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Can Australia afford nuclear propelled submarines? Can we afford not to?

By Peter Briggs

This paper draws on the author’s experience as a submarine operator in the Royal Australian Navy, including the leader of the Howard Government’s recovery program for the Collins Class submarines.   The author has accessed experienced operators and engineers from the US, UK and French Navies to identify the range of personnel issues to be overcome.

Suggestions that we can simply lease several nuclear-powered submarines in lieu of purchasing the 12 new conventionally submarines now being designed are debunked.  

The transition to nuclear powered submarines would have a 15-20 year lead time, will require a national commitment of scarce resources and major increase of the qualified submarine personnel in Navy, supporting industry and the authorities supervising nuclear safety in Australia.   It cannot be rushed or outsourced to another country.   Completing the buildup in submarine numbers and personnel now underway as part of the Future Submarine program is a pre-requisite for any transition to nuclear powered submarines.

Citing the experiences of UK, USA and France the author finds that the lack of a nuclear power industry should not preclude a transition to nuclear powered submarines.

The Paper makes two major recommendations to Government.

  • Initiate an urgent, detailed study to understand the issues posed by a shift to nuclear powered submarines to enable a well informed decision to be made.
  • Accelerate the Future Submarine Project now, with priority for resources and a fast track for facilities, with a view to achieving 12 conventional powered submarines by 2036.

Given the increased capability to deter action against Australia’s interests offered by a nuclear-powered submarine’s mobility and ability to operate in a high threat environment - can we afford not to make the change?

It is time we knew the answer to this question.