February 10, 2015

Australian Nuclear Submarine Option - Virginia SSNs

Largest diagram of Virginia SSN. Click to expand. Note the 12 vertical launch tubes near the bow will be replaced with Virginia Payload Tubes (VPT) at the mid-section for various uses (28 missiles, divers, autonomous underwater vehicles  (AUVs). Also see huge diagram.


If Australia is considering paying $2 to 3 Billion per Soryu and per 4,000 ton (surfaced) competitors then Virginia (nuclear propelled attack submarines) SSNs should also be an option.

However I think the political considerations make SSNs a remote buy. There would need to be a major threat, amounting to a strategic need, for SSNs. Domestic opposition is, at present, too great. There is too much opposition at the political left and even the center in Australia. 

When the US raised in February 2012 selling or leasing Virgina SSNs to Australia Australian concerns may have also been:

- the complete infrastructure and basing costs and issues seemed too expensive financially and politically. For example any nuclear submarine facilities could be nowhere near the current Fleet Base East which is in Sydney. Public opposition and separation safety standards may have meant a whole new base would need to be built on Australia's east coast for temporary or emergency uses. Note that Australia moved its submarine base at from the Sydney Harbour Fleet Base East area specifically HMAS Platypus (for subs) from the 1980s to Fleet Base West HMAS Stirling (Fremantle, Western Australia). There were several reasons for Australia's decision including the desire to host nuclear submarines of Australia's allies away from a major city. Implicitly Frematle also offered the option of being the base for Australian nuclear submarines.

- the degree of US sincerity that it was a real offer may not have convinced Australia. Australia would have had to rely on much US influence in placating Australia's neighbours.

-  the crew number requirements of a Virginia are daunting. Crew may be 115-135 or even around 250+ if there are alternating Blue-Gold crews (2 x 115 to 135). This means the Australian submarine service, as it is, would not have the money to pay, train and maintain such large crews. Decades of training in reactor maintenance and safety is required. SSNs mean an extra national effort would be needed - hence strategic would need to be major. 

Australia and the US would also be concerned about igniting a nuclear propelled arms race in the wider region (eg. from such nuclear knowledgeable countries as Japan and South Korea). There might also be increased acceleration in the current SSN building programs in India and China.

Australia's near neighbour Indonesia can also increasingly afford nuclear technology (with Indonesia's GDP now passing Australia's by some measures). So Australia didn't/doesn't not want an arms race so close to home.

Accepting Australia's current budgetary worries, but leaving some room for escalation to SSNs, my ideal Australian submarine buying plan would be a low-then-high mix:

- 6 medium size SSKs within next 10-15 years (each less than $1Billion). With crews of around 30 so at least 4 could be crewed at any one time.

4 Virginia SSNs (or the US follow-on SSN at that time) at some point in future, and based on strategic need, 

Note - A little over a month after I published Australian Nuclear Submarine Option - Virginia SSNs an article in the Australian Financial Review, March 23, 2015 "Nuclear submarine option pushed by industry" also raised the (or my?) idea of buying 6 conventional submarines first then perhaps a number of nuclear submarines sometime later. Fair is fair given my partial use of an AFR article below :-)   

SSNs have major advantages in less-or-no indiscretion time (fully submerged so cannot be seen by Chinese or Russian satellites), much more range, speed (great for the 3,000 km transit gap) and much greater operational availability.

In terms of possible threat - China is likely to be pragmatic over an Australian purchase of future (conventional) submarine even if that submarine is likely to be superior to any Chinese conventional submarine. China would recognize that such an Australian submarine will be a second rate submarine compared to China's increasing numbers of SSNs. China would be much more concerned if Australia bought superior submarines, that is SSNs from the US, UK or France.

The SSN option was raised by the US Ambassador to Australia in early 2012.


