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What are nuclear-powered submarines and how do they work? Australia’s firepower ambitions explained

What are nuclear-powered submarines and how do they work?  Australia’s firepower ambitions explained

The US Navy and Royal Navy fleets have two types of submarines – categorized as attack and ballistic missile. Both are powered by nuclear reactors, which convert water into high-pressure steam, which causes turbines to drive subs.

But subs attacks and ballistic missile subs – often called “boomers” – serve very different purposes. Australia is opting for the nuclear-powered option or attacking sub, rather than the nuclear-armed boomers, with nuclear warheads on their ballistic missiles.

Canberra will have attack subs — the most common backbone of U.S. and British sub-fleets.

“Attack submarines are designed to search and destroy enemy submarines and surface ships; design power ashore with Tomahawk cruise missiles and Special Operation Forces (SOF); conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, support battle group operations and engage in mine warfare. , “says the U.S. Navy on top of its attack submarine fact sheet.

The United States has three classes of attack subs in its fleet of 53. The newest of these are the 19 of what is called the Virginia class.

Armed with dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles and torpedoes, the 377-foot, 8,000-ton Virginia-class submarines can sail at more than 46 km / h and be submerged indefinitely. Their time underwater is limited only by the need to replenish supplies for the crew of 132.

During a tour of the Virginia-class USS John Warner in 2015, CNN secured a peek inside.

The sub does not even have a periscope. Rather, it uses a photonic mast — a piece of electronic magic that contains high-definition and infrared video — to monitor the battlefield. The information is displayed on large screens in the command center, with a joystick that controls the entire show.

The USS Indiana, a nuclear-powered submarine attack, leaves Port Canaveral, Florida on October 1, 2018.

Britain’s four Astute-class attack subjects are even faster than the American subs, capable of more than 35 mph (56 km / h) submerged, and like the United States carrying the Tomahawk cruise missile.

“Tomahawk IV is the latest version of the missile. It has a longer range than its predecessors (well over 1,000 miles), can be aimed at a new target in mid-flight and can also beam images back of the battlefield to its mother ship,” Royal Navy’s said. Homepage.

It’s the kind of firepower and endurance Australia wants, as it appears to be protecting its northern waters from any naval threat and projecting its naval power into the South China Sea, where it, along with the United States, appears to blunt Chinese influence and protect freedom of navigation.

An unprotected submarine operated by Britain's Royal Navy, en route down the Firth of Clyde, in September 2020.

Ballistic missile submarines

The British and American boomers carry Trident ballistic missiles armed with several nuclear warheads. Their mission is essentially to stay at sea for several months at a time, the vast majority of it being submerged and be prepared to launch a retaliatory nuclear attack if an opponent launches one of their own against Britain or the United States.

The ballistic missile boat USS Pennsylvania returns to its Washington State hometown after a strategic deterrent patrol in 2015.

Ballistic missile subs are quiet under the waves and extremely difficult to detect. They are the deterrent and assure that an opponent of the United States or Britain would pay a terrible price for a nuclear attack with first attack.

Each of the US ballistic missile subs can carry 20 Trident missiles (16 for the British subs) with as many as eight warheads (three for the British subs) per. Missile. They are capable of being shot over a range of 7,400 kilometers. The nuclear warheads have explosive yields between 100 kilotons and 475 kilotons. In contrast, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II had a yield of 15 kilotons.

The United States has 14 ballistic missiles, while the United Kingdom has four. These are not the submarines Australia is signing up for.

When will Australia put subs at sea?

It takes a long time — possibly decades — to develop a nuclear-powered submarine and get it deployed. The tripartite agreement, announced on Wednesday, contains only an 18-month study to see how best to build nuclear-powered subs for Australia.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it could be 2040 before the new subs are in the Australian Navy.

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Thomas Shugart, a former submarine commander in the U.S. Navy who is now a fellow at the Center for New American Security, said that with the security situation in the Indo-Pacific, Australia can hope its submarines can be in the water sooner.

“There will be a number of trade-offs to consider that may affect the timeline – local content versus use of established suppliers, a new design with more advanced features versus existing US / UK submarines or propulsion facilities, etc.” Said Shugart.

“Given the eroded military balance in the Indo-Pacific, I would hope that 2040 is a date no later than that. At the same time, I have a hard time imagining a deployment timeline of less than about a decade, even moving with urgent speed and uses very existing designs and suppliers. “

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