What would an Australian sovereign sub-nuclear program look like?

Picture of USN file

Posted on July 31, 2022 at 7:31 p.m. by

The strategist

[By John Harvey]


After the cancellation of the Attack-class submarine program in favor of nuclear-powered boats (SSN), Australia’s new government must urgently consider the more than $100 billion question of what a sovereign capacity.


Assuming ‘sovereign’ means Australian control over its submarines, ‘control’ should be seen in terms of military and industrial capability.


Australia will need full national control over the tasks and operations of its submarines in the hope that they will be employed under broad strategic agreements with the US and UK.


Australia can only have confidence in the operational capability of its NSS if it can assess them in its own environment, with other elements of the joint force. The 2018 Defense Industrial Capabilities Plan recognized the need for testing, evaluation, certification and assurance of sovereign systems. In practice, much of this will be done by the Ministry of Defense rather than industry. Defense will need to maximize its ability to test and evaluate our SSNs while optimizing the corresponding capabilities of the ships’ mother nation.


Australia must be able to sustain the VMS fleet throughout its life to ensure availability and control. Most of this work will have to be done by Australian industry. In-country sustainment must encompass all systems, including the platform, on-board management systems, weapons systems, combat systems (including sensors), and communications. Access to intellectual property will be essential.


Significant investment in Australian industry will be required to develop this capability. The propulsion system is a special case; minimal work is likely to be needed – or can be done – in Australia, and there will be almost total reliance on either the US or the UK. Even with the other systems, Australia will never be completely independent. The limited size of the Australian fleet and local industry, and the range and complexity of systems means there will be continued reliance on the partner’s supply chain. That said, facilities, spares and expertise in Australia will help support our partners’ submarines in the Indo-Pacific.


Australia’s experience with the US combat system in the Collins-class submarine demonstrates the opportunities. The combat system, a variant of the AN/BYG-1 used in the Virginia-class submarine, is being developed by the United States in partnership with Australia, and obviously it has served us well. Australia is also helping to further develop the Mk-48 torpedo. It is unclear to what extent these partnerships benefit local industry, although they have brought clear capacity benefits. To maximize Australian control of its SSNs and industry opportunities, these partnerships should be extended to all systems. In the field of weapons, this will have to be carried out jointly with the sovereign company of guided weapons and explosive munitions of Defence.


If we acquire an existing US or UK submarine, what access to design capability might we get? Would we want to make any changes to the design, given that it might make our boats different from the larger underwater fleet with all the cost and risk that would entail? It would be more realistic to participate in collaborative development as part of future developments.


And is the goal to build complete submarines and all their systems, or to assemble them from preconfigured hull sections, as General Dynamics Electric Boat does in Groton, Connecticut? One of the arguments in favor of assembling submarines in Australia is that it would improve our sustainment capabilities and perhaps reduce pressure on US or UK assembly yards. Italy and Japan did so under the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program with national final assembly and verification facilities. Any capability building beyond this should be based on a value-for-money assessment that takes into account the broader potential benefits across Defense and industry and the alliance’s overall SSN capability.


To get an idea of ​​what a sovereign submarine capability might look like, it is instructive to look at our air combat capability. Australia has long accepted that it cannot afford a “sovereign” air combat capability. Governments have agreed to the trade-offs necessary to achieve affordable, high-end capacity that is maintained in Australia; is interoperable with the systems of our allies; and has significant industry involvement in production, maintenance and follow-on development.


Defense estimates that by 2023, 50 Australian companies will have won about $2.7 billion in F-35 contracts. This amount is expected to reach approximately $5.3 billion by 2038 and has been achieved in a best value environment where local businesses compete for work without charging a premium to do it here. Typically, Australian industry is a second-source supplier, which adds capacity and resilience to the overall program. Estimating the number of jobs created is much more difficult. While Defense considers a peak as high as 5,000, a more conservative estimate is around 1,500.


A similar approach to a collaborative SSN venture could provide even greater benefits to Australian industry, noting that the submarine project is about five times the value of Australia’s F-35 program. Although neither the US nor the UK SSN projects have been established as a collaboration agreement, it is possible that such an agreement will succeed.


Australia would be the only non-US or non-UK member, so it would not compete with any other non-US or non-UK partners. In the case of the Virginia-class submarine, Australian contributions are already made possible by our inclusion in the United States’ national technological and industrial base.


US production will be sustainable and provide continued opportunities for Australian industry. If Australia’s contributions are critical to sustainment, this division of labor will be even more important. An additional amount could be expected if something like the Japanese or Italian F-35 facility were established, and there have already been significant investments in infrastructure at Osborne Naval Dockyard in South Australia. Additional industry benefits will accrue if Australia builds significant hull sections.


It would take a lot of work to bring Australian industry into existing nuclear submarine supply chains, probably as second-source suppliers. But this is likely to be far more useful and cost effective than trying to build a separate supply chain for Australia’s relatively small number of SSNs. By concentrating industrial capacity in areas where the US and UK supply chains face constraints, even if it requires considerable investment, Australia could achieve good industrial results while improving the production capacity of the alliance and supply chain resilience. Improving the alliance’s VMS build capability could potentially speed up the delivery of Australian boats, reducing the risk of a capacity shortfall and the need to buy or build an interim boat.


To build defense industry capabilities while contributing to the alliance cost-effectively, Australia could invest more in bases and operational support tailored to the alliance fleet. Most of that money would be spent in Australia. One could also consider the domestic construction of one or more submarines, such as the 45-year-old USS Frank Cable, which recently visited Australia. This would complement efforts to establish a sovereign naval shipbuilding enterprise, develop understanding of nuclear submarine support, and rapidly increase the capability, mobility and flexibility of Australian and allied submarines in the Indo- Peaceful.


Rather than focusing on an Australian “sovereign” submarine capability and the price, timing and associated costs and risks, we should focus our investments on improving the alliance’s overall submarine capability while by developing our defense industry profitably.


John Harvey is a former head of the Capability Development Group and a former program manager for the New Air Combat Capability Group at the Department of Defence.


This article appears courtesy of The Strategist and can be found in its original form here.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.

Ryan H. Bowman