America's Nuclear Submarine Offer Should Not Be Ignored
Australia may lack a submarine capability for 15 years from 2020-2035 as the future Australian submarine project, known as SEA1000, has been politically unpopular due to the possible acquisition costs for 12 submarines of A$36 Billion and failure of the Collins program. Hence SEA1000 has moved at a snails pace, basically going nowhere for a decade.
The following (developing) article on Australia's future submarine project attempts to put the submarine propulsion debate into political and technical context. Air Independent Propulsion (AIP), a supplementary power source, is discussed. The Australian Government is likely to 'sell' the idea of a 'Collins II" conventional submarine solution on the back of the 'new' AIP feature. AIP is actually a 70 year old feature which was found wanting by the countries that used it - they dropped AIP in favour of nuclear. AIP is not a game changer but a technical feature of marginal tactical value with severe limitations compared to nuclear.
A bit of history about an AIP technology which might fairly reflect today's AIP systems:
During World War II the German firm Walter experimented with submarines that used concentrated hydrogen peroxide as their source of oxygen under water. These used steam turbines, employing steam heated by burning diesel fuel in the steam/oxygen atmosphere created by the decomposition of hydrogen peroxide by a potassium permanganate catalyst.
Several experimental boats were produced, and one, U-1407, which had been scuttled at the end of the war, was salvaged and recommissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Meteorite. The British built two improved models in the late 1950s, HMS Explorer, and HMS Excalibur. Meteorite was not popular with its crews, who regarded it as a dangerous and volatile piece of machinery; she was officially described as "75% safe". The reputations of Excalibur and Explorer was little better, the boats were nicknamed Exploder and Excruciator.
The issue of whether Australia should buy conventional (diesel-electric) subs off-the-shelf or partly home-developed with assistance from US AND European sub builders and/or from Japan or South Korea is examined. Arguments for buying or leasing American nuclear subs off-the-shelf is the main point of this article.
See this website (theoretically 'socialist' but very informative):
A front page article in the Australian Financial Review on February 22  reported that the US ambassador in Canberra, Jeffrey Bleich, has floated the possibility of Washington selling or leasing [by implication Virginia class] nuclear submarines to Australia—a first for any country.
The US of course provided extensive assistance to the UK nuclear submarine program from the 1960s to the present. Such assistance included plans for nuclear submarines, training on US nuclear subs, transfer of SLBM systems and a submarine nuclear reactor. With all this the UK developed its own SSNs and SSBN which work closely with the US on a tactical and strategic level.
Long held Australian assumptions that US nuclear subs are off the buying table may therefore no longer be valid.
The Americans may have been mindful of their refusal to offer nuclear subs to Canada (and perhaps Australia) decades ago. In reaction Canada bought four conventional (diesel-electric) subs from the UK that have never functioned in service. Australia's own attempt at a conventional submarine (the Collins) has also been dysfunctional since they were built.
The Americans may have noticed that their navy has received little or no ongoing support from the defective submarines of their Canadian and Australian allies.
Our conventional failures must be held in comparison to US nuclear submarines that are so highly functional that they are serviced by two crews (working in rotation) with minimal downtime.
What Are Australia's Real Priorities?
How can the Australian government waste another $30 billion? Australia's attempt to build a unique large conventional class of submarines (the Collins) has proven a total failure. But that may not be the point.
What is important was that the objective of making the Collins an efficient weapons system was secondary to political priorities that cannot be publicly explored by government funded analysts of military equipment. Put another way there is an intentional disconnect between the lack of military usefulness of Australia's conventional submarines and other national objectives shared by the ruling federal Labor Party and its Coalition opponents.
These objectives include substantial federal government funding to the state of South Australia where the submarines are built and maintained. This money secures votes in marginal electorates in South Australia and it is money that satisfies politically powerful trade unions involved in the design, building and maintenance of the submarines.
These are reasons that cannot be mentioned and are outside the accepted expertise of military analysts dependent on government money because mentioning these political reasons behind major military equipment decisions would most certainly put their government careers in jeopardy.
As things stand and as confirmed by Australia 2009 Defence White Paper known as Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030 see entire paper at www.defence.gov.au/whitepaper/docs/defence_white_paper_2009.pdf search for 'submarine' ) (Australia will automatically commit the same project mistakes for Australia's future submarines. This will be for the same political reasons as the failed Collins. The future submarines will again be n odd compromise between foreign designs and particular Australian requirements. The subs without doubt will again be primarily developed, constructed and maintained in South Australia.
Of course the submarines cannot have the ideal propulsion for long range operation - which is nuclear. Anyone who does not call the 2009 idea a 'Collins II' knows little about the real priorities of Australia failed submarine construction history.
The foreseeable train-wreck that is Collins II will be described below.
But Won't AIP Make Collins II A Better Sub?
