The Australian Nuclear Sub Decision as I Saw It Eight Years Ago

Steven Myers

I wrote this paper on Australian naval strategy in August 2013 — eight years ago — but never got around to placing it. It’s interesting to see how well my thinking from 2013 held up. I think it clearly anticipates the actual debate that led to Australia’s present decision to go for nuclear SSNs.


Strategy and Submarines

By Richard R. Fernandez

It is axiomatic that form follows function, which means insofar as navies are concerned that naval assets are acquired to fulfill a purpose. Once the purpose is determined, then the correct tools can be chosen for the job. Thus, every acquisition must be viewed in the context of “what is it for”. Unless the ends are defined, nothing can be said about the proposed means.

Buying naval vessels is a means to an end. The determination of ends is usually called strategy.  Unfortunately, the goals of Australian naval strategy are sometimes presented as a laundry list.

  1. The defense of Australia, meaning the ability to prevent an enemy from seizing its northern territories;
  2. The common defense of Southeast Asia;
  3. Stabilization operations in the Southwest Pacific;
  4. Support to civil authorities, which generally means being able to help when disaster strikes; and last but not by any stretch the least;
  5. Global Coalition Operations, or what used to be called being able to defeat the “enemy fleet”.

Another way to restate strategy, as a report to the Australian Parliament did, is to break it down into elements.

  1. Sea denial;
  2. Sea control; and
  3. Power projection.

The trouble with laundry lists is you cannot tell which is most important. But common sense tells us that Task 5 (Global Coalition Operations) is the sine qua non of a navy, comprising both “Sea Denial – the prevention of the use of the sea by another force against us” – and Sea Control, the ability to impose one’s will for a time on an opponent.

If the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) can perform Task 5, it can do Tasks 1 through 4. But if the RAN cannot do Task 5, Tasks 1 through 4 are out of the question. Without sea denial and sea control, power projection is not possible.

Because some of Australia’s potential opponents are potentially stronger than it could ever realistically be, China being a case in point, achieving sea denial and sea control against such a foe realistically requires the assistance of an ally.

Hence the stated goal of White Paper Defence 2000 – “to defend Australia from any credible attack, without relying on help from the combat forces of any other country” – automatically put the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) on the horns of a dilemma. That was acceptable at the time, as Hugh White noted in The Monthly, because of the steadily improving security situation which culminated in the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

The 1976 White Paper boldly predicted that the powers of Asia – India, China and Japan – would not pose any strategic problems for Australia, and that our defence policy could therefore afford to ignore them. “No more than the former Great Powers of Europe,” it stated, “can we expect these powers individually to play a large military role in strategic developments directly affecting Australian security in the foreseeable future.”

For a brief period, it was possible to imagine that Australia could go it alone. That happy state of affairs did not last. Within a few decades, the world became a dangerous place again. White describes what happened.

In 1976, no one expected the Asian century, or foresaw that within 40 years China would be on the verge of overtaking the US economy, and India would be following fast in its footsteps. No one could have foreseen that Indonesia’s GDP would surpass Australia’s, and that the country would be spoken of as a great power in its own right. These things have come to pass, sweeping away the assumptions that have framed Australia’s defence policy for more than a generation.

By 2009, the White Paper was merely content to say “that Australia’s most basic strategic interest remained the defence of Australia against direct armed attack”. That still left the choice of strategy hanging in the air. As White put it, “we haven’t really escaped the old dilemma between defending ourselves and relying on distant allies; we have just enjoyed respite from it, and now the holiday is over.”

The choice of ends has a very definite effect upon the means. To defend Australia against powerful opponents “without relying on help from the combat forces of any other country” logically implies the adoption of the naval strategy of the weaker power. The best known historical example of that strategy was the French Jeune Ecole of the 19th century, which emphasized using asymmetrical warfare – torpedo boats, mines and submarines – to negate the battleship advantage of the Royal Navy.


