Nukes for Defence

by on 26 February, 2010

Ralph-Buttigieg Nuclear submarines may solve our ongoing submarine woes, writes Ralph Buttigieg.

The Rudd Labor government has a complete ban on nuclear energy for Australia. However concerns over global warming have increased support for the nuclear option. After all, nuclear energy is the only emission free method of producing base load power. Tony Abbott believes it’s an option we need to seriously consider. Peter Cosgrove has come out in support and so has Labor Party stalwart Bob Carr. Yet there is another reason to support nuclear power – defence.

Now I'm not considering nuclear weapons here. The only time that would be an option would be if there was a nuclear arms race in the region and we should all pray that never happens. My concern is nuclear propulsion for the navy, especially for our submarines.
Our six Collins class subs are classified as guided-missile submarines (SSG) while most other conventional submarines are hunter-killer (SSK). Most SSKs patrol close to their bases or at most 1000 nautical miles away. Our boats are required to operate at greater distances. To reach the Persian Gulf or the Sea of Japan the Collins boats need to travel over 4500 nautical miles.
Therefore they are considerably bigger then other conventional submarines and uniquely designed for our usage. That brings its own problems. It makes them more expensive and less reliable than a more common design would be. Importantly they never did meet their original design specifications. They were originally specified with a submerged transit speed of 16 knots over 10,000 nautical miles. That was reduced to 10 knots over 9000 nautical miles as the technology just wasn't available. The lower transit speed reduces the time they can spend on patrol by nearly half.
The government is now considering a replacement for the Collins subs. One option is an improved version of the current Collins boats but they would still have the speed limitations issues. That's why an increase to twelve subs has been proposed. Considering we have enough difficulty finding crews for six subs how we would crew twelve remains an unanswered question. Another option is to improve their performance by adopting new technology such as high temperature superconductor motors and Li-ion batteries. Again that raises concerns over their ultimate cost and reliability.
None of these problems would arise if we had nuclear subs based on proven designs. They would have all the range and speed we would require. A local nuclear power industry would make maintaining nuclear subs easier but it’s not really required. For one thing there is no direct link between civilian reactors and submarine reactors. Their design is very different with subs using highly enriched fuel. Also refuelling is not a requirement as modern submarines need to be only fuelled once for their 20 year plus service life. The maintenance and operation issues could be addressed by requesting US help until we train our own people. That's what the UK did that when they constructed their nuclear fleet. However the government ban on things nuclear means nuclear subs can not be considered.
Labor's ban on nuclear reactors not only reduces our options to reduce CO2 emissions but it also reduces our options to properly defend our nation.
Readers are referred to Vital Sign by Abraham Gubler in Defense Technology International April 2008 for more information regarding the current non nuclear options.

Ralph Buttigieg's professional career has included a couple of decades in government and management, proprietor of a Science Fiction & Fantasy bookshop, a stint in direct marketing and now finds himself in the finance industry. He joined the Liberal Party in 2008 and considers himself one of those right  wing bogans who voted in John Howard in 1996.

Leave a Reply