After Australia's experience of severe technical problems in the Collins I involving the hull, cavitation, noise, defective electrical generators and diesel engines it is likely that air independent propulsion (AIP) will present an additional set of problems for the Collins II.
It must be remembered AIP is not a new solution. It is actually an old technology developed in the 1940s that is not a game changer in a submarine's performance or its tactical flexibility. It is significant that the US, Britain and Russia developed AIP systems from the 1940s initially on the basis of German U-Boat research. However they found that the unreliability and danger of AIP outweighed perceived performance gains. These countries, at the forefront of submarine research, decided against further development of AIP as the frontline propulsion by the 1950s in favour of nuclear propulsion.
Its notable that countries developing conventional submarines with or without AIP do not require the long transit times as major requirements of there mission. The countries that can sell conventional subs to Australia (Germany, France, Spain, Sweden South Korea and Japan) utilise their subs on short transit journeys and generally in littoral waters where they meet their enemies.
Furthermore it must be asked whether Australia can maintain European, Japanese or South Korean AIP technology of which Australia has no experience and so far from these source countries?
US Combat System Integration With Hybrid European-Australian Subs
Australia's (then junior Defence Minister Combet) indicated in October 2009 that the US would play a big part in develping Australia's future submarine. Combet's pre-emptive announcement appeared to be referring to America's top of the line combat system (which coordinates sensors and weapons) which are also used by America's nuclear submarines. Australia is already using an earlier version of the US combat system in the Collins. This combat system is one of the rare strengths of the Collins which had an overly ambitious home-grown combat system until the tried and tested US replacement was acquired.
For the record of what Combet is on record as saying see http://news.smh.com.au/breaking-news-national/us-to-play-key-role-in-new-aussie-subs-20091006-gky2.html
"US 'to play key role' in new Aussie subs" October 6, 2009:
Australia wants the assistance of the United States as it looks to replace the Collins class submarines, junior defence minister Greg Combet says.
Mr Combet, in the US for talks with administration and industry officials, said the US was a leader in the design and development of submarine technology.
"I expect that Australia will look to learn from companies like General Dynamics Electric Boat and Lockheed Martin in designing and developing the Collins class replacement," he said in a statement.
Under plans outlined in the defence white paper launched in May, Australia will acquire a fleet of 12 new submarines to replace the six Collins boats in the decade from 2020. It will be Australia's biggest military acquisition.
The government was committed to ensuring that Australia obtained a world leading submarine capability, Mr Combet said.
"US technology is likely to be an important facilitator of this capability," he said.
Electric Boat designed and shared construction of the Virginia class submarines for the US Navy and had been instrumental in driving down production costs to enable the US to increase the production rate.
Lockheed Martin was a major supplier in the US Navy submarine combat system, the Collins replacement combat system and supplied submarine combat systems or components to Spain and the United Kingdom.
For further records of what Combet said:
Combet's combat system decision means their will be major task of integrating the combat system with European or Japanese developed conventional submarine designs unless Australia buys a submarine already incorporating the combat system. Spain still may use a US combat system in the immature S-80. However the mature nuclear US Virginia Class sub also incorporates the combat system Australia wants.
Australian Needs to Plan for its Subs to Operate Fully Submerged
Along with performance inadequacies the main vulnerability of a future conventional Australian submarine is its need to snorkel (take in air to run its diesel engines which in turn power its batteries). AIP is falsely described as fully submerged operation.
They major way to avoid detection is full submerged operation. This can only be achieved through nuclear propulsion. Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) is only a temporary solution which might contribute to less than 20% of a conventional submarine's voyage.
AIP might be used for several weeks but this is at a very slow speed - more of use to a loitering missile submarine that is in range of its land targets. AIP speed limitations are less useful for an attack submarine (Australia's future submarine type) which may need to securely chase other submarines and surface vessels. For example MESMA, one of the latest AIP technologies for sale, will keep a submarine submerged for two weeks but at an average speed no greater than 5 knots compared to 30 knots for enemy attack submarines. Five knots is of little use during the long transit stages required of Australian submarines.
At maximum speed (around 20 knots) an AIP material may last less than a day. This is in comparison to a nuclear attack submarines moving at 34 knots fully submerged for three months.
Conventional Subs Always Need Snorkels Which Make Become A Fatally Vulnerable Feature
Asia Online noted the vulnerability of Chinese submarines to US satellite detection. See http://gentleseas.blogspot.com.au/2012/02/satellite-and-x-37-detection-of.html. February 3, 2012.As China modernises its satellites they will be increasingly sensitive to detect Australian submarine activities. Studies like this indicate the progress China is making in Electronic Intelligence satellite for the detection of submarines. This includes snorkels which already cannot be used at fast speeds because their wakes are already known to give them away to radar or electro-optical imagery.
Stealthy snorkels are also of temporary value.
