The “wonderful temptation” of nuclear submarines

  In September, Australia announced that it would build its own nuclear submarine with the help of the United States and the United Kingdom. In October, the US “Connecticut” nuclear submarine collided with an unidentified object in the South China Sea, and the “wave of public opinion” from the nuclear submarine caused another tens of thousands of waves. For a time, nuclear submarines quickly became a star vocabulary.
  What kind of unique combat capability does nuclear submarines have that makes Australia desperate to break the agreement with its ally France, not afraid of the strong dissatisfaction of the Asia-Pacific countries, nor the world’s strong resistance to “nuclear”? If the nuclear submarine is so powerful and “worthy of possession”, then how can the US “Connecticut” nuclear submarine accidentally collide while traveling underwater?
Unparalleled concealment

  To understand nuclear submarines, one must start with the battlefield environment in which they operate. Underwater is the main battlefield for submarines. Even in today’s rapid development of military technology, underwater detection is still full of difficulties. On land battlefields, optical detection can use satellites hundreds of kilometers away from the ground to see clearly ground personnel and vehicles; infrared reconnaissance can make dark night battlefields as transparent as daylight; radar methods have a detection range of thousands of kilometers and are accurate to centimeters The detection accuracy. However, none of the above methods are useful in underwater battlefields, because both light waves and radar waves are essentially electromagnetic waves. Due to the absorption and blocking of water bodies, their underwater transmission distance is extremely limited, and basic detection cannot be completed at all. Task. The only effective underwater detection method is to use sound waves for detection. However, due to the complex and changeable water environment, the transmission distance of sound in the water is very limited, the direction changes greatly, the speed is abnormally slower than electromagnetic waves, and the transmission efficiency increases with distance. The attenuation is severe. The timely and effective discovery of submarines navigating underwater is still the number one combat problem faced by navies around the world. Because of this, the battlefield advantage of submarines is quite prominent-that is, unparalleled combat concealment. Concealment can bring the suddenness of the attack, provide the attacker with ubiquitous deterrence ability, and provide the defender with small and broad counterattack energy.
  But the advantages and disadvantages of things are often unity of opposites. In order to remain concealed, submarines rarely take active exposure tactical actions. Therefore, most of the time when submarines navigate underwater, they use passive sonar or hydrophone as the main detection method, and rarely use active sonar that actively emits sound. The accuracy of passive sonar is far inferior to that of active sonar, so the detection capability of submarine itself is very limited.
Nuclear power helps submarines achieve true long-term diving

  In fact, for a long period of time before the advent of nuclear power technology, submarines did not fit their names and could not truly be underwater for a long time. Since oxygen must be involved in the work of its engine, conventionally powered submarines cannot sail under water for too long. They must surface or sail with the help of a snorkel at intervals, dive underwater only before launching an attack, and usually cruise and sail. It has been floating on the surface or shallow water area. But if the submarine can’t hide deep under the sea, its battlefield advantage will be scarce. After World War II, conventionally powered submarine technology continued to evolve, and the biggest advancement was the development of “air-independent propulsion systems”, that is, AIP power plants. Through the AIP system, conventionally-powered submarines have greatly increased the underwater endurance time, from the original two to three days to two weeks, and the combat capability has been greatly improved. With the emergence of nuclear power technology, the submarine power problem was solved once and for all. The submarine’s underwater endurance has soared from a few days of ordinary conventionally powered submarines to almost infinite. It can sneak quietly and reach any sea area in the world calmly. This is a huge progress in the history of submarine development. Due to the huge advantages of nuclear-powered submarines, the United States gave up the development and development of conventionally-powered submarines very early, and retired all conventionally-powered submarines in the 1980s, and took the lead in entering the ranks of all-nuclear submarines.
Nuclear submarines have powerful deterrence capabilities