The alternative was Australia’s traditional strategy. Because of Australia’s historic links to the British Empire, it implicitly adopted the strategy of the stronger power since it planned to fight alongside the Royal Navy. The clearest proof was the ridiculously unbalanced fleet it acquired for the Great War. In 1909 the Australian government purchased a single Indefatigable class battlecruiser, HMAS Australia, “the only capital ship ever to serve in the RAN”, a single light cruiser, three destroyers and a small flotilla of submarines.

No rational naval staff would purchase this assortment “to defend Australia from any credible attack, without relying on help from the combat forces of any other country”. They would in all probability have bought a different mix of ships.

Professor Stephan Fruehling’s fascinating discussion in Of Australian Strategy and Submarine Design lists out possible RAN missions and attempts to divine “which submarine will do them best” in the light of their individual requirements. The missions he describes are:

  1. Anti-surface and ASW operations in Northeast Asia, i.e. around Taiwan and in the Yellow Sea;
  2. A “distant blockade” of China operating in “maritime chokepoints” like the Malacca or Lombok Straits;
  3. Barring Chinese naval vessels and nuclear submarines from threatening Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean;
  4. Operations directly off the Chinese mainland to achieve operational objectives in Southeast Asia and the approaches to Australia.

While Fruehling rightly notes that each mission “has implications for the required range, endurance, combat system, sensors, weapons load, quieting etc” of the candidate submarine design, the missions themselves will have a different solution set depending on whether Australia decides to go it alone or act implicitly as part of the hegemon’s fleet.

The strategic tension is most pronounced in the selection of the next RAN submarine because that is really at the core of the navy’s sea denial and sea control capability. But the lack of a definite strategic choice has given the submarine requirements a Jekyll and Hyde character. On the one hand, the conventional Collins-class boats are the stereotypical weapon of the weaker power, the 21st century equivalent of the submarine and naval mine, combining the mobility of a World War II sub with the quietness of a hole in the ocean. On the other hand, many of the envisioned RAN missions implicitly require cooperation with the United States and hence governed by the strategy of the dominant power.

There are certainly attractions to the strategy of the weaker power. Murray Leinster, writing in the Golden Age of science fiction back in 1942, described the apotheosis of an intelligent, mobile mine in his story “The Wabbler”. The Wabbler in the end blows up the target battleship – the perfect illustration of the weaker power checkmating the stronger.

The Wabbler lay in its place, with its ten-foot tail coiled neatly above its lower end, and waited with a sort of deadly patience for the accomplishment of its destiny. It and all its brothers were pear-shaped, with absurdly huge and blunt-ended horns, and with small round holes where eyes might have been, and shielded vents where they might have had mouths. They looked chinless, somehow. They also looked alive, and inhuman, and filled with a sort of passionless hate. They seemed like bodiless demons out of some metallic hell. It was not possible to feel any affection for them. Even the men who handled them felt only a soft of vengeful hope in their capacities.

Certainly mines can be very effective. While the public often thinks that Imperial Japan was bombed into submission by fleets of B-29s dropping incendiaries, it was probably the Army Air Corp’s role in mining Japan that proved most damaging. Operation Starvation succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. “In terms of damage per unit of cost, it [aerial mining] surpassed strategic bombing and the United States submarine campaign.”

After the war, the commander of Japan’s minesweeping operations noted that he thought this mining campaign could have directly led to the defeat of Japan on its own had it begun earlier. Similar conclusions were reached by American analysts who reported in July 1946 in the United States Strategic Bombing Survey that it would have been more efficient to combine the United States’s effective anti-shipping submarine effort with land- and carrier-based air power to strike harder against merchant shipping and begin a more extensive aerial mining campaign earlier in the war. This would have starved Japan, forcing an earlier end to the war.


Those Wabblers sure were hell on ships. Nor have the mines and submarines become less lethal over time. Scott Truver, writing in 1972, noted that “since the end of World War II mines have seriously damaged or sunk almost four times more U.S. Navy ships than all other means of attack combined.”

