Former subs boss blasts ‘hocus pocus’ nuclear deal

A former head of ASC has blasted Australia’s “insane deal” with the US and the UK to build nuclear-powered submarines in Adelaide, deriding a “hocus pocus” announcement he says raises major issues about nuclear and defence capability.

Sep 20, 2021, updated Sep 20, 2021
The dock at ASC. Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

The dock at ASC. Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

Hans Ohff, who was managing director and CEO of the then-Australian Submarine Corporation from 1993 to 2002, says he does not believe the mooted submarine deal will materialise as planned for Australia, saying: “I believe it will be stymied because the US military establishment will not underwrite the tacit agreement made between the US President, the British and Australian PMs.”

Ohff insists “there will be no transfer of technical know-how to Australia”, arguing “the submarine propulsion train – not just the reactor – will be a black box accessible only to the US”.

In an emailed statement sent to InDaily’s Your Views, Ohff, who is also a research fellow at Adelaide University, said it was incumbent on the federal government “to inform the Australian people on the strategic, environmental, commercial, and political ramifications and consequences before deciding on the acquisition of nuclear-powered attack submarines”.

“We need to fully appreciate the issues and complexities associated with the design, assembly, operation and maintenance of nuclear submarines powered with highly enriched… weapons-grade uranium,” he said.

“We need to understand that the acquisition of HEU [Highly Enriched Uranium]-235 fissile material would challenge the spirit if not the letter of the Treaty of Non- Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.”

Speaking to InDaily, he went further, saying the plan would have “unbelievable consequences, both here and in Europe” as well as “massive consequences for Outer Harbor”.

It’s almost comical – if it wasn’t so serious… Prime Minister Morrison and his Defence Minister have blown up the bridge behind them

“There are big issues with putting highly enriched uranium reactors anywhere in Australia, let alone Outer Harbor,” he said.

In further correspondence, he said “a nuclear-safe site has to be identified [and] a concerned population will have to agree to the warehousing, installation, launching and pre-commissioning of submarines that include HEU-235 reactors”.

Ohff described the centrepiece of the new AUKUS security pact as effectively “spur of the moment between Biden, Johnson and Morrison”, saying: “In the end we won’t get the subs the Government wants to procure – it’s all hocus pocus.”

“In the end, the US military is unlikely to agree to the transfer of technology,” he said.

“It’s almost comical – if it wasn’t so serious.”

Ohff said he had received concerned reactions from industry contacts “all over the place”.

“In Europe, everyone over there is shaking their head,” he said.

Ohff said he “agreed entirely” with strong criticism of the new subs plan by independent senator and former submariner Rex Patrick, who – like him – has also been an outspoken critic of the now-scuppered deal with Naval to provide a fleet of Shortfin Barracuda Attack Class vessels.

Ohff wrote for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in 2017 that the French model “unites design and building risks, high program costs and an extended delivery schedule [but] promises few or no capability gains.

He told InDaily today the design was “not suitable for anything” but “that’s not the issue”.

“The issue is how to get out of that contract properly and into a new one – who wants to deal with Australia now for next generation submarines?” he said.

“It appears that Prime Minister Morrison and his Defence Minister have blown up the bridge behind them before securing an alternative solution to the ill-conceived, impractical and expensive French Attack submarine design,” Ohff said.

He said if the nuclear-powered subs were built at all, “it won’t be till the 2040s, and the world will have changed dramatically by then”.

“By 2040 the Virginia class will be an outdated design, no longer built for the US Navy [and] unlikely to be relevant for warfare in the second half of the 21st century,” he said.

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“Carrier Battle Groups will no longer be effective against autonomous weaponry; and the China question will be resolved one way or another.

“[Australia] requires submarines now.

“Nuclear boats in 20 to 30 years will not resolve this issue [and] leasing nuclear submarines from [Britain or the US] is unrealistic.”

Ohff said the Life-of-Type Extension of the Collins Class fleet would be “more complex, more time-consuming and more expensive” than the Government expects, “leaving the Navy without submarines to train submariners, let alone fight a war”,

“If the government doesn’t expedite the procurement of modern SSKs ‎[diesel-electric submarines] for operational availability by the 2030s, the Royal Australian Navy will no longer be a submarine navy,” he said.

He said a next-generation Collins Class would have been the “obvious choice”, criticising diplomatic missteps to date, including “Tony Abbott’s handshake-agreement with Japanese PM Shinzo Abe being overturned by [Malcolm] Turnbull in favour of the French”.

He said the German tendered price had been “a fraction of the French proposal [but] they were not selected on unexplained or spurious grounds”.

He said Australians “need to be satisfied that we have capacity to develop and deploy the management systems and procedures necessary to safely operate and maintain these vessel at sea and in port”.

“I would be pleased to see the [cancellation of the] Attack Class boat – which is neither fish nor fowl, neither nuke nor conventional submarine – but not before a meaningful, highly capable submarine replacement program is in place for the Collins Class,” he said.

“Thus, if the government doesn’t immediately commit to six conventional-powered AIP [Air-independent propulsion] subs that can be in service by mid-2030 the RAN will have no submarine squadron, save for a few ageing Collins boats.”

He said basing “a squadron of US Navy nukes in Australian waters would be politically untenable”, arguing: “Deploying Astute or Virginia-type submarines in the littoral waters of the [South China Sea] would be suicidal.‎”

Ohff has also led steel firm Eglo Engineering and was appointed by the Rann Government to oversee the aftermath of a 2004 explosion at Santos’s Moomba gas processing facility that forced the state onto gas rations at the height of summer.

Senator Patrick is pushing for a Senate Committee inquiry “into the entirety of the Government’s submarine program decision” with an interim report to be published before the federal election.

“The proposed construction of a fleet of new nuclear-powered submarines in Adelaide must only proceed on the basis of the most rigorous of nuclear safety assessments and the implementation of a world-class regulatory regime that will give South Australians absolute assurances of safety and environmental protection,” Patrick said in a statement today.

“An independent nuclear safety review is an essential first step in the Government’s plans to progress the proposed nuclear-powered submarine program announced with such fanfare last week.”

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