"It has just been announced that Australia, the USA and the UK have formed a pact that will, among other things, involve Australia building nuclear-powered submarines for the first time. At the time of writing (16th Sept 2021) there is a dearth of detail so assessing the significance is difficult.
To take a step back first, one has to wonder why the UK is committed, by treaty, to come to the aid of other NATO countries while we are not obliged to come to the aid of Australia. After all, some of the NATO countries were our Warsaw Pact enemies and are countries with which we have few, if any, historical links. Australia by contrast is not just a friend or ally. Australia is, literally, family. So, committing the UK to the defence of Australia would be a right and natural thing to do, if that is what the pact actually means.
As for the details, they are currently lacking. Australia’s original plan was to build under licence twelve “Short-fin Barracuda” class submarines of French design. The Barracuda class will enter French Navy service powered by French nuclear reactors but these “Short-fin Barracudas” were to have the nuclear propulsion replaced by a mixture of conventional diesel-electric propulsion plus air-independent propulsion. They would have been the biggest, most expensive and advanced conventional submarines in the world and a significant advance on the six Collins class boats in service at present. It has been reported that these French-designed submarines would have been fitted with much of the sensors and weapons currently employed on the US Virginia class boats.
So what don’t we know? Will Australia still be buying twelve boats? And what sort - the UK Astute class or the US Virginia class? How will a country with relatively little nuclear expertise like Australia cope with a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines? It would presumably make Australia dependent upon the US (and the UK?) to a degree the Short-fin Barracudas would not. What about timing? There have already been concerns expressed about timing. One would want the new boats, whatever they are, to come into service as the Collins class are retired otherwise there will be a short-to-medium term dip in Australian submarine numbers before numbers rise longer-term. If there is conflict with China in the short-to-medium term these new boats might not be available in time to make a difference.
On a more parochial level, the Royal Navy has already lost key personnel to the Royal Australian Navy, including to their submarine service. This announcement opens up the possibility of RN nuclear engineers leaving Faslane for sunnier climes and thus creating an issue for the RN.
Until we have some details of the new arrangement we will all have to suspend judgement. The contract with France to build the twelve Short-fin Barracudas, fitted with advanced US weapons and sensors, looked like an exciting and significant leap forward in numbers and quality for the RAN submarine service. Let us hope the new arrangement is at least as good, but until we have some detail, no-one can tell.
Steve Coltman, 16th Sept 2021
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