• Some commentators arguing for or against nuclear-powered submarines assume we are still able to convert the Attack class.
    Some commentators arguing for or against nuclear-powered submarines assume we are still able to convert the Attack class. US DoD

News that France is set to launch the first nuclear-powered Barracuda submarine has re-invigorated a polarised debate in Australia around whether the country should also have chosen to procure the nuclear variant rather than the planned diesel-electric submarines, as ADM reported earlier this week.

It is a well-worn debate argued vigorously in Australia’s defence media. Hardly any point has been left unmade. Yet many of the positions taken by commentators assume we are still able to convert the Attack class to nuclear propulsion. The reality is that Australia will have to progress with the existing Attack class build regardless of how those submarines compare to a nuclear-powered alternative before the country has the infrastructure and expertise to maintain and crew a nuclear-powered fleet.

Some commentators observe that Australia is the third-largest exporter of uranium globally but has so far eschewed the operational and strategic benefits of nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs). Nuclear power, the argument goes, is ‘reliable, efficient and cost effective’, whereas the Attack class suffers ‘large projected cost and delivery time frames.’

These commentators generally do not examine the costs and delivery time frames of setting up the infrastructure and expertise needed to support and maintain nuclear-powered submarines. It is not as simple as withholding uranium for domestic consumption, embedding personnel in the nuclear fleets of other nations, or bringing foreign expertise here to install nuclear reactors on redesigned submarines.

First, where will we enrich the fuel? Australia has just one small nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights that was designed for small scale nuclear medicine, not submarine-grade nuclear fuel. Building or importing nuclear infrastructure and know-how is possible but it would require time and significant political backbone to convince a sceptical public that the cost and risk is necessary; and as polls taken during the last federal election showed, defence is low on the public’s list of priorities. It would also require Australia to convince a foreign supplier that it can safely operate nuclear submarines and infrastructure. That’s not a quick process.

Second, where do we find an extra 3,000 submariners to operate a nuclear fleet? Even if political and public support were mustered, research has shown that RAN would need 10 SSNs to generate a sustainable number of engineers, technicians and officers to run the fleet, supporting industry and a nuclear safety and training organisation capable of meeting international standards. According to ASPI's RADM (ret'd) Peter Briggs, a fleet of 10 SSNs requires roughly 3,600 submariners if the subs are double-crewed and around 2,250 if they aren’t. We currently have 600. Remember, HMAS Perth is currently sitting in dry dock because the RAN can't find a crew. If RAN is already unable to man its surface ships, it is difficult to imagine how it will increase the number of qualified submariners several times over in a shorter delivery time frame than the current Attack class build. At the very least, RAN would require more conventional submarines to start building the necessary crew numbers before going nuclear.

Whilst these challenges are not insurmountable, they do mean Defence will need to press on with the conventional Attack class to maintain regional superiority and enable any transition to a possible future SSN fleet. Even if the Attack class design were somehow converted to nuclear propulsion tomorrow, the time and money required to build or import nuclear infrastructure, stand up regulatory authorities, and find and train the personnel to man and maintain nuclear submarines means it would be an effort to get the first SSN launched by 2044. This is roughly when the last conventional Attack class sub is expected to be delivered. Collins will have been in the water for almost half a century.

Some make the counter-point that Australia can lease nuclear-powered Virginia class subs from the US in the meantime. This does not hold weight. The US Navy is currently struggling with its own shortfall of SSNs and has no spare subs to lease. Even if we assume that Washington somehow mustered some spare SSNs, these subs would have to be maintained in the US until Australia stands up its own infrastructure – which would bring us back to the problem of how to sell the prospect to the Australian public, who would pay the costs of maintenance without gaining any jobs. The size of the Virginia class also exacerbates the crewing problem.

In short, converting the Attack class to nuclear power is likely to suffer the same large project cost and delivery time frames that the current program is criticised for. That is not to say a future SSN fleet is impossible, that it shouldn’t be considered at all, or that one option is better than the other. If we do want the Attack class successor to be nuclear-powered, now is the time to start preparing.

It is to say that we no longer have the luxury of a binary choice, and that arguments built on the relative build speed, ease or cost efficiency of converting the Attack class to nuclear propulsion require evidence.

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