Operational Realities for Australian Submarines
It is implicit in Australia's 2009 Defence White Paper that Australia's submarine forces be capable of deterring Chinese naval forces. This requires rapid and secure transit of around 4,500 kms (which, for example, might take a submarine from Fleet Base West, Rockingham, Western Australia to Darwin for partial replenishment) in the north of Australia. Other refuelling and replenishment bases might be US bases at Guam, Okinawa, Diego Garcia, or Oman.
Rapid submerged transit requires the possibility of snorkel 'indescretion'. Indiscretion may mean the snorkel is kept on the surface too long allowing is to be seen by Chinese satellites (or other sensor platforms) or the snorkel is moving so fast through the water that is leaves a visible wake. Surface transit is no longer a secure proposition against an enemy (like China) that is increasingly well equipped with nautical sensors.
The alternative of using AIP will takes several weeks at the maximum long endurance limit of 4 knots. This compares poorly with 34 knots for months using nuclear propulsion.
Using AIP will also be inefficient if used for transit stages because this will exhaust limited AIP chemicals that might be better using in tactical movement once Chinese forces are encountered.
Nuclear Propulsion Provides Full Tactical Flexibility
The presence of US submarines cannot be perpetually counted on to perform the rapid chasing functions that only nuclear propelled submarines can perform. Australian subs need a sustained submerged speed greater than 30 knots to keep up with Chinese nuclear subs.
Conventional submarines also lack the sustained speeds to stay ahead of an Australian naval taskforce to protect that taskforce.
Problems Buying an Asian, UK or European Submarines
If China is the likely opponent then reliance on Japan and South Korea as submarine suppliers is highly problematic. Their geographical proximity to China means that they could be militarily, politically or economically pressured and rendered neutral by China.
This would prevent them supporting Australian submarines with the necessary hardware and computer software upgrades. Linguistic barriers concerning both Japan and South Korea are also considerable. Japan's lack of experience as a major weapons exporter and its peace constitution generates extra risks for Australia buying submarines from Japan.
In comparison to US nuclear submarine support facilities that are relatively close in Guam support from Japan, South Korea or Europe with specialised conventional and AIP systems are a long way.
The concerns of the US and Australia's neighbours that Australia using a new class of submarine with nuclear propulsion might be resolved through a leasing deal. Australia found anyway that it could not go it alone with Collins reliance on foreign experience and technical developments is always required in submarines as in aircraft.
We don't need 12 subs if they are nuclear perhaps only 6.
I think the naval standard of a minimum of 3 vessels (one operational, one on leave/training and one in maintenance) should be Australia's objective. But better still four or more as Chinese ASW might be unexpectedly effective.
As the US Navy phases out Los Angeles the essential software and hardware updates will become more problematic. Hence Virginia SSNs (which are more modern) whould be preferable.
Australia (an old low earthquake continent) is well place to build nuclear storage dumps for spent nuclear fuel.
Increased economies of scale for the Virginia class program will benefit the Australia but also the US.
After Canada's experince buying the 4 UK Upholder/Victoria Class subs http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upholder/Victoria_class_submarine I think buying nuclear subs from the UK would be unwise.
Also US nuclear maintenance facilities in Guam are much closer than the UK facilities in Scotland (which in any case are far out of Australia's area of operations).
What About Jobs and Votes?
Hopefully the type of nuclear flexibility that Labor and Gillard exhibited in the 'backflip' of deciding to export uranium to India still applies.
As it is likely Australia's new subs will be operational through to 2055 Australia should at least consider the nuclear propulsion option. This force must have an effective capability against the two new nuclear submarine forces (China's and India's) that will operate in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
It is also notable that France is building a nuclear propelled submarine for Brazil. An example of a non-nuclear armed middle power (like Australia) buying the nuclear propelled option.
In 2050 we cannot still be completely relying on US submarines to face the nuclear submarines of rising regional powers.
Buying American submarines with nuclear propulsion off the shelf with the required combat systems already integrated and tested will be a simpler and less risky choice than a purchases of conventional subs. While Australia would unlikely get offsets in nuclear submarine construction new offset deals with the US might well be negotiated in other defence sectors particularly aircraft.
South Australia, with US help, can still maintain Australia's future subs even if they are nuclear.
The major political concern of the future submarine generating money, votes and jobs for South Australia can therefore still be achieved.
Another useful article, with a difference emphasis, on the nuclear propulsion is here http://www.pnyxblog.com/pnyx/2012/2/25/the-case-for-an-australian-nuclear-submarine-fleet.html .
For an excellent description of the Roles and Requirements for Autralia's Future Submarine see Asia Pacific Defence Reporter, April 6, 2011 http://www.asiapacificdefencereporter.com/articles/134/ROLES-AND-REQUIREMENTS-FOR-AUSTRALIA-S-FUTURE-SUBMARINE .-