U.S. Analyst: Aussies Badly Need Nuke Subs
It’s rare that a submarine deal—or any military partnership—creates quite as many waves as the Australia-United Kingdom-United States agreement (known as AUKUS) has. The nuclear-powered submarine (SSN) club has long been limited to just six nations: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and India.
Photo Insert: Australia parades one of its submarines.
Becoming the seventh member is a big deal for Australia, especially since Washington has only ever shared such technology before with the United Kingdom. It also offers Australia a critical technological edge in any future tension or conflict with China—already in the nuclear-powered submarine club but working hard to upgrade its membership with Russian aid.
Despite understandable shock at Australia abruptly terminating its existing $38.6 billion and growing contract with France’s Naval Group for 12 Shortfin Barracuda-based Attack-class diesel-electric submarines, there were ample indications that cost overruns, significant delays, and reduced Australian industry involvement were aggravating Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government.
With these cost overruns, the French Naval Group pushed the price tag of conventional submarines up into the range normally associated with nuclear-powered submarines, Prof. Andrew S. Erickson of the US Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute and a visiting scholar in full-time residence at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies argued on his Sept. 21, 2021, essay for Foreign Policy Magazine.
All that was needed was for the United States and United Kingdom to clear the significant bureaucratic hurdle of allowing Australia access to naval nuclear propulsion technology.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s economic bullying, threatening language, and attempts to subvert Australian politics have caused a sea change in Australian public opinion since 2017, while some of Canberra’s elite must have been monitoring unprecedented Russian assistance to China’s own naval nuclear propulsion programs with mounting concern.
The politics are messy, but the reasons that countries want to be in the nuclear-powered submarine club are crystal clear. Power and endurance, both for propulsion and the need to supply electrical power for onboard systems, are critical to any navy—and nuclear power is simply the best option. Even the French deal was done on the premise that the submarines could eventually be converted to nuclear propulsion.
Nuclear-powered submarines require two fundamental characteristics: extreme high-power density (for an advantageous power-to-volume ratio) and long core life for economic and operational efficiency.
A civilian nuclear industry—which Australia lacks, in any case—is not an indicator of naval nuclear competence because the technologies and skillsets are so different. High-temperature gas-cooled reactors, for instance—while exhibiting significant promise for civil land applications and studied widely in China—cannot be taken to sea because they lack requisite energy density. The cores are simply too large to fit in a ship.
That’s where the United States comes in. Its Virginia-class SSN represents a modern engineering triumph. Its 34-foot-diameter pressure hull contains a S9G reactor likely rated at around 190 megawatts, comparable to the Russian OK-650 reactor in Project 971’s Akula class.
The Virginia class, however, has a life-of-ship reactor core life of 33 years and doesn’t require refueling. These capabilities were only achieved through decades-long development of a US “nuclear navy” in the form of more than 200 submarines. Overall, the US Navy has logged more than 6,200 reactor years with 526 nuclear reactor cores over the course of 240 million kilometers, without a single radiological incident.