuclear submarines: from “optimal” to “the best they can get”

Feb 9, 2023

The announcement of the Australian Government’s decision on the purchase of nuclear powered submarines is looming and it is timely to take a cold hard look at the “facts” rather than the inevitable spin. The more Prime Minister Albanese maintains this will be a momentous decision for Australia the more it should have been the subject of properly informed public discussion.

In Pearls and Irritations 2021 (“AUKUS and submarines: Just what are we doing? September 28 and Between AUKUS and AUSMIN, Australia has crossed the Rubicon October 3) I canvassed the key issues provoked by the surprise AUKUS decision to allow Australia to procure nuclear powered submarines. Nearly 18 months later, the Australian public is no better informed about the “optimal solution”, to be recommended from the lengthy, complicated and expensive review involving all three AUKUS governments. It is timely therefore to set out some key “facts” rather than spin.

The concept of a “submarine gap” in our part of the world emerged from a 2016 US Navy review of its force structure which concluded that it needed 66 nuclear powered attack and guided missile submarines against the 56 (including the 13 newer Virginia class) it then had. The “gap” was a result of a decline in construction following the end of the Cold War– which in 2003 the Congressional Budget Office had characterised as “the USN having taken a procurement holiday in the 1990’s”. It also estimated despite the USN’s targeted acquisition of 2 Virginia’s each year since 2012 the gap would likely widen as other classes were decommissioned and shipbuilding resources would be diverted to their replacement (the Columbias). According to the relevant USN source it still only had 50 SSN’s listed in November 2022. As has been widely reported, the two US shipbuilding companies involved are still unable to meet the annual order of 2 Virginia’s per year and the overall US submarine gap is widening. And we are no clearer what the factual basis for the repeated assertions by the previous government and their successors is that there would be no “capability gap” between the end of the ageing Collins class conventional submarines and the arrival of any Australian SSN!

Facts are even scarcer about how to fill this gap. Speculation is rife – and multiplying – that some form of a hybrid might be able to be concocted to fill the gap. One is a patently ridiculous model of an Australian flagged vessel with joint RAN/USN captains, blended crew but with US control of the nuclear powered package, missile firing etc. And as one retired US admiral has suggested, it being assigned to “its area of responsibility” – clearly within the US operational command. This would challenge all the usual service related and even general management norms. Then there is another which envisages a new vessel designed jointly by all three AUKUS countries -eventually with a blended crew. But this would also seem a prescription for problems not to mention delays unlikely to fill the gap. But presenting a “credibility gap”!

Probably even more important though are the geostrategic implications not only for any of the above but for whatever “optimal solution” may be presented. Emphasis is on the word “optimal” which probably should be interpreted as “best possible in the circumstances” – having inherited it from the Coalition. As I wrote in my 2021 articles:

Through the combination of AUKUS and AUSMIN, Australia has locked in its strategic dependence on the US — probably irreversibly, or in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s words ‘forever’. This is the culmination of a relentless effort in the past decade by successive US administrations and its military establishment to strengthen Australian defence and intelligence reliance on the US. Correspondingly, Australian governments of both persuasions have failed to accept how seriously this has eroded our independent strategic capability.”

Just to take the nuclear submarine case. Whatever the outcome from the witches brew cooking up the “optimal solution”, the acquisition of a US nuclear powered submarine not only will be dependent on the US for the its nuclear propulsion package and its missiles but also for the high levels of technology on which it depends for communications, intelligence, navigation, target acquisition, and more. In short, whatever our current leaders continue to insist, this will lock us into the US military command. And will be so perceived by our regional partners – and by China and probably the US too.

The USN’s recent surprise decision to close its SSN maintenance base in Seattle – one of only four – pending a serious review of earthquake risk has also underlined just how parlous the US SSN repair situation has become. Just last December the US Congressional Research Service issued a very detailed report (Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress) outlining the significant delays in SSN repair and maintenance. It contains frequent references to serious concern expressed by a range of US Admirals with command responsibility for submarines. There have been similar criticisms from the GAO in recent years about the poor performance on SSN maintenance reducing significantly the already deficient number of SSN’s the USN can deploy. Just a few points made in the CRS review:

The U.S. Navy has nearly twice as many submarines sidelined for maintenance than it should, and those boats in maintenance ultimately require three times more unplanned work than they should… Of the 50 attack subs 18 are in maintenance or waiting for their turn. Industry best practice would call for just 20% to be tied up in repairs, or 10 boats instead of 18:

– a submarine going into maintenance is out of the fleet for an average of 450 to 700 days, depending on the class, at a time when operational commanders are itching for all the submarine presence they can get.

– in FY22 there were 1100 delay days for the SSN’s.

– the worst case (Boise) had to wait alongside the wharf for 5 years before it could be dry docked.

– the reasons for this concerning situation are many and varied from inadequate inventory of parts, the need for cannibalisation of other vessels in the maintenance queue, poor shipyard management etc. Some experts also pointed out that the Virginia’s need more maintenance than their predecessors because their production had been rushed through at a cheaper unit cost than their predecessors without adequate planning for spares.

  • currently, just 40 to 50 percent of the required parts and material are on hand when a Virginia arrives in the ship yard.
  • some larger spare parts took a year or so to be manufactured.

In September 2022, Rear Admiral Scott Brown, the USN deputy commander of Naval Sea Systems Command for Industrial Operations summed the parlous situation up well:

“That upfront investment didn’t happen for Virginia-class, so we’re missing that whole sustainment tail, or a big portion of that … only half the parts are waiting when US Attack submarines come in for repairs … It’s resulting in a lot of churn, a lot of cannibalisation—so we have to take things off other boats to stick them on the boat we’re trying to get out—and a lot of, frankly, frustration with the workforce on waiting for stuff that doesn’t exist.”

Or Admiral Daryl Caudle, who leads U.S. Fleet Forces Command: “Let’s go to the submarine force first. The lack of capacity and the lack of performance at our public and private yards are driving availabilities—these are depot availabilities now—past our class maintenance time frames to such an extent that they have consumed all the dry docks. So if I have an emergent issue, I don’t really have good options to bring in units for those things that may be emergent dry-docking repairs. They have also forced ships—because submarines expire, their hulls expire—for them to be tied up alongside waiting on their availability to start because there’s no place to put them. We call those idle submarines…The number of idle submarines has crept up over time. They fluctuate now between five to, worst case, it got to a point we were at about nine out. So these are submarines just sitting pierside because the hulls expired, they can’t submerge and they’re not ready to go into their depot availability. This backlog is causing me to lose fleet size due to this problem.”

For Australian policy makers to ignore – or downplay- the all too obvious implications of this demonstrably unacceptable maintenance situation for SSN’s in the US would be little short of scandalous – and potentially damaging to our national security interests. Even with the most “optimal” solution we will still have to rely upon nuclear capable USN facilities for much of our serious maintenance issues and the US track record of the Virginia class has been such that these are likely to be significant. The reduction of such facilities in the Pacific to one (Pearl Harbour in Hawaii) – however temporary – will definitely exacerbate the maintenance challenges for Australian submarines which realistically will struggle for priority with the USN in the shipyard queues.

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