US indicated to lease or sell a nuclear submarine to Australia

USS Virginia The United States has indicated for the first time it would be willing to lease or sell a nuclear submarine to Australia i...

USS Virginia

The United States has indicated for the first time it would be willing to lease or sell a nuclear submarine to Australia in a move that will inflame tensions with China and force the Coalition to declare its policy on ­bolstering regional defence.

US Ambassador to Australia ­Jeffrey Bleich told The Australian Financial Review yesterday that whichever option Canberra pursued as a replacement for its Collins class submarines, Washington viewed ­Australia’s subs program as crucial to security in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Decisions about the design of the Australian submarine are up to Australia’s leaders, including whether they pursue diesel power or nuclear power,” Mr Bleich said. “Whatever they decide the US is willing to help.’’

His comments suggest the US would be open to discussing nuclear submarine technologies with Australia at a time of severe budget constraints here and in the US, despite Defence Minister Stephen Smith restating Labor’s opposition to any nuclear submarine purchase. But Australian sources maintain they have been told by opposition figures that Coalition leader Tony Abbott will consider the nuclear option if he wins an election due in 2013.

Opposition defence spokesman David Johnston has gone as far as saying the Coalition would support Labor if it sought to examine the nuclear submarine option. Neither Mr Abbott’s office nor Mr Johnston were prepared to comment on Mr Bleich’s intervention last night

But leading defence analysts, including former Liberal minister Peter Reith, have urged both sides of politics to consider nuclear subs.

A senior Defence source said ­Australia would probably be able to buy a 7500 tonne Virginia Class submarine for around $2.5 billion, but because it would come off a mature production line its price would reduce over time.

Labor has been considering the purchase of 12 conventional submarines to replace the Collins, with an Australian designed and built option costing up to $36 billion, or $3 billion each.

Respected senior Lowy Institute fellow Alan Dupont told the Financial Review that given what was at stake, “no option should be ruled out’’.

“If you are talking about spending $36 billion on a replacement for the Collins class then why shouldn’t the nuclear option be put under the microscope?’’ Dr Dupont said. “A nuclear submarine would meet all the requirements of the 2009 defence white paper and go beyond them.’’

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s 2009 defence white paper, predicated on the potential threat posed by China, called for 12 submarines, much larger than the Collins class – around 4000 tonnes compared to the current 3050 tonnes.

They were to be armed with torpedoes, cruise missiles, mini-subs for special forces and state of the art combat and communication systems.

Kokoda Foundation founder Ross Babbage, a proponent of the nuclear submarine option, said a smaller fleet of nuclear powered boats would serve Australia better than any available conventional submarine. “You would not need 12, you could probably get away with 9 or 10, they are much larger than a conventional sub, can carry more weapons and would have far greater range and endurance than a conventional sub,’’ he said.

“It would also be great step forward in terms of Australia’s interoperability with the United States.’’

Though the idea has been criticised as unworkable because Australia doesn’t have a nuclear industry to support a nuclear submarine fleet defence sources suggest the Australian fleet could be maintained at a US base in the Pacific Ocean or a US nuclear submarine base could be established in Australia.

Mr Smith will take a submission to Cabinet within weeks to fund the concept design phase of the future conventional submarine project.

The government has approached three European conventional submarine builders about off-the-shelf options including Spanish based Navantia which builds the S-80, French based DCNS which builds the Scorpene and German based HDW which builds the Type 212 and Type 214 submarines.

All three subs have been dismissed as too small to meet Australia’s requirements but each manufacturer is understood to have also proposed larger 4000 tonne submarine designs.

Mr Smith told an Australian Defence Magazine conference on Tuesday all options for a conventional submarine from a proven fully military off the shelf design though to a completely new submarine were under consideration.

“All options are being considered other than nuclear propulsion which the government has ruled out.”

US 4490825239047063829

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