By CHRISTOPHER JOYE
10 NOV 2012
Top Coalition leaders want to open the debate over the purchase of nuclear submarines to replace the navy’s diesel fleet, a huge step up in Australia’s military capability in response to China’s plan to become a major maritime power in the Pacific Ocean.
Senior Coalition frontbenchers told The Weekend Financial Review that acquiring or leasing Virginia-class nuclear submarines equipped with conventional weapons, such as cruise missiles, would be supported by the Obama Administration.
Purchasing the submarines is not yet Coalition policy but some shadow ministers have discussed the idea with United States officials. Australia’s dependence on seaborne trade and China’s ambitions make a powerful submarine fleet the most sensible naval strategy, some Coalition leaders believe, and nuclear submarines would be more reliable and lethal than Australia’s existing submarines.
In discussions with defence experts US Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich reiterated American willingness to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, which could receive technical support at US naval bases in Hawaii and Guam. In the longer term, this could lead to a joint Australian-US submarine base in the west or north of Australia.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta fly to Perth next week for annual defence talks with Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Defence Minister Stephen Smith.
Privately, some defence ministers in Asia support Australia obtaining nuclear-powered submarines because of mounting tensions with China, which has territorial disputes with India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines, sources said.
“Putting all submarine options on the table will lessen the chance we end up with a hollow force in 25 years’ time,” said James Brown, a military fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. “But Australians should understand that nuclear propulsion does not mean nuclear weapons.’’
LABOR WHITE PAPER IN 2009 ADVOCATED CONVENTIONAL PROPULSION
China launched its first aircraft carrier in September. Analysts think it operates up to 10 nuclear and 60 conventional submarines.
“China continues to build submarines at a rate unmatched anywhere in the world whilst the quality and capability of [its] fleet increases faster than [its] GDP,” said James Harrap, a former captain of two Australian submarines.
Nuclear submarines were ruled out by the Labor government in its 2009 Defence White Paper, which advocated 12 “blue-water” conventional boats. A nuclear fleet would be cheaper than the white paper plan, which the Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimated at about $36 billion.
Alongside the National Broadband Network it would be the biggest public works program in Australia’s history. In February The Australian Financial Review reported that Mr Bleich said that “whether [Australia] pursues diesel power or nuclear power … the US is willing to help”. The strategy fits with the current US policy to “pivot” military forces towards Asia from Europe. It would contribute to the US costs of maintaining regional stability.
There is a precedent for the move. In the late 1980s Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan agreed to export the design, nuclear reactors, and technical know-how necessary to permit Canada to build 12 Trafalgar class nuclear submarines.
As part of a review of the Defence Department’s submarine project, which could include a commission of audit, a Coalition government would also evaluate Britain’s Astute class nuclear submarines. They are, however, believed to be inferior in cost, capabilities, and suitability to the Virginia class, which the US produces at the rate of one or two a year.
Rear Admiral Peter Clarke, who was commander of Australia’s Collins Class Submarine Force Element Group, and is the only Australian to have commanded a nuclear submarine and a conventional submarine, said it was in America’s interest for the Royal Australian Navy to operate nuclear submarines.
“Australia would be much better served with nuclear rather than conventional submarines based on our strategic requirements and my experience commanding both,” he said. “Provided the right questions are asked at the right level, I’d be very surprised if the US did not favourably consider this.”
Senior Coalition frontbenchers believe Australia suffers from a maritime capability “gap”. Recently retired Collins class commander James Harrap does not believe Australia’s submarines are sustainable in the long-run and “will most likely be so technically obsolete by 2022 that the credibility of the capability it offers will be seriously eroded”.
SECOND GENERATION OF COLLINS CLASS REMAINS ALTERNATIVE
Another idea gaining traction in the Coalition is a bridging solution for Australia’s submarine fleet. Under the plan Australia would build a limited number of second-generation Collins class submarines that resolve the propulsion chain problems that have plagued previous vessels. Alternatively, it could construct an “off-the-shelf” design with proven operating experience.
Since the highly regarded Japanese Soryu class submarines are not available for export, a leading off-the-shelf candidate is the German Type 214 boat, which has similar range to the Collins.
Close US ally South Korea has bought nine Type 214s, which it is building locally. The Type 214 has a fuel-cell based “air-independent propulsion” system that allows it to remain underwater for two to three weeks without the need to “snort”. The current Collins class have a maximum underwater operating endurance of around two to three days.
Former submariner Rex Patrick, who trains the Australian, Malaysian and Singaporean navies in undersea warfare, says, “Australia’s annual submarine cost is approaching $1 billion. This has given us a pedestrian capability that usually delivers only two deployable boats. For $2 billion, we could build four Type 214s, which would supply navy with a dependable, high-end platform that meets 90 per cent of our requirements.”
Commander Harrap concludes, “Lack of platform reliability is the single most limiting factor for the Collins. Let’s never repeat that mistake. A submarine capable of most of the tasking available most of the time is better than one that claims to do all of the tasking but is only available some of the time.”
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