Will we ever get those nuclear submarines?

Oct 18, 2021
Australian Collins-class submarine HMAS Rankin
Image: US National Archives

Chronic problems in US Navy shipyards and questions over the future viability of attack submarines in their current roles cast doubt on the Morrison government’s controversial defence decision.

Regardless of whether the construction of a China threat by the United States, which Australia subscribes to, is politically or strategically rational, the fact remains that it is the lodestone for US strategy in general, and the US Navy in particular. It orders the priorities of who gets what, where, and when. In this case, the proponents of AUKUS, with the recently announced intention to acquire nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy, should take note if the US is the prospective supplier.

The US has well-documented serious and chronic naval shipyard problems. According to a September 2020 report covering the period 2015–2019 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the US Navy is already struggling to maintain and keep at sea the 300 ships it has now.

Specifically, the navy is losing the equivalent of 15 ships each year due to maintenance delays — a figure that casts doubt on the service’s ability to repair and maintain the hundreds of ships it plans to add in coming years.

The GAO found that 75 per cent of the navy’s carrier and submarine fleets are unable to make it through scheduled repairs on time, averaging 113 days overdue for carriers and 225 days for submarines. In 2017, for example, 15 US nuclear-powered submarines were out of service for a total of 177 months, the equivalent of 15 submarine-years.

In order to keep the existing fleet operational, and to build the planned additions, there needs to be substantial growth at the navy’s four government-owned shipyards — all of which are more than 100 years old — and in its partnerships with private shipyards on the east and west coasts.

Even then, access is not enough: there is the issue of intellectual property rights, among other factors. The Pentagon’s private industry contractors hold the Department of Defense hostage by withholding data on the complex weapons systems they provide, ensuring they operate in a highly privileged arrangement funded by the government. This is a highly lucrative relationship for the corporations given that the post-acquisition maintenance costs outstrip the original purchase costs by several factors.

If the outcomes were acceptable this rent-seeking might almost be tolerable. But this qualification is not met. The problem is that these enterprises, over many years, have become synonymous with producing flawed ship concepts and disastrous programmes while being showered with public monies. These funds were then used for private gain in the form of stock buybacks, which benefited shareholders, rather than for essential fleet modernisation.

If this hints at a form of normalised corruption, it is. To review the many reports of the GAO is to discover a repository of source materials for mass entertainment: documentaries, novels and television series, and even manuals on organised crime.

Last month the GAO released the findings of yet another investigation which concluded that the Pentagon has failed to combat multiple forms of explicit corruption, waste and fraud, including fraudulent bid submissions, counterfeit parts, billing for work not performed and disguised conflicts of interest. The cost of these defaults is measured in the billions.

Translated into what the US Navy sees at its imperative submarine fleet requirements, and where this places Australia’s future nuclear-powered submarine, the horizon is obscured by logistical storms and fog.

In 2020 the head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, made it clear that to carry out his command’s declared operational role, he needed submarines in numbers that the US Navy simply does not have, in the Pacific or anywhere else. What he claimed he needed was almost twice the number of submarines available.

It is a compound problem: too many existing boats in the Virginia class are unavailable because of maintenance delays that are likely to continue. And that foreshadows an immediate problem with designing, building and maintaining the future fleet over at least the next 20 years.

Clearly Australia’s future nuclear-powered submarine, or SSN, is inextricably enmeshed in the pathologies and priorities of the US Navy.

If the proposition is that because the Collins class submarines are being phased out before a future SSN is delivered and operational then the Royal Australian Navy needs to lease an existing Los Angeles class SSN from the US, then two impediments are obvious.

The first is that for every SSN leased to the Australian navy, the US Navy exacerbates its deployment problems; the second is the likely cost associated with leasing. In April last year, three Los Angeles class submarines — USS Boise, USS Hartford, and USS Columbia — were awaiting maintenance in private yards. The total estimated cost was $US653 million. Presumably something similar would precede any Australian take-over in view of the fact that this class is old and demanding.

If, however, Australia opts for a British (Astute class) boat, should one be available, the decision will be notable for at least three reasons:

First, it would be is a gift to British industrial policy as it attempts to redress the precipitous loss of high-level skills that need to be maintained in the UK, especially in submarine construction and maintenance.

Second, it would integrate Australia into a realm of British industrial policy that is desperate to perpetuate the current monopoly situation: specifically, the UK’s only submarine construction facility, BAE’s site at Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria; its only naval nuclear reactor provider, the Rolls Royce factory in Derby; and its submarine maintenance contractor, Babcock International.

Third, it would be a decision taken in the face of the history of the Astute class: underestimated technological challenges, significant delays and massive cost overruns. By early 2009, the Astute programme was running nearly five years late and 53 per cent over budget.

If Australia decided on this option, the earliest a boat could be started on would be in the late 2020s and many variables would have to be in its favour, domestically and globally, for this to happen.

By way of just one example of a vexed question, a hard-of-hearing establishment in Whitehall will demand that “Australian content” be minimal in order to safeguard British employment, whereas an audience in Adelaide will demand the exact opposite for the same generic reason.

It will not be the only discussion and debate in which deafness or acuity of hearing will play a decisive role. While the current Australian government draws breath on the future submarine, studies on the vulnerability and declining utility of attack submarines — as they are now deployed — are proliferating, even in Australia.

The published reports of the ANU National Security College’s Undersea Deterrence Project are just one example of a trend that is questioning whether the nuclear attack submarine’s future in its current roles is viable.

That said, the assessments to date that speak of increasing transparency of the oceans, and the models and projections they rely on for their conclusions, must be seen as abstractions and simplifications which produce propositions rather than statements of an already existing state of affairs. Put simply, trend is not destiny.

A canny, less-than-candid government could, therefore, legitimately and appropriately take the time — certainly to a date beyond the next election — to reconsider its options.

It could claim, truthfully, that the defence budget is under pressure from delays, cost overruns and sustainment costs on other acquisitions and that, perhaps, fiscal responsibility and caution demand another path to a national undersea/anti-submarine warfare capability. And this could very well not be a nuclear-powered submarine of the type currently awaiting a great deal more information than the government is prepared to disclose. Perhaps not even what we know as a submarine at all.

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