Australia can’t be a bystander as Washington’s submarine debate grows
US submarine in maintenance.

USS Alexandria at San Diego floating dry dock. Image: US Navy.

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

Two years on from the AUKUS announcement in September 2021 and only 6 months from Joe Biden, Rishi Sunak and Anthony Albanese giving us the ‘optimal pathway’, risks are already emerging that need our attention – and require some immediate big shifts in Australian policy and direction. 

AUKUS ‘Pillar One’ is meant to increase the number of operational allied nuclear submarines in the Indo Pacific, because of the role that undersea capability plays in deterring major conflict – and winning if deterrence fails.

To do so, the three AUKUS nations must manage risks to the partnership and its end goal. 

And Australia can’t just assume that our two AUKUS partners will solve their separate domestic submarine program challenges and deliver on the AUKUS deal.

We have to be a contributor and not just an irritatingly needy and demanding cashed-up customer if AUKUS is to work and be sustainable politically.

The US has its own, growing subs challenges

One increasing risk is from the US political and national security community’s growing realisation that the US will not have the submarine numbers it needs for itself in the coming decade, let alone additional submarines to provide to Australia.

America has 49 nuclear attack submarines in service in 2023. That’s well short of the US government’s endorsed fleet number of 66. America’s two nuclear submarine builders – Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls – can’t build enough new subs between now and even the mid-2030s to do much to change this picture. This is partly because they are also building the new Columbia Class ballistic missile subs and partly because the Block V Virginias are almost a third bigger than the earlier versions.

The US is building just 1.2 Virginia Class subs each year now but needs to build 2 a year to meet US Navy requirements and 2.5 a year to catch up on lost production – which would be doubling current production.  Despite billions of dollars of Pentagon investment in the shipyards, workforces and supply chains, the US Navy’s own optimistic estimate is it will take the yards 5 years to start to produce 2 boats a year.

So, increasing the production rate (including supply chains to the yards) is hard, slow work. Even after that is achieved, it still takes over 7 years to build a Virginia Class sub from start to finish.  That means that for any new Virginia submarines to be available to the US – or Australian Navy – in the first few years of the 2030s, they have to be either already in production or have their build start before 2026.

Secure your own facemask first before helping children

The early 2030s turn out to be a critical time period for two reasons: the rapid retirement of the aging Los Angeles Class means that’s when US Navy attack submarine numbers reach their lowest point for decades – 46.  And this is also when the ‘optimal pathway’ has the US Navy giving up the first of 3 Virginia Class submarines to Australia.

So, Australia wants US submarines at the worst possible time for the US Navy to provide them to us.

The political pressure in Washington around US submarine capacity has begun to grow because all these facts are well known within the Pentagon, defence industry and Congress.  Already, US senators have taken the unusual step of writing to President Biden raising their concerns – in December 2022, it was the two most senior senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee – Democrat senator Reed and Republican senator Inhofe.  By July it was 25 Republican senators.    

Even the apolitical Congressional Research Service is canvassing paths that don’t involve the US Navy giving up submarines to Australia but doing submarine missions for Australia instead. This isn’t the end of the issue – it’s the start.

None of the voices so far in this Washington debate have been critics of AUKUS and all have been strong supporters of Australia as an active and valuable US ally. 

But this isn’t about support in Congress for Australia or AUKUS – it’s about US national security and the need to ensure this before supporting even the closest allies.  Just like airline safety briefings telling us if oxygen is required in the cabin and facemasks fall from the ceiling, first help yourself before helping children, America must meet its own operational submarine needs first to be in a position to deliver on the broader AUKUS program.

Fleet numbers vs operational numbers 

The question for the Albanese government is what Australia can do within the AUKUS framework to make it politically and militarily possible or better yet advantageous for the US Navy to give up its own too-scarce submarines to Australia in the 2030s.

The simple answer on production is “not much”.  A planned cash injection of $3 billion will help, but the major constraint on the US submarine industrial base is not cash, it’s about skilled workforces, facility constraints and suppliers able to do work for the two main builders. Australian companies like Austal winning work to produce modules for Virginia subs is great news, but part of a slow-moving picture.  US sub numbers have no magic fix between now and 2040.

Beyond production capacity, Australia has two valuable AUKUS contributions we can make in the 2030s if we invest and act now.  Both the US and the UK are struggling to maintain their submarine fleets, with backlogs meaning less are available for operations.

Australia can help get more US and UK submarines to sea more often by investing in the capacity to maintain these submarines in Australia.  That means not just superficial, mid-deployment, maintenance and supply work, but the deeper maintenance and upgrade work required over a submarine’s life. Our goal should be to do everything but deeper reactor maintenance.  Investment in this capacity will provide a short-term infrastructure stimulus while delivering long-term economic benefits to Australia.

The good news is Australian industry is outstanding at this type of work, because of the hard effort and knowledge gained on the Collins program.  The bad news is that doing this same work on nuclear submarines takes unique qualifications and certification of workers and facilities – and that takes time. 

The benefits are clear, though: Australian Collins subs went from amongst the lowest ‘availability’ levels to world best practice levels of 1 out of every 3 boats being available to the Navy for operations as a result of the Coles Review and reforms.  Meanwhile the US and UK availability levels are more like 1 in 4 – lower recently for the UK. 

Better maintenance practices and increased maintenance capacity means more AUKUS nation subs at sea more often in the Indo Pacific – which is the overall goal of the partnership. For the US, for example, moving from 1 in 4 subs available for operations to 1 in 3 means 15 subs are available for operations at any one time, instead of just 12 – that’s like growing the fleet by a quarter.

We can also offer ports not just for maintenance but also for forward basing and deployment of US and UK subs.  These can reduce transit times from home nation ports and allow crew rotations. This further increases our AUKUS partners’ operational time in the Indian and South Pacific, especially the UK with a 20,000 km transit to Fremantle.     

Hope is not a strategy

The big point here is that as our two AUKUS partners struggle with their own challenges over nuclear submarine production, maintenance and availability, Australia has to be more than a bystander waiting for them to sort things out and hoping for the best.

Australia has to be a contributor, not just a customer, of AUKUS and provide real value into the AUKUS submarine enterprise. 

We’ll only be able to make those contributions this decade and next if we move much faster than current Government and Defence plans and mindsets on both the scale and speed of investment in nuclear submarines basing and maintenance workforces on our West and East coasts.  It’ll take into the 2030s to get these in place and operating … even if we start now. 

If an East Coast base decision isn’t made for a decade, as is current government policy, then we’ll be in no position to make a contribution to maintaining and sustaining AUKUS subs until the first few of our own AUKUS designed boats turn up over the 2040s. That takes away a big Australian contribution to the AUKUS Virginia-SSN deal at a time when the US Senate and 2024 presidential candidates are carefully evaluating its worth.

Investment at home can make Australia a valued contributor

The interesting thing from a Washington – and likely London perspective – is that as their debates gather pace and intensity over the challenges in their nuclear submarine capability, an Australia that is obviously investing in AUKUS facilities and maintenance capacity will be valued, trusted and require reciprocity.

In contrast, an Australian government that looks like a slow-moving supplicant without much to offer beyond demands for training places, technology transfer and even in-service submarines will get harder to support.

Think about a second term President Trump or even dealing with a future American president who continues the America First policy approach we’ve seen from Biden, Trump and other Republican candidates.

Not only is Australia stepping on the accelerator around nuclear submarine facilities and workers essential from a strategic point of view, it’s also likely to be the smartest political move Australia can make too.