But though the image of the big black ball with contact spikes sticking out of it still dominates the public imagination, by far the most deadly of today’s mines are conventional submarines. The resurgence of the non-nuclear submarine is largely due to the development of Air Independent Propulsion (AIP), which is inherently low in mechanical noise, the long-range wire-guided torpedo and sophisticated passive sonar. These, when combined, result in submarines like the German AIP U-212, which are tiny by American standards – 1,800 tons submerged and short-legged – but become a black hole in the water that can fire ship-killing weapons for miles in any direction. Built with special non-magnetic steel and silently propelled by an AIP engine with the ability to turn on a dime, they are designed to lurk in the shallows and strike at unsuspecting targets over a fairly large patch of ocean.

“Partly owing to the “X” arrangement of the stern planes, the Type 212 is capable of operating in as little as 17 metres of water, allowing it to come much closer to shore than most contemporary submarines.” In fact, some European-style conventional subs are even described as having “bottoming gear” – landing skids that let the boat sit in the murk and, like the Wabbler of science fiction, bide their time until they can snap a warship’s keel like a twig.

But the tradeoff for this lack of mechanical noise is energy poverty and poor endurance. AIP units often generate only as much power as a family sedan so that even banks of four produce 300 kw compared to the 30,000 kw of a Virginia class SSN. With that small output, the subs are limited to creeping along at about 2 or 3 knots. That may be of little consequence in European scenarios, where submarines must only transit a short way to station before turning off their diesels and activating the AIP. But slow speed and the small hull sizes of European off-the-shelf subs are a bane for countries like Australia and Israel, which must send their subs great distances in what are essentially modified European coastal submarines.

For instance, Israeli subs must be able to round the Horn of Africa from their bases in the Mediterranean to reach stations off Southern Iran (since they cannot count on free passage through the Suez in wartime) and Australian subs are no better case, having to traverse major stretches of the South Pacific to reach their areas of operation.

Those long transits must be done snorting on diesel, creating a period of vulnerability when units become essentially World War II snorkel submarines until they reach their ambush positions. At Australian operating ranges, all the limitations of small hull size and low energy are magnified beyond anything the European coastal navies are likely to encounter. These tradeoffs are discussed at length by Simon Cowan, in his monograph Future Submarine Project Should Raise Periscope for Another Look.

SGs take a long time to transit to their patrol stations (as their speed while snorting is about 10 to 12 knots). An SSG travelling 3,500–4,000 nautical miles (a distance similar to that from HMAS Stirling to the South China Sea or the Middle East) could take more than four weeks to travel there and return. An eight-week deployment would therefore mean a maximum of four weeks on station. Consequently, two submarines would have to be deployed in order to cover one eight-week period on station. Allowing time for routine maintenance and other activities pre- and post-deployment, a minimum of four submarines would be needed to have one submarine continuously on station in the South China Sea or the Middle East. If long-term maintenance schedules are added (taking three to four years out of every 11 years for the Collins Class), then at least five submarines would be needed. Six would be needed to cover for unforeseen contingencies or if the submarines have frequent equipment failures.

The saving grace of conventional submarine is comparative cheapness and stealth. For as long as stealth can be preserved, the limitations that Cowan describes might be endured. However, once deprived of invisibility, conventional subs would have few advantages over the nukes. If forced to maneuver or match moves with an SSN or modern surface escort that can “see” them, the energy-poor conventional boat would rapidly be exhausted and unable, with their small hulls, to outshoot the big SSNs with their plentiful and greater ranged weapons.


Countries like China and Iran have conventional sub forces precisely because they are pursuing the strategy of the weaker power against the American SSNs much in the same way that jeune ecole’s torpedo boats and mines were ranged against the British dreadnoughts.

