1st Published March 31, 2009
France's current Rubis Amethyste Class SSN
Artists conception of France's future Barracuda Class SSN. The first of 6 is due to be launched in 2016. Good timing for Australia's 2020 Submarine Project.
Australia appears to have excluded the nuclear propulsion option due to cost, reliance on the US nuclear submarine shield (under ANZUS) and US pressure on Australia to remain diesel/electric. The US earlier dissuaded Canada from considering nuclear propulsion as that would give that dependent allie a measure of independence and might encourage other Pacific countries to go the nuclear propulsion route such as South Korea, Taiwan and Australia.
The US has policies, laws and has signed treaties against nuclear proliferation. Proliferation under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty includes the spread of nuclear weapons, fissile material, and weapons-applicable nuclear technology and information, to nations which are not recognized as the 5 "nuclear weapon States" (UK, US, Russia, France and China).
As submarine reactors often contain weapons grade uranium (97% for US sub reactors when only 85+% ie "Highly Enriched Uranium" is dense enough for a bomb)) exporting such a reactor would amount to weapon proliferation. Teaching Australian technicians the skills to maintain and operate such reactors would also amount to proliferation. So the US given its worldwide sensitivities would be highly unlikely to help Australia in the nuclear propulsion and nuclear weapon areas.
If Australia's threat environment seriously increased up to 2025 an alternative source of assistance may be France for naval reactors and Israel for actual weapons. France has a history directly of assisting Israel build the plutonium production reactor at Dimona in Israel as well as building the plutonium processing facility at the same site. This was directly aimed at nuclear weapon production, however Australia could not hope to have such a close relationship with France. French assistance on nuclear propulsion for an Australian submarine might be sufficient - while a whole solution for a French designed Australian SSN would be preferable.
By US/UK standards French SSNs are small - a better size for Australian requirements. For example the 6 French SSNs of the Rubis Amethyste Class only displace 2,400 tons surfaced, 2,700 submerged. The Rubis Class are less than a third of the weight of US Los Angels or newest Virginia class SSNs. The Rubis' crew of 62 (the smaller the better for Australia) is only half that of US SSNs. Rubis are fairly recent with the first launched 1979.
The future French Barracuda Class SSNs may be the best way to go if Australia considered nuclear propulsion. A drawback would be a possible need to convert to the French weapons suite, torpedoes, mines, cruise missiles and combat system.
Australia also fields Harpoon anti shipping and land attack missiles in its Collins Class subs. Given probable Israeli sub cruise missile warhead developments and Israel's past willingness to supply weapons technology to South Africa - Israel could well help Australia some day:"In June 2002, former State Department and Pentagon officials confirmed that the U.S. Navy observed Israeli missile tests in the Indian Ocean in 2000, and that the Dolphin-class vessels have been fitted with nuclear-capable cruise missiles of a new design. Israel issued new denials, albeit in an indirect manner. In October 2003, unidentified senior U.S. and Israeli officials were quoted as saying that Israel had successfully modified nuclear warheads to fit its Harpoon missiles."