Nuclear sub deal brings Australia out of the past, but more to be done before first boat sets sail
Having worked on submarine issues in three different incarnations during my career, including most recently on the public affairs campaign several years ago to keep submarine building in Australia, I didn’t want to let today’s announcement that we’ll be going nuclear pass by without comment.
By now everyone has heard or read about the Government’s decision to scuttle the Future Submarine deal with French firm Naval Group and instead work with the United Kingdom and United States to build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines for Australia, in Australia. Therefore, I won’t go over the details again here; if you need the details the ABC website is one good source of information: Australia to acquire nuclear submarine fleet as part of historic partnership with US and UK to counter China's influence. There’s more good coverage in other media too and no doubt “expert” journalists, academics and military junkies will fill the mainstream media, industry journals and newsletters, and blogs and vlogs with their opinions about the decision in the coming days.
Suffice it to say, the decision to go with nuclear powered vessels is the right one for Australia. Not doing so sooner made no sense for an island nation that needs to patrol and gather intelligence in oceans the sizes of the Indian and Pacific. Simply put, it was ridiculous to think that in these times, with modern technology, and our main strategic risks in the northern reaches of the Pacific, that we could do the job with diesel-powered vessels. Nuclear submarines quite simply go faster, stay under deep water longer, and are far more stealthy. The strategic advantages are unquestionable.
The only gap still to be filled with the current decision is what we do in the interim given the 18-months required to investigate and plan the building of our nuclear subs, followed by the long lead time before the first subs can put to sea in the mid-2030s to mid-2040s.
Should we continue to get by with our ageing Collins-class submarines that should have been mothballed a long time ago?
To that there is a simple answer – we should look at leasing Virginia-class nuclear submarines from the US in the meantime. This was suggested by strategic policy expert Ross Babbage back in 2019 as well as others in the past. The idea has considerable merit. One reason Babbage suggests it is because lease of the Virginia-class would enable easier integration for the Royal Australian Navy with the navy of our main ally, the US, in the waters of the Pacific. Whatever the advantages of the AUKUS agreement the fact remains that the US, not the UK, will remain our main military ally given we both share the Pacific's waters, unlike the UK.
Another reason to lease Virginia-class subs now is to give our submariners opportunities to train and work on nuclear subs. It would also give opportunities for workers with Naval Group, who will effectively be unemployed in the coming months, to be re-employed in roles where they can gain valuable experience servicing and maintaining nuclear subs. The alternative is the loss of skills and experience in the short term if these workers were to become unemployed or move to other industries. We need to keep them skilled and ready for the task ahead.
Finally, a decision to lease the Virginia-class sub in the interim would then also make the decision on which vessel to build in Australia a no-brainer. Yes, we can have a nuclear submarine sooner rather than later, if we start by leasing a Virginia-class boat.