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When Will Australia Get Nuclear-Powered Attack Submarines (SSNs)?

Astute-class Submarine. Image: Creative Commons.

A debate is brewing down under on when Australia will get nuclear-powered attack submarines and who will supply them: In 2009, Kevin Rudd’s government decided to increase Australia’s submarine capability. It wrote in its defence white paper: ‘The Government will increase the size of the submarine force from six to 12 boats. The doubling in size of the submarine fleet recognises that Australia will face a more challenging maritime environment in the decades ahead.’ The goal was to start getting new boats by around 2025.

While the precise numbers, the preferred design and the timelines have changed over the past 13 years, no Australian government has walked back from the basic assessment that we need more submarine capability. But even though subsequent strategic assessments have emphasised that our ‘more challenging maritime environment’ is becoming more dangerous even more rapidly than we had expected, we’re still no closer to having more submarine capability.

When the previous government announced in September 2021 that Australia would acquire nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs), it said it expected the first ones to be delivered in the late 2030s. Richard Marles, the minister for defence in the new government, has said the mid-2040s is more likely. Throughout that long period, Australia’s submarine capability will continue to comprise two deployable Collins-class submarines—the same capability we had back in 2009 when the long, meandering journey first started. It’s like saying on the eve of the First World War that you need more military power and not getting anything until after the Second.

We need to investigate every possible option to get more submarine capability sooner. Which brings us to the recent comments of Peter Dutton, former defence minister and current leader of the opposition. Despite being a member of the government that said we could expect the first SSNs in the late 2030s, Dutton now says he had a ‘plan’ to acquire two US Virginia-class SSNs off an existing American production line by the end of this decade. A further eight boats would be built in Australia.

It’s not really a plan, since nobody involved in delivering it, least of all the US government, has signed up to it. So it’s an idea or a concept. But is it a good concept? At one level, we would say it is, because it’s virtually the same as one we discussed last year in our detailed study of the issues that the government needs to address in order to establish an SSN capability. We considered four build strategies. The third we termed ‘kickstarted continuous build’. Under that approach, the first SSN would be built wholly overseas, the second would be partially built overseas but integrated in Australia, and eight boats would be built here.

We noted that Australia could aim for 2030 for the first boat, with the second in the mid- to late 2030s. There were two key challenges. The first was that the US Navy would have to provide us with one of its own boats. The second was that it ‘would require … rapid development of the enabling systems to support the operation of the boat once it’s delivered’ and ‘an early ramp-up of the uniformed workforce’.

Let’s look at how that gels with the USN’s own plans. Congress requires the navy to publish its shipbuilding plan every year. Over the past several administrations, the goal has been to increase the number of SSNs. That’s because submarines are one of few assets the USN has that can avoid the Chinese military’s anti-access capabilities such as anti-ship ballistic missiles. The precise target number has varied, but it’s consistently been around 60 to 72 by the middle of the century.

In the shorter term, however, the USN is experiencing a submarine capability crunch. First, this decade the number of boats falls below 50, to as few as 46 in 2028, and it doesn’t get back to 50 until 2032. That’s because the older Los Angeles–class SSNs are retiring as their nuclear fuel runs out. The Los Angeles boats were delivered at around three per year and consequently are retiring at a similar rate. But for over a decade the USN was acquiring only one new Virginia-class boat per year. Now, after significant investment to improve the US’s industrial base, they are being delivered at two per year. But the USN is still playing catch-up.

Second, the capability shortfall is exacerbated by the planned retirement in the next few years of the USN’s four SSGNs, former ballistic missile submarines that have been converted to carry 154 Tomahawk missiles each. To compensate for the missile launch cells that are going out of service, the latest batch of Virginias, the Block V variant, have a hull-lengthening ‘plug’ inserted that will increase their number of Tomahawks from 12 to 40. But since they also need to account for the 12 Tomahawks on each of the retiring Los Angeles boats, they won’t completely compensate for the SSGNs.

There’s been discussion in the US about expanding its industrial base to produce more SSNs. That’s not straightforward. The USN has stated it would take investments of US$1.5–2 billion to do that and require an increased workforce. The USN’s shipbuilding plan is already facing affordability pressures. Moreover, the USN has also started construction on a new class of ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), which are its highest priority, and the competition for resources is causing delays to the Virginias.

There have been suggestions that Australia could help pay to set up a third production line. But even if we made those investments today, they wouldn’t produce any additional boats this decade. It’s currently taking US yards seven or eight years to build an SSN (even before we factor in the delays in production of Block V boats). The last boats scheduled for delivery in the 2020s—the boats in the Hellyer–Nicholls/Dutton concept—have in fact already started construction. So even if we helped invest in developing more construction capacity in the US, it would likely be close to the mid-2030s by the time they could deliver any additional boats beyond those currently planned by the USN.

In short, for Australia to get any US SSNs this decade, the USN would have to give up some of the boats baked into its own plans at a time when it needs every single one it can get to stop any further decline in boat or missile numbers.

That’s before we get to the second challenge: the rapid ramp-up of the enabling systems. As we and others have written, there are many other elements to an SSN capability than the boats. Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead, the head of the nuclear submarine task force, has emphasised that Australia will need to demonstrate that it can exercise ‘responsible stewardship’ of the nuclear technologies. This will require a larger uniformed workforce, which will require substantially different qualifications. A Collins-class submarine has one engineer-qualified officer; all 15 officers on a Virginia are nuclear-qualified. It will also require the maintenance infrastructure as well as the safety and regulatory ecosystems. That takes time.

Does that mean we have no hope of accelerating an SSN capability? We’ll look at what can be done in the next post.

Andrew Nicholls is a former director in KPMG Australia’s Finance Strategy and Performance Division and has held senior positions in the Department of Defence and been an adviser and senior adviser to three defence ministers on budgetary and capability matters. Marcus Hellyer is ASPI’s (where this first appeared) senior analyst for defence economics and capability; he is on Twitter at @Marcus_ASPI

Andrew Nicholls is a former director in KPMG Australia’s Finance Strategy and Performance Division and has held senior positions in the Department of Defence and been an adviser and senior adviser to three defence ministers on budgetary and capability matters. Marcus Hellyer is ASPI’s senior analyst for defence economics and capability; he is on Twitter at @Marcus_ASPI. Image: Department of Defence.