So the strategy of the weaker power has much to recommend it. But is this the right choice for Australia from the strategic perspective? The answer to this question depends in part on how the RAN thinks future trends play out. Technology is rarely static and, if the naval equation was upset by the AIP, it is being upset again by the growing role of mobile sensor grids and underwater robots in naval warfare. One popular publication went so far as to say “It has been said that unmanned vehicles will ultimately render the AIP submarine obsolete.”

The mobile sensor grid concept is based on the simple idea of wiring up the oceans the way CCTV units blanket Central London, with the difference that the ocean grid, unlike the London cameras, can follow you around.

Back in 2005, the US Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR), along with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), began work on developing such a system. The concept behind PLUSNet (persistent littoral undersea surveillance network) is to create a semi-autonomous controlled network of fixed bottom and mobile sensors, potentially mounted on intelligent unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) to keep a constant eye on littoral zones.

Wiring up something as vast as the sea may seem a fool’s errand but advances in robotics and network technology have made it feasible and potentially cheap. In fact, the trend is even away from fixed grids towards mobile ones.

. . . trends in naval research are leading to a technological shift in underwater surveillance, moving from fixed sensor arrays to mobile platforms mounted on UUVs. “We’ll need to leverage technology and create a network of interconnected sensors with submarines as the hub of that network,” said Vice Admiral Jay Donnelly, US Navy submarine force senior commander, at a Submarine League symposium in October 2010.

“We’ll use unmanned undersea vehicles and distributed netted sensors to serve to expand the sphere of influence that our submarines have, and will enable persistent presence in more areas of the world,” Donnelly added.

“Eventually, unmanned undersea vehicles and distributed netted sensors will likely replace our permanent fixed undersea sensor infrastructure, which in many cases is beyond its design life.”

The 2013 NATO ASW exercise “Proud Manta” was a recent test of underwater robots coordinated through communications gateways like the Wave Glider – a device one part of which rides above the waves in communication with the fleet while the lower half remains submerged to gather signals from other robots.

In this concept of operations, the robotic sensor grid finds, fixes and provides targeting data while the energy-rich USN fleet units – CVNs, SSNs and surface action groups – defend the network and fire the long-range shots. They cover or protect the sensor network in the same way that machine guns cover a terrestrial minefield. In turn, the sensor network allows them to engage previously hidden targets with near impunity. If the weaker power attacks the sensor network, it will expose itself to the fire of the fleet. Just as you can’t dig up the minefield until the covering machine guns are eliminated, neither can a weaker power dismantle the sensor grid without running afoul of the USN’s overwatch.

It’s an intriguing paradigm. Whether it works, only time will tell, but it seems the early 21st century is already shaping up as a contest of ideas: the mobile underwater combat grid protected by the Fleet versus the sophisticated AIP mobile minefield protected by land-based support.

The classic image of a destroyer captain listening with white-knuckle intensity to the sonar’s active pings is not quite accurate anymore. “In early July 2012, the United States Navy (USN) responded to Iran’s threats to use warships and mines to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz – through which around 40 percent of the world’s energy travels – by deploying dozens of ROVs [remotely operated vehicles] to the Persian Gulf.”


But even ROVs are transitional technology beside the real game changers: swarms of vehicles which can think for themselves and go where they are told. These go by the generic name of “gliders”, cheap simple devices which can literally precision-navigate round the world, powered by wind and wave and animated by artificial intelligence. And as they voyage, like miniature versions of the wind-powered ships of the Age of Sail, they tirelessly scour the ocean for things – like AIP submarines. Perhaps the best known of these devices are made by Liquid Robotics.

It was just such a glider which served as communications relay in the Proud Manta 2013 exercise, a moving telephone booth through which other robots put through calls to the Fleet and in turn received instructions. The USN has been building this capability for some time. Back in 2011, Stripes wrote:

GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — Unmanned aircraft have been playing a major role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for years. Now, the U.S. military is beginning to field unmanned submarines.

