• USS Hawaii (SSN 776) conducted a scheduled port visit to HMAS Stirling in 2014. (Defence)
    USS Hawaii (SSN 776) conducted a scheduled port visit to HMAS Stirling in 2014. (Defence)

There’s much we don’t yet know about how we will acquire our new submarines. Even the Government and Defence don’t know, which is why they have launched a task force, led by Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead, to consider the way ahead, reporting back in around 18 months.

There appear to be just two contenders – the US Virginia-class SSN and the British Astute-class SSN, both in-service and in current production.

Of the Astutes, seven are planned, with four in service and two under construction. Boat number one, HMS Astute, was laid down in 2001 with the last, HMS Agincourt, to be commissioned in 2026.

Of the Virginias, 66 are planned, with 19 completed and 11 under construction. The first boat, USS Virginia, was laid down in 1999. No date has been set for the last, but, assuming it happens and the current production schedule is maintained, it’s likely to be in the late 2030s with service life through to the 2060s.

On the face of it, the Virginias seem the best boat for Australia, with live production in the period Australia stands up its line and significant commonality of combat system and weapons with the Collins boats.

On the other hand, the Astute’s Thales and Atlas sensors have significant commonality with Collins.

Both are bigger subs than what has gone before – Astute is 7,700 tons submerged and Virginia 8,700 tons submerged – as against 3,300 tons for a submerged Collins and around 5,000 tons for the never-to-be Attack-class.

Neither is cheap. The target for the Virginia was US$2 billion per boat, as against US$3.5 billion for its predecessor, the Seawolf-class, cancelled after just three. The last of the Astutes, according to a UK audit office report, costs around £1.64 billion.

Which bring us to an issue recently canvassed – leasing. Defence Minister Peter Dutton acknowledged on September 21 he’s amenable to leasing, which isn’t a new idea.

Here’s analyst Professor Ross Babbage in a paper published by the Kokoda Foundation in 2011:

“A variant of this military off-the-shelf (MOTS) approach with yet other potential advantages would be to enter into a long-term leasing arrangement with the USN whereby the RAN simply operated ten or twelve Virginia boats for a specified number of years (say 25) with the USN contracted to provide all, or most, of the logistic support within its own supply system.”

The big question is: will this approach get Australian submariners into nuclear submarines a decade or more sooner than waiting for Australian-manufactured boats?

With AUKUS comes reports from the UK that Britain will base some of its Astute-class nuclear attack submarines in Australia under the agreement to achieve a persistent presence in the Indo-Pacific.

The Times newspaper quoted unnamed UK government sources saying AUKUS opened opportunities for basing in Australia which could include deep maintenance, so boats did not need to return to their home port in Faslane, Scotland, for upkeep.

This is still a long way off, with The Times report saying this would happen once Australia began building a fleet of nuclear boats.

The report seems to indicate this would be more like extended deployments down under, rather than permanent basing of RN boats and their crews in Australia.

It would surely follow that this applies just as well to US submarines, which currently make only occasional port visits.

Yet even with Australia’s new submarine as much as two decades away, the decision to go nuclear may already have produced results by boosting the study of nuclear engineering.

The University of NSW, which launched Australia’s only nuclear engineering program in 2014, announced a $1 million donation from the Sir William Tyree Foundation to support 20 domestic students’ study for a master’s degree in Nuclear Engineering from UNSW’s School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering.

Defence will certainly need engineers with nuclear qualifications for its new submarines.

But the Sir William Tyree Foundation, named after New Zealand-born engineer and industrialist William Tyree (1921-2013), sees Australia moving to nuclear energy.

“This gift builds on the foundations laid down to develop a high-tech nuclear industry in Australia which will be essential if we choose to adopt nuclear energy as one of the options available to our country as it deals with climate change,” said Robyn Fennell, Tyree’s daughter and foundation chair.

The government, of course, has ruled out any move to domestic nuclear power. But then again, up until the Prime Minister’s announcement on September 16, successive governments had also ruled out nuclear-powered submarines.

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