To read the whole article see the Australian Financial Review (AFR) of February 22, 2012  http://www.afr.com/p/national/us_floats_nuclear_subs_option_uPMgRrev3KjNwBLfFxpdeO

"US floats nuclear subs option - 22 Feb 2012 [following written by John Kerin]


  • Type: Attack submarine
  • Cost: $2.5 billion
  • Displacement: 7900 metric tonnes (submerged)
  • Length: 240 metres
  • Beam: 10 metres
  • Propulsion: S9G reactor
  • Speed: 25+ knots (46km/h)
  • Range: unlimited
  • Crew: 135
  • Armament: 12 Tomahawk cruise missiles, 4 533mm torpedo tubes
  • Built: 2000 - present
  • Active: 8
  • Planned: 30
  • Ships in class include: Virginia, Texas, Hawaii, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Missouri, California, Mississippi, Minnesota, North Dakota, John Warner
The United States has indicated for the first time it would be willing to lease or sell a nuclear submarine to Australia in a move that will inflame tensions with China and force the Coalition to declare its policy on ­bolstering regional defence.
US Ambassador to Australia ­Jeffrey Bleich told The Australian Financial Review yesterday that whichever option Canberra pursued as a replacement for its Collins class submarines, Washington viewed ­Australia’s subs program as crucial to security in the Asia-Pacific region.
“Decisions about the design of the Australian submarine are up to Australia’s leaders, including whether they pursue diesel power or nuclear power,” Mr Bleich said. “Whatever they decide the US is willing to help.’’
His comments suggest the US would be open to discussing nuclear submarine technologies with Australia at a time of severe budget constraints here and in the US, despite Defence Minister Stephen Smith restating Labor’s opposition to any nuclear submarine purchase. But Australian sources maintain they have been told by opposition figures that Coalition leader Tony Abbott will consider the nuclear option if he wins an election due in 2013.
Opposition defence spokesman David Johnston has gone as far as saying the Coalition would support Labor if it sought to examine the nuclear submarine option. Neither Mr Abbott’s office nor Mr Johnston were prepared to comment on Mr Bleich’s intervention last night
But leading defence analysts, including former Liberal minister Peter Reith, have urged both sides of politics to consider nuclear subs.
A senior Defence source said ­Australia would probably be able to buy a 7500 tonne Virginia Class submarine for around $2.5 billion, but because it would come off a mature production line its price would reduce over time.
Labor has been considering the purchase of 12 conventional submarines to replace the Collins, with an Australian designed and built option costing up to $36 billion, or $3 billion each." 
To read the whole article see the Australian Financial Review  http://www.afr.com/p/national/us_floats_nuclear_subs_option_uPMgRrev3KjNwBLfFxpdeO

Further Reading 

See http://navyleague.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/nuclear-powered-submarine-paper-nov-2010.pdf This is a more learned discussion of the cost and benefits of nuclear submarines for Australia. Title is NUCLEAR-POWERED SUBMARINES FOR AUSTRALIA November 2010, carried by The Navy League of Australia. It is based on a presentation of “Three members of the Navy League of Australia, Rear Admiral Andrew Robertson AO DSC RAN (Retd.), Rear Admiral David Holthouse AO RAN (Retd.) and Rear Admiral Chris Wood RN (Retd.) gave a presentation in late November 2010 on Nuclear Powered Submarines to the Nuclear Engineering Panel of Engineers Australia (Sydney Branch).” http://navyleague.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/nuclear-powered-submarine-paper-nov-2010.pdf (pages 1 then 9 to 17 may be the most relevant).

ANU’s Stephan Fruehling wrote in ASPI Strategist a most interesting article on this:  Nuclear propulsion and the future of Australia’s submarine force of March 11, 2016



Anonymous said...

If the program cost for a fleet of conventional submarine keeps ballooning, then the Virgina option becomes viable. If a conventional submarine with AIP or Li-ion batteries is $2B or $3B then it makes sense to get a $2.5B nuclear submarine. Then you can eliminate all the risks associated with a new design or customizing a new or existing design.

I understand the Virginia reactor is designed to last 33 years or the lifetime of the hull. This means there is no need for refuelling which eliminates the biggest headache. Australia will need to build expertise with running and maintaining the reactor (like replacing pipes, pumps, etc.).

But the Virginia option means there is no building of Virginia in Australia.

Peter Coates said...

Hi Anonymous

Yes if Australia is considering paying $2 to 3 Billion for Soryus or 4,000 ton (surfaced) competitors then Virginia SSNs would mean much more capability for similar price.

