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The Australian Submarine Decision: Challenges and Next Steps

Dr Robbin Laird

26 October 2021

Royal Australian Navy (RAN) Collins Class submarines have been captured in impressive imagery, whilst exercising off the West Australian coast

The decision by the Morrison Administration to shift from a conventional submarine to a nuclear submarine is part of the strategic reset underway in Australia since 2018. With the Chinese threat ramping up, the Australians have been looking to refocus their defence efforts on the Indo-Pacific region and to find ways to expand the reach of their forces in the region. That re-focus started with an emphasis on building longer range strike weapons and to shape capability within Australia to build out their own capabilities to build guided weapons, including over time, longer range strike weapons.

The Japanese when launching the war in the Pacific understood from the outset that Australia was the outlier continent which could influence the outcome significantly. The key was to isolate the continent and deny use of that continent to the United States. The Chinese Communist regime certainly understood this and approached the Australian problem by economic, cultural, and political means to reshape the Australian perspective and to isolate the United States from Australian defence.

President Xi has dramatically failed.

Now the Australians are working through how best to shape a way ahead to craft an integrated force capable of longer-range reach and providing more credible deterrent capabilities going forward. I have chronicled the ADF journey with regard to building out a joint force over the past few years through the perspective of the Williams Foundation seminars held from 2014 until the 2020 pandemic shutdown in my book Joint by Design published earlier this year.

With the new strategy announced in 2020, there is a re-set underway within which the nuclear submarine decision is a key part. But a re-set is not built in a day, and as my former boss, Secretary Michael Wynne, often commented, “you have 80% of your force 20 years from now, right now.” So rebuilding is about re-shifting, it is about leveraging new capabilities that get you where you want to go; but it is not about working from a blank slate.

To discuss the transition and its challenges, I recently spoke with Marcus Hellyer of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute about his take on the decision.

From Marcus’s perspective, this decision “is the most important one in his lifetime.” It is about putting a stake in the ground, and rescoping the reach of the ADF and how it will operate in the Indo-Pacific region.

We both agreed that the head of the Nuclear-Powered submarine task force, Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead, had his work cut out for him, but an essential point is for the government and the Navy to ensure that the effort, although crucial, would not dominate the efforts to re-orient the overall ADF effort itself.

As Hellyer put it: “ It is important to let Jonathan Mead, do his work, and everybody else needs to focus on what we can be doing right now. I don’t have an issue with going with SSNs, but we can’t afford to sit back and say the SSNs are coming to save us. There are many, many things we can be doing to make the ADF a much more robust force. The SSNs effort could suck all the oxygen out of the room and taking all the decision makers’ time and energy and headspace. But the focus, while Mead gets on with his job, needs to be on how to get a much faster return on a much more modest investment if we pursue the right things now and figure out the right ways to use them.”

A key problem facing the government is the challenge of shaping the defence narrative in a credible and effective manner.

Certainly, when looking at the effort surrounding the future submarine program designed to deliver a new conventional submarine, that narrative was largely missing in action. That cannot be repeated if Australia is to make an effective strategic transition.

According to Hellyer: “When the defence update came out last year, there was broad agreement that the observations about the strategic environment and the kinds of actions needed to shape new capabilities to deal with that environment were spot on. Notably, the need not to simply sit back and respond to Russia and China, but to shape new capabilities like long-range strike to create problems for them.

“But what is missing is a clear relationship between that narrative and force design narrative. When look at the force structure that was attached to new defence narrative, it’s essentially the same force structure that we’ve been working on in an absolutely glacial fashion since the 2009 white paper. There is a major disconnect between the timelines, the threat environment, and the actual capabilities that to date we are acquiring to deal with it.

“The government is acquiring new or additional capabilities for sure, but the narrative is not there with regard to how these capabilities are woven together and shaping the strategic relaunch. Tomahawks are being acquired for the fleet. A new squadron of Romeo ASW helicopters are being acquired. A co-operative program with the U.S. on hypersonic systems has been announced as well as one working with the U.S. Army on its ground launched long-range strike missiles. We are acquiring the longer-range JASSM.

“There are a number of announcements of new defence efforts, but there is a need for the narrative reflecting and guiding the ADF build out.”

It should also be noted that U.S. and allied forces in the Indo-Pacific are themselves in the throes of fundamental change, and one way ahead for Australia clearly is to be a key driver in that reshaping effort. And given its collaborative efforts in the region, those efforts can be key drivers in the transformation process as well.

I have identified in my own work, especially with Ed Timperlake, a number of such points involving the United States, namely, the reshaping of the U.S. Navy around a distributed force operating in kill webs. The USAF working how to deliver agile combat employment. The USMC working its flexible basing approach and leveraging its Osprey and F-35 transitions going forward.

Clearly, the United States military is a key element in the strategic re-shift but other allies are increasingly important as well, notably Japan.

One innovation which Hellyer noted that could be driven by the acquisition of a new squadron of Romeos is the need to find other ship or land-based solutions to hosting the new aircraft, as the inventory will exceed the number of Royal Australian Navy ships which can currently operate the aircraft. He suggested that the two Australian amphibious ships – the HMAS Canberra and Adelaide – might include this among their roles.

But the U.S. Navy has been experimenting with such an approach, as evidenced by the Black Widow exercise last Fall. During that exercise, the Navy used the USS Wasp as an ASW or USW platform.

Hellyer underscored that this sort of experimentation was what he would like to see the ADF engaged in during the period ahead as it reworks its approach going forward. And he noted that the experimentation which the USMC is doing in the Pacific, is perhaps a good model for how to do so.

Of course, there are a number of decisions to be made associated with the ability to operate nuclear submarines by the Royal Australian Navy or to operate them from an Australian support structure. Hellyer highlighted on key one, which is simply ramping up the number of submariners required to operate a nuclear submarine fleet. He cited the recent appearance by Chief of Navy before a Senate Committee where he needed at least 2,300 submariners, which would require an increase by two and half times over the current force. As Hellyer noted: “I think the issue is going to be how do we actually develop the crew for the SSNs and make them effective before the Collins class submarines essentially time out.”

He underscored that the challenge already being faced by the ADF, namely, the sunsetting of the Collins class submarine, has not been solved, but actually is worse because the delivery schedule for the SSNs is later than the now-cancelled Attack-class conventional submarine project.

So how will the RAN and the ADF deal with this?

The answer probably lies not simply in the question of when Australian built nuclear submarines hit the water, or nuclear submarines built for Australia are operational, but with other solution sets as well. But here we are entering the domain of how Australia crafts its working relationships with the United States and UK navies going forward.

And that is a final point. Hellyer found the fixation in the press with regard to whether the Australians would pursue a U.S. or UK nuclear submarine, Virginia or Astute, misplaced. If you are going down this route, obviously you are working with the dominant allied submarine force in the Indo-Pacific, the United States Navy.

Global Britain may be a nice marketing point, but not one on which to build the future of Australian defence.

As Hellyer put it: “The U.S. Navy is grappling every day with the same problems that we’re facing, which is how do you deal with an increasingly capable and aggressive Chinese military. And whatever the benefits or advantages of the Royal Navy, those are not the issues that the Royal Navy is grappling with every day. You want to be able to leverage what the U.S. military and the U.S. Navy in particular is doing going forward.”

Royal Australian Navy (RAN) Collins Class submarines have been captured in impressive imagery, whilst exercising off the West Australian coast. Credit: Australian Department of Defence.

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