The nuclear technology behind Australia’s Aukus submarine deal


Australia’s decision to abandon the $ 90 billion agreement with France on 12 diesel submarines and instead choose to build a nuclear ship with the United Kingdom and the United States is a picture for geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific and the global defense industry. It’s a epoch-making moment.

The new submarine is far more capable than the originally planned fleet and could represent great success for contractors in the British and American defense industries.

Propulsion: Diesel vs Nuclear

The main difference between the new submarines proposed to be made in France is the propulsion technology they use. The ship from France was based on the Barracuda class of nuclear power in that country and had to charge the electric motor with a diesel engine.

One of the advantages is that diesel electric submarines tend to be smaller and can operate quietly by turning off the diesel motor and relying on battery power. However, the disadvantage is that the boat needs to surface regularly to run the diesel engine so that the battery can be recharged. This is an operation called “sniffing”.

Nuclear submarines, on the other hand, are made for durability. They include nuclear reactors that power electric motors and generate electricity to drive propellers. Alternatively, the heat from the nuclear reactor is used to generate steam that spins the turbine.

Australia initially chose diesel electric submarines to replace its own fleet of conventional powered Collins-class submarines.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who defends Australia’s decision this week, told French President Emmanuel Macron in June, “Whether traditional submarine capabilities address Australia’s strategic security needs in the Indo-Pacific. There is a very real problem with this. “

However, given Australia’s lack of critical infrastructure, choosing a nuclear route is not without its challenges.

Trevor Taylor, a think tank at the Royal United Services Institute in the United Kingdom, said:

Stealth and detection

The biggest advantage of nuclear submarines is that they can remain submerged and remain stealth for much longer. Traditionally powered vessels do not have the same range without being exposed to detection on the surface of the water. Nuclear submarines can carry enough fuel for up to 30 years of operation and only need to return to the port for maintenance and supply.

According to one defense expert, nuclear submarines are “the most complex human-made machines, even more complex than the Space Shuttle.” “You have a nuclear reactor in the back, high explosives in the front and in the middle, a hotel where people live, and everything is submerged for months at a time.”

It is not yet clear which type of design Canberra will choose. However, it may be based on a British Astute submarine built by BAE Systems, or an equivalent Virginia-class nuclear submarine of the US Navy built by US General Dynamics Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding.

One of the key questions is how much the silent running and sonar skills of the British and American fleets give Australians.

Weapon ability

Australia will also significantly enhance its weapons capabilities under a tripartite agreement.

Richard Fontaine, head of the Center for a New American Security, said Australia would deploy regular missiles on submarines with larger payloads than would have been on board French ships.

The decision to acquire a Tomahawk missile that can be launched from either a ship or a submarine also marks a major addition to Australia’s capabilities.

“Tomahawk turns a water-Shanghai ship into a strategic asset that can target land-based military installations from a thousand miles away. This new payload greatly enhances the Australian Navy’s traditional offensive power.” Said Eric Sayers, a defense expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

According to Sayers, the move continues for Canberra to adopt common munitions with the United States, including anti-ship weapons such as the MK48 torpedo and the LRASM missile that can be launched from F-18 fighters. ..

Tomahawks will give Australia more capacity to reach China’s goals in any conflict. This is important. Because the United States and its allies have less military assets off China than the Chinese army.

“Tomahawk opens the door to long-range attacks on land targets, including integrated air defense systems, missile defense systems, and the destruction of aircraft hangars,” Sayers said.

US Virginia-class nuclear submarine

Virginia-class nuclear submarine

Who will build a new submarine?

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson may have discussed the potential impact on Britain’s industry, but defense officials said it was too early to say what the deal meant for the country’s contractors. ..

Nevertheless, there should be some advantages.

Sash Tusa, an analyst at Agency Partners, said: The lack of its own nuclear industry will require decades of significant support, including the direct supply of nuclear fuel. “

The BAE, which builds a Royal Navy submarine at the Barrow-in-Furness site in Cumbria, northwest England, is considered to be in the best position. The company is already building a Type 26 frigate version for Australians at its new Adelaide shipyard. Rolls-Royce, which provides a propulsion system for British submarines, has the potential to build a nuclear reactor in the Australian fleet.

Rusi’s Taylor points out that submarines are cheaper than US submarines, despite Britain’s own problems with the Astute program, hampered by start-up delays and rising costs.

how long will it take?

Australia’s Morrison said this week that he expects the first nuclear submarine to be built in Adelaide by 2040. Building submarines is a huge undertaking, and most programs are notorious for being late and over budget.

The UK’s new Astute submarines may be state-of-the-art, but their procurement calmly reminds us that things are longer than originally expected and will cost more.

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