However I think the main inhibitions are anti-nuclear political factions in Australia. Australia and the US would also be concerned about igniting a nuclear propelled arms race in the region (Japan, S Korean Navies and accelerated SSN building programs in India and China)

My ideal Australian sub buying plan would be:

- 6 medium size SSKs within next 10-15 years (each less than $1Billion)
- some point in future, and based on strategic need, 4 Virginias (or the US follow-on SSN at that time).

As you would know Virginias have major advantages in less-no indiscretion time, much more range, speed (great for the 3,000 km transit gap) and (even Gold-Blue crew) availability time.

Do you think the US was serious in 2012 about offering Virginias?



Anonymous said...

AFAIK, whether Australia chooses or not a Virgina SSN, the nuclear arms race already began between China and India. Both are building nuclear submarines.

I agree with you on a hi-low mix being the best. I actually think even USN can also benefit from a hi-lo mix.

Australia is part of the 5 eyes closed circle so I do not see oppositions from US DoD, State or Congress.

Peter Coates said...

Hi Anonymous (of Feb 13, 2015)

I just learned "AFAIK" means "as far as I know" :)

I think Australia didn't choose the Virginia SSNs for the domestic and international proliferation issues I wrote about. Also the complete infrastructure and basing costs and issues seemed too large.

Also the degree of US sincerity that it was a real offer may not have convinced Australia. Australia would have had to rely on much US influence in placating Australia's neighbours.

Australia's near neighbour Indonesia can also increasingly afford nuclear technology so Australia didn't not want an arms race so close to home.



C-Low said...

If Australia agreed to purchase 12 Virginia I would even say it would be worth it for the US to pay for the nuclear sub base and infrastructure in Australia while incorporating their crew training into the current US system.

Considering Australia is a foundation ally the US would basically get +12 SSN on station in the Pacific/Indian at the cost of a base nuclear infrastructure. This is a regional base that the US could also leverage and a base that in a time of war so close to the region could be a critical advantage.

The US should push Australia hard to go with the Virginia SSN. After all their is already whispers the British are going to tag with the US for their boomer.

Peter Coates said...

Hi C-Low

I think it more likely Australia would have limited money and manpower - to buy and operate only 4 to 6 Virginias. Twelve Virginias, particularly with alternating Blue-Gold crews, would double the size and expense of our whole Navy. The much more rapid speed and higher availiability time of the Virginia would allow them to do the work of 12 SSKs.

Australia already has a submarine base that already has accommodated US SSGNs (from the 4 modified Ohio Class) and US SSNs for the last 23 years at least http://www.smh.com.au/national/call-for-more-us-nuclear-sub-facilities-20120130-1t7xv.html.

Also see "He said that in addition to Perth, US nuclear submarines were cleared to put in at Darwin, Jervis Bay, Brisbane and Hobart." in http://www.smh.com.au/national/call-for-more-us-nuclear-sub-facilities-20120130-1t7xv.html. )

Even British SSNs (eg. HMS Trenchant July 1997) have visited.

That partly nuclear capable base is Australia's main submarine base HMAS Stiring at the port of Fremantle just south of Perth, Western Australia.

Dennis Jensen, Federal Member of Parliament representing Fremantle has long favoured buyin or leasing Virginias - see http://fremantle.inmycommunity.com.au/news-and-views/local-news/MP-wants-nuclear-subs/7652026/

What SSN facilities (if really necessary) could be built to service the East Coast of Australia? If too difficult maybe Fremantle alone might be adequate?

Yes I would expect the US-UK agreement on nuclear weapons cooperation will continue to expedite UK planning-designing and construction of its future 4 SSBNs. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1958_US%E2%80%93UK_Mutual_Defence_Agreement . We can thank Mr Putin for hopefully resolving the UK debate in favour of 4 UK future SSBNs.

I'll integrate all the above in the Submarine Matters article over the week.



Anonymous said...

40 years from today, diesel and fossil fuels will be a lot more expensive (it is hard to believe on such statement given where oil price is right now).

There is another plus with the nuclear power option. Given the coming revolution in rail guns, a nuclear reactor is perfect to generate 64MJ of energy, sufficient to send a low cost precision guided Mach 7+ projectile some 400 kms away. Rail gun will even work as AA.

I would not be surprised if rail guns will be coming to US next generation submarines.

Peter Coates said...