  Attacking nuclear submarines that use torpedoes as weapons are absolute offensive weapons for naval formations of major powers. The U.S. aircraft carrier battle group is usually equipped with more than two attack nuclear submarines, which move dozens of nautical miles in front of the formation to provide an underwater barrier for the entire battle group. Compared with attacking nuclear submarines, the more deterrent power weapon is the strategic nuclear submarine equipped with intercontinental ballistic missiles. The “Ohio” class ballistic missile nuclear submarine in service in the United States can carry 24 “Trident II” intercontinental ballistic missiles, each with a range of more than 12,000 kilometers. The trans-continental and trans-sea attack capability of other countries), can carry eight sub-missile heads (attack targets that are tens or even hundreds of kilometers apart), and each sub-missile head has an explosive equivalent of 100,000 tons of TNT (the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945) The atomic bomb “little boy” has an equivalent of 15,000 tons), with an accuracy of less than 90 meters (in the face of the explosive power of nuclear weapons, it can be considered equal to 0). It can be said that an “Ohio” ballistic missile nuclear submarine has the power to destroy 192 large and medium cities. On the battlefield, as long as a strategic nuclear submarine is not discovered, it means that the opponent still has strong nuclear strike and nuclear counterattack capabilities at all times.
  At present, there are only five permanent members of the UN Security Council that truly possess nuclear submarines and their complex technology. Other countries, such as Japan and Israel, do not possess such weapons. The only exception is India. In 2009, India built a nuclear submarine, the “Enemy Annihilator”, a national product that is still in the infinite reciprocating cycle of “test-repair-damage-repair”.
Australia’s dream of nuclear submarines is nothing but a “vouch for fame”

  At present, the main submarine in active service of the Australian Navy is the “Collins” class conventionally powered submarine without the AIP power system. The submarine is tailor-made by Australia for ocean-going voyages from Sweden’s Kokum Company. The submarine is equipped with 15 fuel tanks, making the surface range of 11,000 nautical miles (about 20,000 kilometers), and theoretically can be continuously deployed overseas for more than 70 days. However, as far as the real underwater voyage is concerned, the maximum is only 480 nautical miles (about 880 kilometers). At this time, the corresponding sailing speed is about four to five knots, which means that the limit time of underwater navigation is no more than three days. In recent years, the Australian Navy has frequently visited the South China Sea and made no secret of its intention to “spoil the Asia-Pacific”. However, Australia is located in the southern hemisphere and its submarine base is currently located in Perth on the west coast, which is more than 5,000 kilometers away from the South China Sea in a straight line. The gap between its capabilities and intentions is obvious. Strengthening expedition capacity building has become one of the most important goals Australia is seeking in the near future. But in fact, according to the plans of the United Kingdom and the United States, Australia may actually acquire nuclear submarines after 2040. I don’t know if Australia has seriously thought about what role these nuclear submarines can play in the Asia-Pacific situation 20 years from now.
  Military means are always the continuation of politics. Australia’s coveting of nuclear submarines is obviously not just an iterative upgrade of weapons and equipment. This is the projection of the political intent of the newly established Australia-UK-US Alliance (AUKUS) to “respond to the challenges of the 21st century” on military weapons. It is yet another military bond tied up between allies. Australia’s dream of nuclear submarine is still a few years away, but the determination that is firmly tied to the United States and Britain is already clear. The high-end weapon system is just a statement of its determination.

