OPINION: by Dennis JensenNews Weekly
Why Australia should acquire US-built nuclear submarines
, October 12, 2013
Under successive Australian governments there has been a plethora of blow-outs and blunders — Super Seasprite helicopters cancelled after over $1 billion spent, Wedgetail aircraft over budget and delayed, and Joint Strike Fighters still not in service.
The only available conventional diesel/electric submarines are around half the displacement of Australia’s requirements.
A low-risk proposal is for Australia to purchase or lease Virginia-class nuclear-attack submarines (SSNs) from the United States. Statements made by former U.S. ambassador Jeffrey Bleich make it very clear that the U.S. was very receptive to the idea.
There are good reasons for Australia to pursue the SSN option.
First, conventional submarines need to periodically recharge batteries and replenish air using a “snort mast” to draw in air and run diesel generators. So-called air-independent propulsion, usually fuel cells, allows you to remain submerged for more than a week in the area of operations, because when the submarine is travelling very slowly, most of the power required is for the hotel load (i.e., its non-propulsion energy requirements, such as lights, air-conditioning, computers, water-purifiers, telecommunications, etc.).
Second, our geography is vast, and conventional submarines can only transit at about 10 knots, submerged. This is, ironically, slower than World War II-era submarines, which transited surface at a higher speed than Collins can either surfaced or submerged. Current submarine hull forms mean Collins is not as fast surfaced as submerged. What this means is that it will take over a week to reach even our closest area of operations (AO), let alone the many AOs that are more distant. This means that a significant period of the “mission time” is wasted in transit.
Nuclear submarines, on the other hand, do not need to surface and can transit at well over twice the speed of a conventional boat, meaning greater efficiency in terms of percentage of time on station. Additionally, nuclear submarines can keep up with a naval taskforce, while conventional submarines cannot.
There will be greater volume and power requirements for embarking new capabilities, such as land-attack missiles, unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) and the like. UUVs are most likely to be used in the AO, meaning that the load on batteries will be greater than would normally be expected, once again, favouring the nuclear submarine.
The arguments against nuclear submarines are that they are much larger than conventional submarines, meaning that there are some areas where conventional boats can go that nukes cannot.
Nuclear submarines have to circulate coolant through their reactors to keep themselves cool, even at low speed. With older SSNs, this required coolant pumps to be operating all the time, meaning that sonar operators would set a narrowband filter around the coolant pump frequency in order to obtain an early detection.
Virginias and the like, at low speed, use natural coolant circulation (hot water rises, cool water sinks) to circulate water at low speeds meaning no coolant pump detection. Nukes now are essentially no noisier than conventional boats submerged and are significantly quieter than conventional submarines with their diesels banging away to recharge batteries. SSNs also have larger crew sizes, but this is partially offset by greater operating efficiency.
In the Australian context the major arguments against SSNs are based around the required nuclear infrastructure and our industrial base. This is of course code for the Australian Submarine Corporation and vulnerable federal seats in South Australia.
Nuclear infrastructure is required for decommissioning of nuclear submarines, or for significant work to be done on the reactor. However, the argument about refuelling no longer applies, as the fuel for Virginia-class submarines is sufficient for the entire service of the vessels: they do not require refuelling. Any major work that is undertaken on the reactor could, and should, be done in the U.S.
In the short term, we could “borrow” some nuclear-engineer-trained officers for the “back of the boat” from the U.S., while in the longer term this would provide impetus for our training of Australians in nuclear physics and engineering. Given the time period required to acquire a new submarine capability, the use of U.S. officers may not even be necessary.
The U.S. had its first nuclear submarine and electricity-generating reactors in service about a dozen years after World War II, less than the period of time that we are looking at in terms of replacing Collins.
Opportunities arise, with U.S. subs possibly being based in WA, where there is potential for routine and low-level maintenance to be done there, not only for our own boats, but also for those of the U.S. We will have commonality of type, which will make spiral upgrades easy as we will not have an “orphan” capability. We are also very advanced in some capabilities, more so than the U.S., so there is opportunity for our industry to develop some of the capability for the entire Virginia class as well as having a share of scientific and engineering R&D effort.
The offer of the Virginia-class submarines is a game-changer, with significant benefits to our defence capability, R&D, education and Australian industry. We should not lack the courage to grasp this opportunity and ensure that we significantly reduce the risk in acquiring our next submarine capability.
Dennis Jensen, PhD, is the Liberal federal MP for the WA seat of Tangney. He has been a CSIRO scientist and research scientist and defence analyst working on submarine operations research.