Hi Anonymous (of Feb 17)

The cost of hydro-carbon fuel in 40 years time has no bearing on the selection of subs now. As diesel fuel (even at 10 times the price) is a very small cost component for submarines (compared to personnel etc) selection of diesel has no bearing on choosing nuclear now or in 40 years.

Are you seriously saying that a sub having to surface to use a rail-gun would be better than a submerged sub firing cruise or ballistic missiles with ranges up to 8,000 km?

Your solution looks similar to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_submarine_Surcouf that had 8 inch guns that were useless.



Vishal Wadje said...

Hi Peter Coates

Vishal here from India.

I doubt if US will give virginia SSN to australia ,because 1) USA is signatory to START (its the same treaty which prohibits russia from technologically helping india, and similar NPT stopped russia from giving cryogenic engines to india) , i doubt USA wants to break the treaty of START with russia , if it does USA is the one who can lose much much more than russia possibly could. already russian economy has collapsed since 1991 USSR disintegration and is further weakening to new lows , nearly 2 trillion russian economy barely growing at 0.8 % growth rate annually as compared to already huge us economy of 16 trillion sustained growth at 3-3.5 % growth rates/yr , in such a time russia is more than willing to sell its defence technology to other nations like india and make quick bucks & also to balance of power in the region for the very russian interests.

2)virginia will be flagship/cutting edge tech. of USA , unless usa develops next version of SSN , it will not hand over its flagship to other nations , be it Australia or uk , lol , i guess thats the reason uk is crying for F-22 but i doubt us will give it to uk (which in turn led to development of eurofighter typhoon), also usa is giving separate export versions of F-35 to uk , so you can imagine usa never gives its flagship / cutting edge technology to no one .

Bottomline is - i believe usa will not give virginia to australia or say even if it does then it will have less than 300 km range conventional missile launchers as per START treaty & it will be an export version much different from US SSN virginia.(not to mention there will be no TOT/transfer of tech.)

Peter Coates said...

Hi Vishal Wadje

Yes I think if the US really wanted Australia to buy Virginia SSNs it would have happened in 2012. Basically the US can exert enough political influence on Australia to persuade Australia to buy American. Also the US could have offered these SSNs at a price that was competitive with SSKs.

I suspect the US wants to have a Western Pacific monopoly over Western nuclear propulsion and nuclear weapons. India may alter this monopoly as India’s SSNs and SSBNs seriously move into the Pacific in one to two decades.

Offering SSNs to Australia would indeed impinge on US non-proliferation and other international agreements with allies and also opponents (eg. Russia START). As Virginia reactors use 90+% HEU selling these reactors to Australia may well be considered a breach of several non-proliferation agreements.

Putin (with his low oil price budgetary troubles) may want extra excuses to devote more resources to nuclear subs and to more aggressive foreign policy. Russia might also want to claw back through favourable arms sales its previously closer relationship with India.

High tech nuclear subs is one major Russia-India area of cooperation. This is seen in India’s lease of the INS Chakra (was Nerpa) and also (probably ongoing) Russian help with INS Arihant’s reactor.

On your point 2. I agree that the US would be reluctant to transfer such high tech as the Virginia to Australia. Hence the US also talked in 2012 about “leasing” Virginias. This might well reduce Australia’s control of leased Virginia’s in times of serious confrontation or war.

Who knows, in 20 years, Australia may suppliments its 6 Soryus with 4 US SSNs!


Anonymous said...

Blogger Alexander Judzewitsch said...

Peter, the costs I provided were examples at a high level. Obviously a detailed analysis needs to be made and here's the problem. Why is the Virginia class not being evaluated? It is the obvious best choice in terms of integration with our other US systems installed on the AWD, F-35, etc. Yes they cost more but are clearly more capable. My suggestion to crew initially two was just a first step to start replacing the Collins. The eventual aim would be to have say 6 Virginia class boats owned/leased and part of the RAN and under the full control of the RAN. Establishing a maintenance facility for our Virginia boats would enable us to provide some maintenance for the US submarines in our region saving the the long trip back to the US then back here again. The USN has stated that 60% of their assets would be stationed in our region. That is a lot of submarines and a lot of maintenance work and jobs for Australians over a very long period of the order of 40 to 50 or more years.

March 15, 2015 at 7:40 PM