Australian submarine program ‘on track’ despite concerns

The program to replace Australia’s Collins-class submarines, a joint venture between the US, UK and Australia, is underway, according to Australia’s defense minister. Minister Richard Marles announced that an advisory report on the choice of submarine design will be published early next year.

The Astute class will consist of seven submarines, with the first entering service in 2010 and the last in 2026. HMS Anson is the fifth boat. On display here in May 2021, four months before commissioning. (Photo: British Navy)

Last week it was a year since Australia tore up the contract with the French naval group to build new submarines. The Collins-class diesel-electric replacements had been in the works for years when the French were sidelined one morning (local time) in exchange for a collaboration with the US and UK under the name AUKUS. Australia wanted to build nuclear submarines with the old allies.

Complex route
Nuclear submarines are a logical choice for a country the size of Australia and its large operational area. To illustrate, the diesel-electric Collins-class submarine takes approximately 11 days to sail from the submarine base in Perth to the naval base in Brisbane. In about two weeks, a diesel-electric undercarriage (an SSK) from Perth could be in the South China Sea. With a cruising speed of over 20 knots, a nuclear submarine needs only half the time.

Still, the AUKUS route is not the easiest. Australia has never had nuclear submarines, a nuclear industry is prohibited in Australia by law, the British and Americans have never before exported nuclear submarines, and the program must start from scratch. And that while there is a lot of haste. Although the Collins class (only slightly younger than the Hvalross class) is being modernized, it will not last for decades. In addition, the security situation in Asia is worsening: just look at the situation around Taiwan.

The Australian submarine service will have to be patient with the arrival of the new nuclear submarines. According to the Australian Ministry of Defence, the switch to nuclear boats will happen in the next decade, although it does not say much about when the new boats will be put into service. Some experts do not expect the boats in another 20 years.

AUKUS is a complex program and concerns about this program are growing. One of the directors of the Lowy Institute think tank told the Guardian last week that there is a possibility that the AUKUS submarines will never get there.

Design choice
However, Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles said during a press briefing last week that the program is taking shape and is on track. There is not much information yet. Marles said an advisory will be provided to the government on a draft in March next year. It will not be a uniquely Australian design, said the minister, who spoke of an “orphan class” referring to such a design. In doing so, he ruled out the least likely possibility, because the design will be based on a British or American submarine anyway. “Obviously, it is desirable that the submarine we operate with is also used by another country,” Marles added.

At the moment, the British Astute class and the American Virginia class submarines sound like the most logical ‘mother designs’, but those are designs from years ago. Another option is for the Australians to piggyback on a class that has yet to be built. (While the final Astute class has yet to be built, 350 designers and engineers have already begun work on the Astute successor in 2021.)

To familiarize themselves with the nuclear submarines, Australian submarine personnel are admitted to nuclear submarine training courses in the United States and Great Britain. Australians will also join British submarine crews aboard capable class boats.

Temporary and alternative
Because it will be a long time before the first Australian nuclear submarine can be deployed, the Australian media also mentions a temporary solution as a possibility. It would then be a diesel-electric boat which could replace the Collins in the relatively short term while the nuclear program continues. Although Swedish Saab (builder of Collins) is watching the Australian case with interest, no concrete steps seem to have been taken at the interim level.

Since the new Australian government took office, ties with France have been renewed. French President Emmanuel Macron is said to have suggested Australia continue development of four Naval Group submarines in July.

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