Australian Notes

Australian notes

Tom Lewis

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Tom Lewis

18 March 2023

9:00 AM

The announcement of the route we will take to acquire nuclear submarines is good only in parts. Down the road a decade or so it will seem the stuff of nightmares

It starts off with a pleasant vision – three of the best subs in the world, the USA’s Virginia class, partly crewed by the US Navy. We will then start acquiring a new-design submarine as well, building them in South Australia. All of this will take years to happen, with most of the submarine fleet not arriving until the mid-2030s.

This visionary dream will become a nightmarish situation.

Nuclear submarines are a great idea. They can stay underwater for months, denying any potential enemy the ability to know where they are, thus forcing him to stop moving their troop-carrying invaders, or escort them extensively with anti-submarine warships. (A diesel-electric boat like the Collins has to almost surface regularly, to acquire air to run the diesels to recharge the batteries.)

Getting the Virginias is another good idea. They are the best hunter-killer submarines around, a proven design which works well. Acquiring them gradually with a lease/dual-manning idea is sensible.

One of the bad aspects of the program though is its pace, or rather its lack of it. Apparently, the production lines are full in the USA, so an Australian financial contribution will be made to speed it up or enlarge it. But even this won’t see new vessels for us until several years have passed.

So part one of the vision has around three Virginia-class vessels operating in Australian waters with a dual crew of Americans and our own navy people. This makes sense, as the Virginias are larger and more difficult to operate in every way than our present Collins boats – almost double the tonnage, half again as long, and with a crew of 135 as opposed to the 58 of the Collins.

Rotating US nuclear-powered submarines on patrol through the shore base HMAS Stirling in Perth also makes sense. It sends a message to would-be aggressors that the Pacific is dominated by the West.

The worst part of the program though is the plan to build a new-design submarine here. Given some of the Collins class might still be operating when this starts, we could conceivably be operating three types of boat – a recipe for duplicity and difficulties in training, administration, and crewing.

But could we build these vessels anyway? Nuclear submarines are amongst the most complex machines built. Unlike surface warships, they are operating in an environment more akin to working in outer space, where they are surrounded by a hostile environment – seawater under pressure. This pressure increases on the hull as they go deeper, and therefore routinely they have tons of stress upon the hull. A leak of any sort can be disastrous.

Added to that is the submarine’s need to remain quiet. Noise transmitted through the water can be heard by potential enemies, and so submarines have engineering and routines to minimise noise: engines mounted to separate them from the hull; pumps turned off, even crew movements restricted.

A third part of the complexity comes from the need to operate in a hostile environment, yet simultaneously operate all of the submarine’s weapon systems covertly – until that moment comes when its missiles or torpedoes are unleashed. After which the submarine has to escape. A nuclear boat has tremendous speed – faster than many surface warships – to utilise as part of its defence, but it does start from a compromised base once it fires its weapons.

All up a nuclear attack submarine is a tremendously complicated weapons system. I can’t see how we can go in one giant leap from the remainders of an old Collins-class production line to building the most sophisticated machines on the planet. Some reports say that we will need 20,000 workers to build them.

Britain once went down this road in the 1960s. They wanted to acquire nuclear subs, and they asked the Americans for help. The first, HMS Dreadnought, was powered by a US reactor, made available as part of the 1958 US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement. The keel was laid down on 12 June 1959; the boat was launched on 21 October 1960, and Dreadnought was accepted into service in April 1963. This remarkable speed was partly obtained though because the Royal Navy was in the business of building submarines. The Royal Australian Navy, by contrast, last saw a Collins-class boat, HMAS Rankin, accepted into service in March 2003 – twenty years ago. This is doubtless part of the reason for the general advice that we will not see an Australian-built submarine until the mid-2030s at the earliest.

The Collins-class build though, was a disaster. The vessels had problems with the combat system, excessive noise – at one stage described by the US Navy to the Australian government as ‘louder than an underwater rock concert’ – engine breakdowns, hull welding, propeller noise, fin noise, salt water in the engine feeds, and problems with the periscopes and various other ‘masts’ that use the fin to house them.

It would be nice to be proved wrong, but building a nuclear-powered sub series of our own looks extremely difficult. At the end of the day this project is all about providing but an excellent weapons system to protect Australia  not jobs. It makes far more sense to keep the first stages of this project and cut away the rest. That would therefore be to simply keep acquiring Virginia-class boats from the USA as fast as possible and in whatever format they come; second-hand, half crewed by Americans, or whatever else.

And the sooner the better.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Dr Tom Lewis OAM is a former naval officer, military historian and author of 20 books. His latest book ‘Attack on Sydney Harbour’ analyses the failure of leadership in the midget submarine raid of 1942, and asks why none of the small-ship commanders who actually sank two of the raiders were decorated.

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