  Australia’s announcement on September 16, 2021 that it would build nuclear submarines with the assistance of the United States and Britain quickly aroused international responses. Australia, as a non-nuclear-weapon state, imported nuclear submarine technology, opening up a new approach to nuclear proliferation, and also foreshadowing the new challenges that international non-proliferation may face in the future.
  The civilian nuclear industry already has a good non-proliferation barrier. The civilian nuclear industry involves many dual-use and dual-use technologies, which means that these products and technologies can be used both for civilian purposes and for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. In order to prevent non-nuclear-weapon states from using civilian nuclear materials to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of the civilian nuclear industry, the “NPT” requires that civilian nuclear facilities and nuclear materials of non-nuclear-weapon states be subject to the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). . Safeguards use material accounting, containment and surveillance, on-site inspections and other measures to isolate, deter, and deter, and can detect the occurrence of nuclear material diversion as early as possible.
  Once a country has mastered a small number of materials directly used for nuclear weapons for civilian purposes, and technologies that can directly produce nuclear weapons materials (most importantly including high-enriched uranium and plutonium materials, uranium enrichment and reprocessing technologies, etc.), it can quickly acquire nuclear weapons. After decades of hard work, the world’s civilian use of highly enriched uranium has been greatly reduced, and civilian plutonium and civilian uranium enrichment and reprocessing are only concentrated in a very small number of countries, and they are equipped with complete safeguards.
  Australia’s nuclear submarine issue is involved in the non-proliferation gray area. Unlike civilian nuclear energy, the acquisition of nuclear submarine technology by non-nuclear-weapon states belongs to the gray area of ​​the non-proliferation regime. For historical reasons, it has not been banned by the NPT, and relevant nuclear materials may not be subject to IAEA safeguards. In other words, the non-proliferation barrier built around the civilian nuclear industry does not apply to nuclear submarines of non-nuclear-weapon states.
  Australia is likely to directly import off-the-shelf submarine reactor technology from the United States or the United Kingdom, and it will bypass the non-proliferation barrier in both safeguards and high-enriched uranium materials. First, relevant nuclear materials may not be subject to safeguards. Even if it accepts safeguards and supervision, as the source country’s highly protected military sensitive information, direct inspection measures cannot be taken, and only indirect methods such as seals can be used to confirm that it will not be diverted. In addition, nuclear submarines have left the port for a long time to operate at sea, and it is difficult to guarantee the effectiveness and timeliness of supervision. Second, in order to achieve high performance in nuclear submarine reactors in the United States and Britain, all nuclear fuels use weapon-grade highly enriched uranium, and the consumption of a nuclear submarine is estimated to be hundreds of kilograms. As a result, Australia will in fact possess highly enriched uranium that can produce dozens of nuclear weapons, and it will be difficult to take timely and effective monitoring measures.
  Although the international community generally does not believe that Australia has the intention to develop nuclear weapons, this approach actually opens up a new nuclear proliferation approach outside the international non-proliferation barrier. Once more countries follow suit, more nuclear materials will appear. Circumstances subject to safeguards and supervision. This can be said to be a serious impact on the international nuclear non-proliferation regime.
  The conventional military field will face new nuclear proliferation challenges. The nuclear submarine issue will not be an isolated case. It shows that with the development of many conventional military technologies, there will be more new ways for the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It involves missile technology, space launch technology, various military reactors, and even additive manufacturing and carbon fiber material processing. A country can circumvent the international restriction mechanism under the cover of multiple legitimate excuses, and more easily obtain the relevant capabilities for the development of nuclear weapons and their means of delivery. This raises new issues for the development of the non-proliferation mechanism.
  International non-proliferation researchers have recently discussed this issue. Based on the traditional “dual use” concept, new concepts such as “dual dual use”, “triple use” and “multiple use” have been derived. The challenges are as follows:
  First, although export control systems have been established in these areas to prevent the proliferation of some sensitive technologies between countries, it is difficult to establish a supervision mechanism similar to civilian nuclear energy in the production and use of nuclear submarines, and the restriction is very weak.
  Second, these approaches may significantly shorten the time required to obtain nuclear weapons and their means of delivery. Some emerging manufacturing technologies, such as additive manufacturing, may enable a country to master nuclear material production processes that would otherwise take a long time to master in a short time.
  Third, the monitoring and evaluation of non-proliferation needs to be expanded from the previous focus on the acquisition of nuclear weapons raw materials to more links such as the development of warheads and various delivery vehicles, so that proliferation risks can be fully evaluated and the early warning time increased.
  Conclusion The Australian nuclear submarine issue shows that an appropriate international mechanism should be established as soon as possible to fully address the nuclear proliferation risks related to nuclear submarines, and not to create “special cases” and then promote “conventions”. It also indicates that the international non-proliferation system will face more challenges and a long way to go, especially In terms of multilateral norms and systems, there are still a lot of gaps to be filled.

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