Governments often have military requirements that demand solutions that are politically and financially difficult to attain.
Australia is one of those countries. It wants 12 new submarines for its forward defense strategy, but its unique long-range and endurance requirements — Australia’s subs operate from Garden Island near Fremantle but patrol in an arc that extends thousands of miles — make conventional or hybrid boats problematic.
Conventional subs like Australia’s six Collins-class vessels must surface or snorkel regularly to recharge batteries, exposing them to detection. At 3,000 tons, they are the largest conventional boats for a reason — to carry enough fuel for up to 10 days transit to patrol areas, followed by two weeks on station and then the return home.
Though the routine would be familiar to any World War II U.S. submariner operating from Australia, running a conventional sub over such distances is inefficient and risky in the 21st century as surveillance systems improve.
Hybrid boats with air independent propulsion (AIP) systems are promising and allow conventional subs to operate with greater stealth, but usually not longer than a week, so are better suited for shorter-range applications than Australia’s. Once the AIP fuel is gone, the boat reverts to diesel-electric propulsion, unless forward refueling sites for liquid oxygen and hydrogen are available, a pricey investment.
Ultimately, only a nuclear submarine will satisfy Australia’s range and persistence requirements, a politically tough option for a country that’s long eschewed nuclear power. The earthquake and tsunami that triggered emergencies at nuclear reactors in Japan last year hardened many Australians’ anti-nuclear stance.
And without a nuclear industry at home, training military personnel in nuclear plant operations and maintenance is a costly proposition and a career field that offers little or no commercial future.
Clearly, it’s an uphill argument, but one that was rekindled recently by the U.S. ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey Bleich, who pledged Washington’s willingness to cooperate whether Canberra goes for nuclear or conventional subs.
While the liberal Labor government opposes nuclear subs, some in the conservative Liberal party are supportive.
Still, Australia’s choice could become easier if Canberra and Washington strike a deal to forward-base U.S. nuclear submarines, thereby establishing a shoreside nuclear infrastructure.
As for subs, there are two options, both nuclear. First, buy or acquire through an extended lease a fewer number of Virginia-class nuclear boats with the range, speed, endurance and stealth to satisfy Australia’s needs.
Each costs about $2.4 billion but are reliable and have relatively low maintenance demands that could be shared with the U.S. Navy, which is building 30. Plus, U.S. bases at Pearl Harbor or Guam could serve as maintenance centers.
The government says the program for 12 conventional subs will cost more than 10 billion Australian dollars, but some analysts suggest the cost could be as high as 40 billion. U.S. sources suggest buying fewer Virginia boats but operating them with dual crews to maximize time underway.
The other option would be a nuclear AIP system, a tiny atomic plant that would drive the sub at slow speed but maintain stealth by allowing it to remain submerged for extended periods. Still, it would yield a slow, complex and ultimately unique ship.
What Australia can’t afford is another submarine that’s a mix of systems — designed and manufactured domestically, and attempted on the cheap. Clever engineering and hard work have made the Collins boats capable, but at staggering ultimate cost and limited capability.