Nuclear-powered submarines for Australia? Maybe not so fast.

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SYDNEY, Australia – When Australia loudly announced it would build nuclear-powered submarines with help from the United States and Britain, the three allies said they would pass the 18 coming months to work out the details of a security collaboration that President Biden has been celebrated as “historic.”

Now, a month into their schedule, the partners are quietly tackling the immense complexities of the proposal. Even the supporters say the obstacles are formidable. Skeptics say they could be overwhelming.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison presented an ambitious vision, saying at least eight nuclear-powered submarines using American or British technology will be built in Australia and enter the water from the late 2030s. , replacing its squadron of six aging diesel engines. -motorized submarines.

For Australia, nuclear-powered submarines offer a powerful way to counter China’s growing naval reach and an escape route to a hesitant deal with a French company to build diesel submarines. For the Biden administration, the plan demonstrates its support for a beleaguered ally and shows that it is serious about countering Chinese power. And for Britain, the plan could strengthen its international standing and military industry after the Brexit upheaval.

But the Rubik’s Cube of nested complications that permeates the initiative could slow down the delivery of the submarines – or, critics say, shatter the entire company – leaving a dangerous loophole in Australia’s defenses and re-engaging question the capacity of the partnership to keep its promises in terms of security.

“It is a dangerous path that we are taking,” said Rex Patrick, an independent member of the Australian Senate who served as a submariner in the Australian Navy for a decade.

“What is at stake is national security,” Mr. Patrick said in an interview. Given the decades-long wait for a squadron of new submarines, he added, Australia risked “buying a parachute after the plane crash”.

To achieve the plan, Australia must make major progress. It has a limited industrial base and built its last submarine over 20 years ago. It produces a few nuclear engineering graduates each year. Its expenditure on scientific research as a proportion of the economy is lower than the average for rich economies. His last two plans to build submarines fell apart before any were worked out.

In addition, the United States and Britain face obstacles in increasing the production of submarines and their high-precision parts for Australia, and in diverting expert labor to South Australia, where, Mr Morrison said, the boats will be assembled. Washington and London have busy programs to build submarines for their own navies, including massive ships to carry nuclear missiles.

“I don’t think this is a done deal in any way,” said Marcus Hellyer, naval policy expert at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“We sometimes use the term nation-building lightly, but it will be a nation-wide task,” he said. “The decision to go down this path while burning all our bridges behind us was a pretty courageous decision.”

U.S. officials have already spent hundreds of hours chatting with their Australian counterparts and are under no illusions about the complexities, officials involved said. Mr. Morrison “said this was a high risk program; he was outspoken when he announced it, ”Greg Moriarty, secretary of the Australian Defense Ministry, told a Senate committee this week.

Failure or significant delays would reverberate beyond Australia. The Biden administration has banked on American credibility to bolster the Australian military as part of a policy of “integrated deterrence” that will bring the United States closer to its allies by compensating China.

“Success would be huge for Australia and the United States, assuming open access to each other’s facilities and what that means to deter China,” said Brent Sadler, a former US Navy officer who is a member principal of the Heritage Foundation. “Failure would be doubly damaging – an alliance that cannot deliver on its promises, a loss of submarine capability by a trusted ally and a shift towards isolationism on Australia’s part.”

Australia is hoping for a setback after more than a decade of misadventures in its submarine modernization efforts. The plan for French-designed diesel submarines that Mr. Morrison abandoned had succeeded an agreement for Japanese-designed submarines that a predecessor had defended.

“No living Australian Prime Minister has ordered a submarine that has actually been built,” wrote Greg Sheridan, columnist for The Australian newspaper, in a recent article criticizing Mr Morrison’s plan.

Australia’s latest proposal contains many potential pitfalls.

He could look to the United States to help build something like his Virginia-class attack submarine. (These submarines are nuclear powered, which allows them to travel faster and stay underwater much longer than diesel submarines, but they don’t carry nuclear missiles.)

But the two US shipyards that make nuclear submarines, as well as their suppliers, are struggling to keep up with US Navy orders. The shipyards complete about two Virginia-class ships per year for the Navy and prepare to build Columbia-class submarines, 21,000-ton ships that carry nuclear missiles as a traveling deterrent – a priority for any administration .

A report to the Senate Armed Services Committee last month warned that “the nuclear shipbuilding industrial base continues to struggle to support increased demand” for US orders. This report was prepared too late to take into account the Australian proposal.

“They work 95-98% on Virginia and Colombia,” Richard V. Spencer, Secretary of the Navy in the Trump administration, said of the two US submarine yards. He supports the Australian plan and has said his preferred route on early submarines was to galvanize specialist suppliers to ship parts, or entire segments of the submarines, to be assembled in Australia.

“Let us all be fully aware with wide eyes that the nuclear program is a huge consumer of resources and time, and it is obvious,” he said in a telephone interview.

Other experts have said Australia should choose the British Astute-class submarine, which is cheaper and uses a smaller crew than large American ships. The head of Australia’s nuclear submarine task force, Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead, said this week his team was considering mature “production designs” from Britain, as well as the United States.

“This reduces the risks of the program,” he said at a Senate committee hearing.

But British submarines got off its production line relatively slowly, and often late. British submarine maker BAE Systems is also busy building Dreadnought submarines to carry the country’s nuclear deterrent.

“The reserve capacity is very limited,” wrote Trevor Taylor, an academic researcher in defense management at the Royal United Services Institute, a research institute in an email. “The UK cannot afford to delay its Dreadnought program in order to divert efforts to Australia.”

Adding to the complications, Britain has phased out the PWR2 reactor that powers the Astute, after officials agreed the model “would not be acceptable in the future,” an audit report said in 2018. The Astute is not designed to adapt to the next. generation reactor, and this issue could make it difficult to restart construction of the submarine for Australia, Taylor and other experts said.

The British successor to the Astute is still on the drawing board; the government said last month it would devote three years to design work for it. A naval official from the UK Department of Defense has said the planned new submarine may fit well into Australia’s schedule. Several experts were less sure.

“Waiting for the next-generation British or American attack submarine would mean an increased capacity gap,” for Australia, Taylor wrote in an assessment.

The challenge does not end with the construction of the submarines. Safeguards aimed at protecting seafarers and populations, and meeting non-proliferation obligations, will require a strong build-up of Australian nuclear safety expertise.

Residents of parts of Barrow-in-Furness, the town of 67,000 people home to Britain’s submarine construction shipyard, are given iodine tablets as a precaution against possible leaks during reactor tests . The Osborne shipyard in South Australia, where Morrison wants to build the nuclear submarines, sits on the edge of Adelaide, a city of 1.4 million people.

Australia operates a small nuclear reactor. Its single university program dedicated to nuclear engineering produces around five graduates each year, said Edward Obbard, program manager at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Australia would need several thousand more people with nuclear training and experience if it wants the submarines, he said.

“The ramp-up has to start now,” he said.

Michael crowley and Eric schmitt contributed to Washington reporting.


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