In a move that could dramatically cut the cost of undersea warfare, NATO is testing three Autonomous Undersea Vehicles, or AUVs, in the Mediterranean Sea this month as part of the alliance’s largest annual anti-submarine warfare exercise.

The AUVs, dubbed “gliders,” have much in common with their flying cousins, including wings, according to Michel Rixen, a scientist at the NATO Undersea Research Center in Italy.

Some gliders are specifically designed to keep pace with an AIP submarine as it creeps along. And they are cheap enough to be ubiquitously deployed. One hundred and fifty of the experimental prototypes were purchased for $53 million. They are likely to get cheaper still. One proposed model is frankly designed to stalk conventional subs.

Liberdade class flying wings are autonomous underwater gliders developed by the US Navy Office of Naval Research which use a blended wing body hullform to achieve hydrodynamic efficiency. It is an experimental class whose models were originally intended to track quiet diesel electric submarines in littoral waters, move at 1–3 knots and remain on station for up to six months. The “Liberdade” (Portuguese for “Liberty”) was the name of a ship cobbled together by Joshua Slocum prior to the one he single-handedly piloted around the world.

Technology is always disruptive and it poses unsettling strategic dilemmas for countries like Israel and Australia. If one assumes that China, Japan and Russia will eventually develop similar sensor grids (what some writers call “automated coastguards”), then an investment in conventional submarines may mean something more serious than buying the wrong hardware. It may mean being trapped in the wrong paradigm. If AIP subs become detectable, they will have none of the benefits of stealth and all of the disadvantages of small hulls and limited energy.

High energy and big hulls give the USN the ability to host modular mission packages, enabling them to act like equipment racks in a modern server farm. Warships can be “versioned” to keep them compatible with the information grid by swapping the modules in and out. Simon Cowan emphasizes the lack of “hotel” capacity to criticize the conventional submarines Australia considers purchasing. He writes:

Given the increasing number of complex computerised systems being operated by modern submarines, another important concept is a submarine’s ‘hotel load.’ As SSGs are limited by the power stored in their batteries (which can only be recharged by surfacing), they strictly ration power among their systems. SSNs are capable of generating and sustaining a much greater power output while submerged due to their nuclear reactor. This power output allows SSNs to carry a greater number of far more powerful sensors and systems (which increase sensor range and awareness), greatly increasing the flexibility, stealth and usefulness of SSNs.

The advantages of size and much greater power also allow SSNs to carry greater payloads and weaponry, as well as equipment such as UUVs and Special Forces team vehicles, further demonstrating the capability edge that SSNs might give to Australia in the Southeast Asian region.


Cowan argues that even the long-supposed SSN deficiency in coastal waters, estuaries and close-in work may soon be obviated by “the potential of UUVs.” UUVs require space; and spacious ships require energy. Together, these requirements make a good argument for an SSN.

Using relatively inexpensive UUVs for surveillance and intelligence-gathering makes more sense than using multibillion-dollar submarines to scout estuaries. While UUV technology (like unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology) is still in its infancy, it has enormous potential. It is quite possible that UUVs will follow the increasing use of drones in aerial surveillance, not to mention the potential weaponisation of UUV platforms.

Yet Australia remains torn. It has no nuclear industrial base to support SSNs and is home to anti-nuclear political parties which are likely to take a dim view of anything with a reactor. Australia is stuck in the identity crisis of a middle power. By contrast, the USN has the luxury of following its chosen paradigm to its logical conclusion. It operates from the strategic clarity of being king of the hill. This endows them with a simplicity of purpose that RAN can only envy.

An RUSI monograph describes the USN pursuit of capacity – what Cowan calls “hotel space” –  to host UUVs that loom so importantly in its plans. It has converted huge ballistic missile submarines precisely because they are big.

