Australia Submarine Decision – in Context

Jul 1, 2022

Diesel or Nuclear Powered – the Strategic Context

It has been almost a year now since the Australian government announced its decision to cancel their diesel submarine contract with the French Naval Group, and to acquire nuclear-powered attack submarines instead. Much has already been written about that September 2021 announcement and its consequences ;but, for the most part, a significant aspect of that decision was lost in the noise – that Australia launched the next phase of its strategic development, taking a path that has been quietly evolving for some time. 

At the heart of the reason the Aussies have chosen nuclear power is clearly the Chinese behaviour and its virtual war with Australia. The continent is a key challenge for Chinese ambitions in the region. They can deploy long-range forces against Chinese military operations. The Chinese Communist leaders have awakened this quiet power in the Pacific. Australia is now determined to shape a longer-range defence force, closely allied with the major competitors of China. 

In an October 2021 op-ed, Peter Dutton, the Australian Defence Minister at the time of the announcement, explained the reasoning behind the decision. “Compared to their conventional counterparts, these submarines are superior in terms of stealth, speed, manœuvrability, endurance and survivability. Nuclear-powered submarines can carry a greater number of advanced weapons and deploy underwater vehicles. There’s also significant interoperability advantages in working with the UK and U.S. […] More than half of the world’s 470 in-service submarines are already operating in Indo-Pacific waters. Were Australia not to invest in submarines – especially as a maritime and trade-dependent island nation – we would be dangerously exposed.”

He added: “Australia is not putting all its defence eggs in one basket. Nuclear-powered submarines will complement other defence capabilities in holding a potential adversary’s forces and infrastructure at risk from a greater distance. In aggregate, this sends a clear message: that the cost an adversary would incur in threatening our interests outweighs the benefits of so doing.”  

When the premise of your decision changes, it is important to recognize that  – and to re-calibrate, re-load and rethink what you are doing and why. For the Australian government, the expensive effort to build a new class of diesel submarines was a key part of dealing with the regional dynamics changing in their region. But in only five years, the Xi government has pursued a course which is changing the status quo of Pacific defence by the liberal democracies and their allies. 

The Russian-Chinese alliance and Russian actions in Ukraine have certainly reinforced such a perception in Canberra.

Strike Capability

The precursor for Australia’s decision lies not in submarines but a growing concern with the need for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to have longer-range strike capability. In 2018, one of our Williams Foundation seminars dealt directly with the long-range strike requirement. Even then, this key point was made: “The ability to strike at range brings a new dimension into any unfolding strategic scenario which, in itself, may often deter escalation into armed conflict. While in the event of escalation occurring, the absence of a long-range strike capability both limits Australia’s options for strategic manœuver and concedes to an adversary the ability to dictate the terms of engagement.

“An independent strike capability expands the range of options to achieve Australia’s strategic ends; signals a serious intent and commitment about Australia’s national security; and has the capacity to influence strategic outcomes short of resorting to armed conflict.”

Strategic Defence Reset

In Australia, the Morrison government announced its defense strategy in July 2020 and that announcement is where I started my book on Australian defence and then looked backwards. I labelled that strategy as a strategic reset – and that reset began with weapons not platforms. On 31 March 2021, the Prime Minister announced a new effort in weapons.

“The Morrison Government will accelerate the creation of a $1 billion Sovereign Guided Weapons Enterprise, boosting skilled jobs and helping secure Australia’s sovereign defence capabilities. The Department of Defence will now select a strategic industry partner to operate a sovereign guided weapons manufacturing capability on behalf of the Government as a key part of the new Enterprise. The new Enterprise will support missile and guided weapons manufacturing for use across the Australian Defence Force.”

In doing so, the Australian government opened up discussions with the U.S. for acquiring not only weapons but an ability to produce those weapons on Australian soil. A key element of this discussion revolved around naval weapons, which also highlights a key aspect of how the ADF has worked with the United States military over the past few years. The ADF has a close working relationship with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. In fact, the Royal Australian Air Force has bought and operated a number of naval air platforms over the years in addition to the close working relationship with the U.S. Navy (both operations and training).  Additionally, the ADF is currently operating a number of key systems which will interact nicely with the new submarine, notably the unmanned Triton system and the P-8 maritime patrol planes.

In the course of these discussions, the aperture opened on the possibility of the acquisition of a platform that could carry some of these weapons deep into the Pacific – namely, the nuclear submarine. 

Because the nuclear navy is in many ways the crown jewel of the U.S. military, the ADF leadership has full confidence in them as partners. For the U.S. Navy, having worked for a long period with the British Navy, and in the case of the Astute class having engaged through its contractors in direct support for the UK at home in building the new nuclear attack submarine, a template was available which could be applied to the Australian case.

When the diesel submarine decision was first taken in 2016, a Japanese platform was the presumptive favourite. There was much disappointment and concern in Tokyo about the shift to buying a French-designed submarine. Yet today, the Japanese-Australian relationship is stronger than ever in the defense domain. This is due, in part, to the same factor that reshaped Australia’s thinking about the submarine, namely, Chinese Communist behaviour and its military development.

Further calming the diplomatic waters, Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced in June 2022 that his government had reached a “fair and equitable” settlement with Naval Group. “Fair”, in this case, is a €555M ($583.58M USD) settlement that should help repair the rift between the two countries caused by cancelling the contract that was worth $40B USD in 2016. 

One must remember that Australia was NOT buying an off-the-shelf French submarine. On the one hand, they were drawing upon the Virginia-class combat system and had selected Lockheed Martin as the prime contractor for the new build diesel submarine. On the other hand, the new build submarine was never the “deal of the century” as proclaimed by the French government. It was a series of contracts which could eventually lead to the build of a new design submarine. In effect, the program was shaped to work design, and then make the build decision. In effect, Naval Group had been hired as a design consultant with the expected decision to build that submarine in Australia as Naval Group and the Commonwealth resolved the manufacturing build challenges.

It is important to understand how the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the Commonwealth had shaped their new shipbuilding program. A two-pronged approach, the first was a focus on the combat systems and integratability across the fleet. The second focussed on the platform build itself. With the decision to move to a nuclear submarine, the combat system trajectory already in place for the new build diesel submarine can clearly be leveraged going forward.

When I was last in Australia, in March 2020 before the pandemic impact, I worked on a report on the first new build Australian ship, namely, the Offshore Patrol Vessel. After my discussions with the Capability Acquisition and Sustain­ment Group (CASG) in Canberra, I concluded the following about this new approach:

“Clearly the Department is focusing on a new approach in launching this ship, but a new approach which is seen to provide a template for the way ahead.  It is not about simply having a one-off platform innovation process; it is about launching a new way of building this ship and, in so, doing setting in motion new ways to manage the initial build and the ongoing modernization process.

“It is not about having a bespoke platform; it is about shaping an approach that allows leveraging the systems onboard the new platform across the entire fleet and Australian Defence Force modernization process.

“In part, it is selecting a platform which physically can allow for the upgrade process envisaged with the new emphasis on a fleet mission systems management model. The Royal Australian Navy has clearly  gone through a process of choosing a ship that has a lot of space, a lot of margins, the ability to adapt to missions by its space on deck, and under the deck for a modular or containerized solutions, extra power to operate for what comes in the future, and the ability to adapt the platform through further evolution of the design to take on different missions into the future. The platform is important; but the focus is not on what the systems specific to the ship allow it to operate organically as an end in of itself but as part of wider operational integratable force.” 

What this means in blunt terms is that the platform has changed but the focus on an integratable combat system has not. The first was the focus with Naval Group; the second was always the focus with the Lockheed Martin team and will almost certainly continue.

Nuclear Power and Continuity

The nuclear attack submarine choice is obviously a significant step in shaping new capabilities for the ADF and for the Commonwealth. But before discussing this aspect, we again need to focus on the continuity aspect that revolves around theater anti-submarine or underwater warfare. 

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is adding significant capability to work with the RAN in this domain, most notably in terms of the P-8 and Triton capabilities. The Australians do not have a separate Naval Air Force as does the United States, so RAAF and RAN integration is crucial to shaping a joint force moving ahead. What the new nuclear submarine will add is reach, range, speed and increased survivability – which enhances ADF capabilities overall. The context has not changed, but the capability to be operate more effectively in that context.  

There are significant eco-system impacts of the nuclear submarine decision. Australia will build its basing structure to accommodate this class of ships, which means that from time to time, they can host allies that have such submarines, whether French, British or American. It also means a challenge for crewing as the Collins to Virginia is nearly three times increase in crew size.

Earlier this year, on 7 March 2022, the Australian government announced a new submarine base to be built on the East Coast of the continent. “A new submarine base will be built on the east coast of Australia to support the nation’s new nuclear-powered submarines, providing deployment opportunities in both the Indian and Pacific oceans. The new Future Navy Base will add capacity and capability to Fleet Base West in Western Australia, home of the Navy’s Collins-class submarines, which will also receive significant funding to support Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines and enable regular visits from the United States and United Kingdom’s nuclear-powered submarines.”

The press release estimated that more than $10 billion would be required to transition from the Collins-class to the future nuclear-powered submarines, including facility and infrastructure requirements for the new east coast submarine base.

There is the question of time and the submarine gap that would exist if Australia is to build its own version of the Virginia- or Astute-class in-country as the only option. 

What is already clear is that the coming of UK and U.S. nuclear submarines into and operating from Australian waters is a serious consideration as part of the “gap” to be filled between the retirement of the current Collins diesel submarine fleet and the arrival of Australian nuclear submarines.

The submarine build itself is a work in progress in which the overall effort could see a pooling of U.S. and Australian build efforts. 

Acquiring a nuclear attack submarine is the next step in the evolution of the ADF. It is about the extended reach in the Indo-Pacific, which reinforces the strategic shift under way for Australia’s role in the region. Its acquisition signifies a shift in the Australian approach to building stronger capabilities for its navy. 

This is how Vice Admiral (retired) Barrett highlighted that shift: “The strategic environment has changed. We need to reconsider the balance between sovereign capability for a 30-year build and the need for creation of capability in the near term. The earlier 30-year period build approach should not be the dominant approach; the capability and its presence to shape deterrent capabilities is crucial and work out over time how the build side of this effort is clarified and put in place. The program needs to be driven by the need for creative capability options first.” 

A Research Fellow of the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia, Dr. Robbin Laird is based in Arlington VA and Paris, France. He provides further details on the Australian submarine decision is his recently published edited book: Defense XXI: Shaping a Way Ahead for the United States and its Allies.