Flat White

Forget the French fury and focus: Australia needs nuclear submarines now, not later

3 November 2021

5:39 PM

3 November 2021

5:39 PM

In the debate which has ensued since the federal government decided not to continue with the French submarine contract, it has become increasingly apparent the general public is wiser than anyone about what’s best for this country. 

The tide of opinion is not only for nuclear, but for nuclear now. 

Talk that Australia will get nuclear attack boats in 10 or 20 years is widely seen as ridiculous. Talk that they will be built here is also seen as foolish. We have spent $2.4bn on the French project and got precisely nothing – no plan, and no submarine. What the general public wants is the deterrent of the most effective submarines right away.  

That the western Pacific is a potential battlespace is obvious. Obvious too is the fact that a deterrent of nuclear submarines, submerged once they leave port, would be the best bet for this country. This is the right way to bolster a defence force left neglected for far too long.  

So what to do? There are two solutions available, and money will solve the problem. Ironically it would be a lot less than the $150 billion the French contract would have cost, only to give us inferior diesel-electric vessels in a decade and more. The answer lies in injecting cash into the production lines of either the Astute or the Virginia hunter-killer submarines being built by Britain and the USA. 

These are the best boats to buy. They have a proven pedigree from two of the best navies on the planet. They are both in production now. Defence Minister Dutton – the most decisive defence minister we have had in decades – could and should take the national chequebook over to our allies, and ask nicely for the production lines to be paralleled or speeded up. And we’d like the first one in a year, not a decade. 

Which to buy? Both have proven pedigrees, unlike the weird concept of having the French take an existing nuclear submarine, rip the engines out, and instead install diesels and batteries; fuel tanks and snort masts. The Virginias and Astutes are nuclear boats designed to go deep and stay there, and once they leave port not to come up to run engines to recharge batteries – the diesel-electric concept of “snorting” born in World War II. Nuclear vessels stay down, and their deterrence increases by the day as they do, for the enemy does not know where they are, and must guard his ports and his surface vessels accordingly, thus slowly constricting his own operations for fear of sudden attack out of the depths.  

A glance at the figures is instructive.

Given the smaller size of the Astute, and the need for the Royal Australian Navy to transition out of the smaller Collins-class it operates at present, the British option presents attraction there. It’s also less expensive. 

However, these days we train and fight more with the Americans. It has been that way since World War II, since both of us have the Pacific as our main interest. Better to have commonality with our main ally. 

The British Astutes have been individually produced over around 10 years, from “laying down” a keel to being in the water in service. The Virginias are much faster into ready use, at three or sometimes even two years. Rumours fly thick and fast in this debate, with one arguing the Americans “need” all of their vessels. But with a much bigger US class of 66 under construction as opposed to seven British boats that might be less likely than not. Maybe we could ask for USS Iowa of the present six on the slips – not so much to elbow into the queue as inquire if the speed can be increased to satisfy both US and Australian navies. Then again, an Aussie politician lugging a chest of gold behind him might well speed up a British assembly line.  

The idea that defence force build processes are slow isn’t necessarily true, although the build process for the French submarines was laughable. Announced in 2016, not a metre of steel had been cut when they were cancelled five years later. Perhaps the most admirable naval build record of all time was the construction of the mighty HMS Dreadnought, the battleship that revolutionized naval thinking prior to the Great War. Laid down in 1905, only 15 months later this 527 foot 18,000 ton monster was sailing. The British public had demanded “eight, and we won’t wait” – so should we. Other feats of naval engineering show mighty achievements may be made. The Kreigsmarine – the German Navy – of WWII, had 1,156 submarines built through the war years. The US Navy, following the Battle of the Coral Sea, had the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown repaired over several days for the coming fight at Midway – a fix that had been estimated at three months. The Australian public should not be told that we can’t have nuclear submarines quickly.  

Although the Virginia is the preferred design, at least for this writer, we should go with whoever can give us nuclear boats the faster. We need to go and ask whichever government – and whichever company – will get us in the sea sooner. For we are in a situation now where we need deterrence if we don’t want to fight. Sun Tsu said the greatest victory is that which requires no battle. Knowing there were two to three Australian nuclear attack submarines possibly lurking off your coast would certainly make an aggressor think in terms of peace. For Tomahawks, the best cruise missile there is, attack targets on the land as well as at sea. 

Dr Tom Lewis OAM is a military historian. His 2020 book Atomic Salvation has proved the necessity of using the A-Bombs in WWII, and his recent biography of Teddy Sheean VC has received critical acclaim. 

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