In September 2021, Australia’s Prime Minster startled almost everyone by declaring the replacement submarine for the nation’s COLLINS class boats would now be nuclear-powered. The United States and United Kingdom had just agreed to share nuclear propulsion technology with Australia to allow eight nuclear-powered submarines to be acquired. Moreover, these would be built in Australia with the first boat delivered by 2040.

This decision had immediate consequences. Contracts with France’s Naval Group and the United States’ Lockheed Martin for developing a large new conventional submarine, the ATTACK class, would now not proceed. Instead, a contract break point would be exercised even though overall sunk costs would be considerable. A new technology sharing arrangement dubbed AUKUS (Australia, the UK and US) was to be established, with its first task an 18-month feasibility study to examine Australia “becoming a responsible and reliable steward” of nuclear technology. Moreover, given all this, the COLLINS class boats would now be life-of-type extended by more than ten years; well past their design life. These latest developments in the longrunning saga of replacing Australia’s COLLINS fleet appeared extraordinary. However, in many ways they were also simply a product of a combination of long-standing strategic decisions made a decade ago interacting with emerging technologies. The implications of all this though are significant, with both positive and negative aspects for the Royal Australian Navy and for defence industry.

The long tail of strategic decisions

A key decision taken over a decade ago has shaped Australia’s new submarine ambitions. This determined the new submarines should be able to operate into the South China Sea from their home port near Perth, a distance of some 6,500 km. For a conventional submarine this is a long way and has significant design implications. A related issue is weapon loadouts, as submarines have to return to home port to rearm if their weapons are fired while on patrol. A submarine with a long transit to its patrol area must carry a sizeable weapons load to be operationally useful. Meeting both these factors requires a large submarine. Unsurprisingly, the cancelled French ATTACK class boat was to be amongst the world’s largest conventionally-powered submarine at some 4,500 tonnes (surfaced). In contrast, the COLLINS displaces some 3,000 tonnes.

Please click here to read the full “Australia’s nuclear submarine surprise” article published in Maritime Security and Defence December 2021 issue (pp 7-12), written by Griffith Asia Institute Visiting Fellow, Dr Peter Layton.