US Virginia-class submarines ‘best choice for nuclear fleet

Published 4 days ago

The Australian. Dennis Shanahan. 12 October 2021

he Virginia-class USS North Dakota submarine The US’s Virginia-class nuclear submarine is the best option for Australia according to a former US Navy secretary who believes training for Australian crews on the subs could begin “right now”.

Richard Spencer, the US Navy chief who made the decision to buy nine Virginia-class submarines during the Trump administration, believes “there is no better option on the market” for Australia’s maritime defence.

Mr Spencer believes Australia’s strategic decision on which nuclear submarine – the US Virginia-class or UK Astute-class – to purchase will be critical and forthrightly supports the Virginia in the face of growing public pressure for the British vessel. Since the signing of the AUKUS agreement on nuclear submarines and defence technology last month, and the dumping of the French $90bn project for conventional submarines, Scott Morrison has committed to a 12 to 18-month selection process.

In Washington two weeks ago, the Prime Minister said Australia would be looking at both options and would consider training, construction and trying to avoid a capability gap between the end of the current Collins-class diesel fleet and the arrival of the new ­nuclear-powered submarines.

There has been a vigorous campaign in the UK to encourage Australia to choose the Astute-class and concerns raised about the ability of the US to build extra submarines for Australia because of delays in supply and production chains. But there are also concerns about compatibility with the UK systems and a willingness for the US to share more nuclear technology outside a US-built boat.

As an interim measure, the UK has suggested sending two or three of its nuclear submarines ­effectively to be based in Australia, and Defence Minister Peter Dutton has raised the idea of “leasing” nuclear subs.

Mr Spencer says the choice for Australia is vital. “The Virginia-class submarine is better for Australia’s national security mission, is more interoperable, and is more likely to fill the capability gap earlier with proven manufacture and sustainment costs than other submarines,” he writes in an article for The Australian on Wednesday.

“For a country in a predominantly maritime region where the tyranny of distance is unrelenting, and with foreign adversaries sharing your oceans, the strategic decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines is the right one for Australia and its alliance network,” he writes.

Mr Spencer, who was acting US defence secretary and is now chairman of the Australian-­inspired BondiPartners financial and strategic group, says an Australian nuclear submarine needs to deter foreign adversaries from “attacking vital sea lines of communication and trade, perform intelligence gathering and pro­cess­ing missions, and be able to interdict foreign vessels in Australia’s backyard … There is no better option … than the Virginia-class submarine for these purposes.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has declared supplying an Astute-class submarine to Australia would create jobs in the UK, and British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has said he was confident the boats would be British-made.

Mr Wallace said the submarine production would fit in with the British production cycle, given the country has just kicked off its hunter-killer submarines, and the US is in full flow on its own boats: “We are in a strong position to help the Australians achieve that capability so I am very confident that British engineering, British skills and Australian nous will ­deliver a very good submarine.”

Mr Spencer says the Virginia-class submarine program is one of the most successful within the US Navy. “The American submarine has a Tomahawk missile vertical launching system, which pairs nicely with Australia’s recent announcement that your country will purchase more Tomahawk missiles from the US. With this suite of weaponry, the adversaries will think twice before targeting Australian sea routes,” he writes.

“One of the key distinctions for the RAN to consider is the closeness of the US and Australian navies, and the deep ties between the American-Australian defence industrial bases. This interoperability in both the military and private sector will result in a better submarine for Australia’s needs.”