RADM (Ret’d) Peter Briggs has released a report through ASPI calling for the government to give serious consideration to acquiring nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs).
Briggs makes the case that there are “compelling strategic and submarine capability arguments” whilst acknowledging that “quite formidable challenges would need to be overcome.”
These arguments rest on what Briggs identifies as the comparative deficiencies of conventionally-powered submarines in a deteriorating strategic environment.
“The deteriorating strategic outlook justifies serious reconsideration of whether acquiring even the most advanced conventionally powered submarine will be adequate,” Briggs argues. “Conventional propulsion systems don’t have the same levels of flexibility, endurance, and covertness that nuclear-powered submarines enjoy when operating in an environment characterised by advanced submarines, surveillance and acoustic systems.”
“That’s the environment that Australia’s future submarines will operate in.”
Specifically, the report notes that the deterrent value of Australian submarines will rely on their “on-going ability to access areas critical to an adversary” and “inflict unacceptable harm to [the adversary’s] interests.”
Those needs may be best met in future by an SSN force, which offers a number of advantages: unrivalled mobility; the ability to operate “independently of the surface”; the ability to remain undetected under instance space and air surveillance for much longer than a conventional submarine; and the ability to operate in low sea states densely populated by small boats.
Importantly, the report does not make the case for changes to the Future Submarine program as it stands.
“The technical complexities, manpower demands and long lead times to achieve a nuclear propulsion capability mandate growth in Australia’s conventional submarine force as envisaged under the FSM program. It’s an essential starting point… and will provide our frontline capability for several decades until a future nuclear propulsion program can yield results.”
The report notes that there are immense challenges to overcome for an Australian SSN force to be realised: the need to build a significant workforce, which the author estimates could take 15 years; a personnel requirement of between 2,900 and 5,800 depending on the crewing model used; timing the transition to avoid a capability gap; and the current lack of an Australian nuclear power industry (although the absence of commercial competition for nuclear expertise could be an advantage for the RAN).
The most significant and sensitive issue, of course, is cost. As Briggs acknowledges; “Whether the gain in capability justifies the expense is unknown at present.”
Regardless, the need to investigate remains.
“The information derived by studying the option could not only be used to inform the Australian Government’s strategic decision-making but could also lead to a better informed public debate,” Briggs concludes.