By Robbin Laird
During my visit to Europe earlier this Fall, the surprise announcement of the Morrison Administration’s decision to shift from their French alliance to deliver a long-range diesel submarine to acquiring nuclear submarine capability through an alliance with the United States and Britain was made. I talked with both French and Australian analysts and provided my initial assessment in a series of articles which highlighted the decision and the dynamics of change associated with that decision.
But what was clear that the strategic environment has changed dramatically from when the Australian government made its decision to stay with a conventional submarine capability. The nature of the Chinese threat as well as the actions of the Xi Administration has clearly driven a shift in Australian thinking and perceived needs for longer range operational capability in the Indo-Pacific region.
At the same time, its closest allies in the region the United States and Japan clearly recognize the need to expand their capabilities to operate throughout the region to complicate Chinese operational considerations, and to deter via more capability to operate throughout the wider Pacific as well.
The announced decision highlighted an 18-month period with Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead in charge on the Australian side of negotiating within the new nuclear submarine alliance to deliver Australian solutions. I interviewed Mead when he was head of Navy Capability in 2016. He then went on to be Commander Australian Fleet and then Chief of Joint Capabilities and Command of Joint Capabilities Group. He has a strong ASW background as well as working closely with the other member of the Quad, namely India. He is now the Chief of the Nuclear -Powered Submarine Task Force.
There is much to be determined with regard to how Australia will proceed, but given the dynamic changes in the strategic environment and the working relationships with allies in the region, there are a much wider array of options than with the short-fin Barracuda program.
With the United States clearly seeking to expand its operating areas in the Pacific, and with Australia building capabilities to operate its own nuclear submarines, it would be no surprise if nuclear submarines began operating within the Australian first island chain. It would be no surprise if there might be mixed manning solutions onboard U.S. or UK nuclear submarines in anticipation of the future Australian submarine. It would be no surprise if Australia sought alternatives to full build of nuclear submarines on Australian soil, and find something more akin to F-35 solution sets.
To be clear, this is a work in progress but one that will not be a replay of how the Australians addressed the replacement of the Collins class with a full build Australian vessel on Australian soil.
The pressures to defend Australia, and to engage the Japanese and Americans in a more effective undersea warfare set of capabilities is a pressing not long-range challenge.
I had a chance to discuss these issues on October 14, 2021, in a phone interview with Vice-Admiral (Retired) Tim Barrett, with whom I have had the opportunity to discuss maritime issues since 2015.
I look forward to pursuing these discussions and issues when I return to Australia in March 2021.
As the exact nature of what will happen in the program is a work in progress and not really open to public disclosure until that 18-month period is completed, we focused on the context and how one might assess that context.
Vice-Admiral (Retired) Barrett made three key points.
First, the nuclear submarine effort was a strategic one, which was about Australian defense and not primarily focused on a priority on ship building on Australian soil.
It is crucial to understand that this is about adding core defense capabilities earlier rather than later and would almost certainly encompass interaction between shaping the eco system for the operation of Australian nuclear submarines and the presence of allied nuclear submarines working with the Australian eco system.
The second key point was that the priority needed to be focused on adding nuclear submarine capability to the evolving USW or ASW capability which Australia was already building out.
The Australian government recently decided to add another squadron of Romeo helicopters to the fleet, and has procured P-8s and Tritons as part of an expanded ASW or USW warfighting capability.
The submarine is not a silver bullet for ASW or USW mission sets but part of the evolution of the kill web approach to ASW and USW missions going forward.
When I interviewed with Ed Timperlake the Second SubGroup Commander, he emphasized that for the evolving concepts of operations of ASW or USW which he referred to as a “team sport,” the submarine was not primarily focused on killing other submarines, but the U.S. Navy was expanding the submarine’s roles and missions and at the same time, they were expanding the tool kit for executing ASW an USW operations as well.
According to Barrett: “The submarine decision is part of a broader set of decisions with regard to how the ADF should respond to the challenges in the Indo-Pacific.
“This was a deliberate and considered position from the Navy’s perspective, but the political and geopolitical circumstances have changed.
“This is not the first time that Australia has sought or considered the acquisition of a nuclear submarine.”
The decision is based on the need to provide more capability to the coalition to conduct USW or ASW in the region.
In that way, it is analogues to the Growler decision taken a few years ago.
The third key point was that flexibility and innovations will be part of working out a way ahead and he noted that Mead had worked with him previously.
When Commander of the Australian Fleet, then Commodore Mead was instrumental in working an innovative plan to manage a temporary capability deficiency for fleet fuel tanking. To shore up a gap, the RAN ‘leased’ a Spanish Navy oiler for 8 months, and the RAN crews trained on the ship and operated the ship in support of the Australian Fleet.
Eventually, the RAN acquired two new Spanish oilers, but the kind of innovation demonstrated in this example, will almost certainly be part of the way ahead in meeting the challenges of accelerating the operational acquisition of nuclear submarine capacity in support of Australian defense.
According to Vice Admiral (Retired) Barrett: “The strategic environment has changed. We need to reconsider the balance between sovereign capability for a thirty-year build and the need for creation of capability in the near term. The earlier 30-year period build approach should not be the dominant approach; the capability and its presence to shape deterrent capabilities is crucial and work out over time how the build side of this effort is clarified and put in place.”
“The program needs to be driven by the need for creative capability options first.”
For my report on the recent Australian submarine decision, see the following: