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Could the French go nuclear for us?

By Mike Clarke - posted Friday, 24 September 2021

Militarily Australia has few offensive weapons. Our primary offensive weapon is our submarine fleet. It is our only weapon that presently can destroy an enemy in and around its home bases with anti-ship missiles and port denial mines. Note the much-touted Joint Strike Fighter has some offensive uses as a bomber, but these are limited in terms of payload and range.

If Australia is to have an effective offensive weapon in the future, then a new fleet of submarines is required as soon as possible. The submarines need to be able to operate in the East Asia Sea, South China Sea and in the Northwestern Indian Ocean and possibly off Myanmar. The specific areas in the north and east to be covered include, the Formosa Strait, the sea between Japan and the Philippines, parts of the South China Sea where the integrity of our ASEAN neighbours is under threat. In the Indian Ocean and Horn of Africa, the threat could come from the Chinese naval bases at Gwadar (Pakistan) and Djibouti, with the possibility of bases in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. The Indian Ocean Chinese interests threaten the US/UK facilities on Diego Garcia.  

Modern attack submarines can carry offensive weapons that include, cruise missiles, anti-ship missiles, sophisticated sea mines and long-range homing torpedoes. The weapons could be conventionally armed with advanced chemical explosives or nuclear tipped. The weapons would be used to take-out specific targets (eg troop ships), or be used for closing ports and destroying onshore infrastructure.  Australia has stated that we will NOT have nuclear tipped weapons in our new submarines  but the Chinese may not believe that.


The replacement to the Collins Class Diesel submarines was to be a diesel-electric submarine with an ability to mimic nuclear units with respect to range and performance as far as is reasonably possible. They were required to have endurance in terms of battery charge and be able to snorkel air whilst running diesels for battery recharging. This would be achieved with minimal noise and hopefully little noticeable exhaust plume (plumes could be detected by air or ship or satellite).

The boats would be fuel efficient and hopefully not require refueling till back in home port. Their fuel would need to be sufficient to cover the thousands of kilometers to the patrol area, through and around the patrol area and return to home; the whole cruise being over many weeks or months. Refueling at sea once on patrol would be hazardous in a time of open conflict. It is likely that ensuring diesel supply over great distances was a reason for the move to nuclear powered submarines. 

The Australian Government has broken business and defense protocols in dealing with the French regarding supplying the next submarine fleet. Why was France not offered a chance to meet revised specifications for Australia’s new nuclear attack submarine fleet?

The French Barracuda class diesel version was being built to Australian specifications, however developments in Chinese weaponry and surveillance technology have made such diesel submarines not suitable for long-range and extended time deployments into the South China Sea or other distant areas of possible conflict.

Submarines sailing from Australia would need to go underwater soon after leaving Australian waters to have a chance of being an effective weapon that also has a reasonable chance of coming home. The Barracuda class nuclear version has long-range deployment capability and high speed under water. The French nuclear Barracudas are already an existing nuclear attack submarine that could be fitted with UK and US weapons and stealth systems if those countries agreed, or otherwise Australia could utilise French systems or even develop some of our own systems.

Given the long delivery times for any large defense purchase, it is likely that some gap-filling will be required. The Collins Class may be able to have a life extension beyond their scheduled decommissioning beginning in 2026. Reports that such an extension will cost up to $6.4 billion for the fleet have been produced (“Naval News” 20th September 2021). Will these upgrades produce a really useful weapon or coffins for submariners?


The Collins Class Submarine Force has not been a success. The boat availability has been low due to maintenance issues (and manning) and ongoing difficulties with corrosion and buoyancy (the submarines have been putting on weight as they go into their dotage). Each time a submarine dives to its ‘operational depth’ the pressure hull is subjected to compression forces; as it surfaces these forces are relieved, however the hull, with it joints and protuberances, has been subjected to considerable stress. This on and off stressing limits the life of submarines in terms of being able to continue to reach sufficient depths to ‘hide’ from foes. The increase in weight that is affecting buoyancy has been due to the absorption of moisture into the insulation that exists beneath the pressure hull and the submarine’s working space.

The Australian Nuclear Barracuda class could be tacked onto the present French production run and probably offer first delivery within a decade; Australian inputs and modifications could be negotiated. Some points to note:

·        The Australian nuclear version could have used some of the inputs already in common to both the diesel and nuclear Barracuda subs and we could potentially save many Pacific Pesos – aka Oz dollars,

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About the Author

Michael Clarke is the CEO of M.E.T.T.S. Pty Ltd, consulting engineers, resource management and infrastructure development, in Brisbane, Australia.

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