As a guided missile submarine, the primary vision for the new Ohio-class SSGNs is that of a submarine capable of carrying a large number of Tomahawk cruise missiles. With the ability to carry up to 154 Tomahawks, the new ships meet the primary vision superbly – but they do much more than just support cruise missile strikes. Storage space and berthing have been added to enable the sustainment of up to 66 embarked Special Operations Forces (SOF) personnel. Every SSGN of the new class has been upgraded to include a Battle Management Center – a large open space where mission planning for either submarine or Special Operating Forces (SOF) missions may be conducted.

They are also capable of mounting up to two Dry-Deck Shelters (DDS) or one DDS and one Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS). These can deploy SEALs or SOF equipment, either wet or dry, while the submarine stays submerged. Given all this, it’s easy to see that this new breed of submarine will change how people think about submarines and submarine missions, and make it a quintessential IW platform.

The USN can pursue a single strategic concept to the limit because it is not saddled with the same strategic ambiguity that Australia is heir to. The USN is unabashedly pursuing its natural strategy, while Australia is left pacing the floor muttering “to be or not to be”. That is indeed the question: whether or not Australia pursues either the strategy of the weaker or stronger power, or whether it compromises and sub-optimally splits the difference.

There are benefits to adopting any of these courses. But there are no benefits to not doing so consciously. Deliberately adopting the strategy of the weaker power means Australia will have some naval warfighting capacity even if it must act without the US. Deliberately choosing the strategy of the stronger power means that Australia can leverage the latest and the greatest – as long as it fights alongside the USN. Sub-optimally splitting the difference may work better than either for so long as peace prevails and the fleet is never tested in the crucible of a major war.

Strategic choice will cast a shadow on everything, not simply the choice of naval platforms. The non-obvious implication of adopting the USN shift to networks is it makes information the principal weapon of the fleet. If Australia joins this game, it must be fully cognizant of the upstream and downstream requirements necessary to support the information battle. Fighting an information war is natural for the United States, given its legacy, its tech and aerospace industries. It is the quintessential American 21st century way of war.

It may be less natural for Australia, which will have no choice but to follow suit once it goes down that road. The USN will become enormously powerful in any alliance in which information is the principal determinant of naval strength. Any country which wants to fight the American-style naval battle must accept that the USA will hold most of the cards. That is the price of fighting within their paradigm.


But Australia can become a niche player if it decides to go that route, akin to the way it participates in satellite surveillance and signals intelligence, a world that is dominated by the United States. While it may be impossible for Australia to duplicate American resources across the board, it may hope to become the world leader in selected niches of the dominant paradigm by specialization.

Yet all this is premature. Before all else, Australia must decide what naval paradigm to bet the farm on.  To be or not to be, that is the question. And then all the hardware decisions will follow. A return to Leinster’s Wabbler story may illustrate the point.

Sounds in the air did not reach the Wabbler. Sounds under water did. It heard the grinding rumble of stream winches, and it heard the screeching sound as the drydock gates swung open. They were huge gates, and they made a considerable eddy of their own. The Wabbler swam to the very center of that eddy and hung there, waiting. Now, for the first time, it seemed excited. It seemed to quiver a little. Once when it seemed that the eddy might bring it to the surface, it bubbled patiently from the vent which appeared to be a mouth. And its brain went tick-tick-tick-tick within it, and inside its brainpan it measured variations in the vertical component of terrestrial magnetism, and among such measurements it noted the effect of small tugs which came near but did not enter the drydock. They only sent lines within, so they could haul the warship out. But the tugs were not the Wabbler’s destiny either….

The steel prow of the battleship drew nearer, and then the bow plates were overhead, and something made a tiny click inside the Wabbler. Destiny was certain now. It waited, quivering. The mass of steel within the range of its senses grew greater and greater. The strain of restraint grew more intense. The tick-tick-ticking of the Wabbler’s brain seemed to accelerate to a frantic and intolerable pace. And then the Wabbler achieved its destiny.

The humble Wabbler, the weapon of the weaker power, destroyed the battleship. But it succeeded mostly because its purposes were clear. It chose and lucked out. Nothing is as unforgiving as indecision.

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