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Jan 17, 2012

Nuclear submarines for Australia?

This suggestion is similar to LDP policy.

The Australian government and Defense Department have been thrashing around for some time over replacing the rather problematic Collins Class submarines. The discussion at present still revolves around conventional powered craft; Australia still suffers from a Luddite obsession with all things non nuclear.

Former senior Defense official Ross Babbage has called for this option to be put on the table and offers reasons why this is a good idea:
If directly threatened, coerced or attacked, this country needs credible means of deterring and countering even a major power. It needs one or more powerful instruments with a capacity to stop a belligerent country in its tracks. Advanced submarines are one of very few capabilities that can contribute meaningfully to this.

To do this, Australia needs more than just small submarines to serve as crocodiles in the ditch of our immediate approaches. We need vessels that can travel rapidly to East Asia and to the distant reaches of the Indian Ocean to maneuver there with high security for extended periods.

In a crisis, the new boats should not only be able to sink ships and destroy maritime installations but also fire cruise missiles to precisely strike high-value targets well inland. The right submarine force can give Australia this credible deterrence. That is why getting the submarine decision right is vital. …

Option five is to buy or lease Virginia-class submarines from the US. The Virginias are fast and have almost unlimited endurance. They carry sensors with extraordinary performance such that they can routinely see potential opponents well before they themselves can be detected, often at trans-oceanic distances. They have also been designed from scratch to be very flexible and perform a broader range of functions that would deliver Australia strong deterrence power even against a major power.

The Virginia class is in series production, hence the project risks are low. The contract for the 14th Virginia has been signed for a price of $1.2bn, but by the time they are fully fitted out, the sail-away price is $2.5bn. These boats are demonstrating exceptional operational performance and high reliability and would provide class-wide training and upgrade programs. Operating RAN and USN Virginias in close partnership would also take the ANZUS alliance to a new level.
It is not known whether the US would be willing to do this deal although Canada is interested in doing the same thing. What is remarkable is that the only political party that has proposed the acquisition of nuclear powered submarines is the pro defense libertarian, Liberal Democratic Party which has had this as a major policy plank for several years. The LDP argues that without the carrier capacity to give air cover to a surface fleet, we would lose such a fleet in the opening volleys of hostilities:
Consistent with similar provisions in the 2009 White Paper, the LDP would concentrate resources into key areas in support of a maritime defence strategy.

The LDP believes the focus of our full-time military should be on the three strategic capabilities able to achieve long distance force projection. These comprise a strategic bomber capability, an effective submarine fleet, and a rapid reaction, air-mobile expeditionary force including Special Forces.

Concurrently, the LDP believes that primary responsibility for the defence of Australia’s landmass should be transferred to a part-time force.

To achieve this the LDP supports proceeding with the F35 fighter purchase but would also replace the F-111 fleet with a squadron of B-1B strategic bombers, paid for in part by a reduction in our order of F-35s.

The LDP would replace the current six-boat Collins Class submarine fleet with a greater number of new submarines. Ideally this would be twelve small nuclear submarines (similar to the French Rubis design), but if these are not procurable or affordable then eighteen submarines with air independent conventional propulsion equipped with land attack cruise missiles.
The Virginia Class is somewhat bigger than the Rubis Class, but comes with the advantage of being the same as is used by our greatest ally. European nations are not really reliable suppliers given their distance, trade barriers, and approaching insolvency. Clearly, the first requirement would to be electing a government with a big enough pair to implement such an initiative.


  1. As I said to an in-law who was horrified and disgusted by all the weapons we saw at a Swiss military museum, "No country was ever attacked because it was too strong."

    In addition to defending the seas with a good naval presence, in your strategic situation the part-time home defense force makes sense. Properly done, it can be a low cost but effective force.

    I always kind of liked the old Swiss militia system, where everybody did their stint, took their rifle home, and practiced regularly. I believe at one time during the big Nazi invasion scare during WWII they mobilized something like 20% of the population. The Israelis, too, can mobilize a buttload of good reservists in a very short period too.

    So, with the savings, the government should immediately give you an SLR and an L2A2.

    As for my Constitutional slash Libertarian stance, well, the only thing the Constitution really mandates for is to defend our borders and deliver the mail. 'Bout time they did those jobs instead of the thousands of others they have assumed on their own.

  2. I'm tempted to suggest Astute class subs because poor ol' Blighty could do with the money, but with the RN only ordering seven I doubt they could make another half dozen as quickly as the Yanks could run off six more Virginias. Plus there are the other good reasons you've mentioned, not to mention a my vague worry that the UK is making a complete Collins of the Astute class and should also have rung the bell at Uncle Sam's Really Big Gun & Nuclear Sub Shop and showed its customer loyalty card.

    And bugger it, I still can't sign into Blogger comments with WP. Been trying on various blogs for hours now. Do you think Blogger is pissed off at me for deserting?

  3. PS Moot anyway. As you said, Jim, Oz needs to get over its phobia of anything nuclear. I don't know whether I've told you this before but when talking about nuclear power with Aussie friends who forget that I came from somewhere with nuclear powered subs, nuclear weapons and a civil nuclear generation industry (admittedly not what it was) I sometimes get asked something along the lines of "Yeah, but would you want to live near one, Angry?" I usually reply "What, you mean live near one again? Well, it didn't hurt me the first 30 years or so..."