WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy envisions a submarine hub in Australia from which the service can oversee the entire range of undersea activities in the Asia-Pacific region, from boat production to repairs to missions, service Secretary Carlos del Toro said last month.
His comments, made ahead of a major announcement about the U.S.-U.K.-Australian submarine partnership dubbed AUKUS, reveal how Washington views its future relationship with Australia as a key foothold in closer proximity to rival China.
Bloomberg reported earlier this week President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese are expected to address the way ahead in the pact on March 13 in San Diego, California.
With most of the plans for a fleet of nuclear-powered boats for Canberra still up in the air, the U.S. sea service has its eyes on the near-term benefit of being able to base and repair U.S. Virginia-class attack submarines in Australian ports.
Del Toro told Defense News last month AUKUS is all about “being able to repair our submarines much further out, being able to build them in Australia as well, too, and create that much more presence in the Indo-Pacific where we need it the most.”
He later said at the National Press Club “the ability of the United States Navy to be able to do forward-based repair and maintenance is critical to us; it’s part of why we’re actually proceeding down the AUKUS path as well, too, with regards to submarine capability in the future.”
This comes as the U.S. Navy has conducted an auxiliary ship repair in India and is now eyeing yards in the Philippines and Singapore for future Navy ship repair periods, Del Toro said. The United States in February announced an expansion to an agreement with the Philippines that allows for greater access to bases there for training and prepositioning equipment for certain missions like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Leaders from the three partner nations are expected to announce next week exactly how they envision the submarine portion of the AUKUS pact; there’s also a separate track for breakthrough technology sharing.
One thing has become clear during the 18-month study phase announced at the pact’s start in September 2021: it could be decades before Australia gets its nuke-powered subs.
Reuters reported Wednesday the eventual submarine design will be British, with U.S. Virginia-class boats intended as gap-fillers until then. Options for operating American submarines entail deploying dual U.S.-Australian crews on American subs and building up to five new boats, officials told the news service.
Lawmakers here have been saying for months the prospect of selling U.S. submarines to Australia will further tax an already-strained industrial base.
House Armed Services Committee Vice Chairman Rob Wittman, R-Va., said March 8 he supports AUKUS, but doesn’t believe the U.S. has the capacity now to fulfill both U.S. and Australian naval requirements. He added that selling the subs would disincentivize Australia from ramping up its own domestic submarine building capacity from scratch.
Wittman said he’d prefer dual U.S.-Australian crews on new Virginia-class subs that can operate in the Pacific. These subs would be jointly tasked by the U.S. and Australian navies and have a U.S. commander and Australian executive officer, he said.
“I don’t have an issue if we go from two submarines to three submarines a year and then we have the ability to produce enough to where we’re going to meet our equipment and we can sell some to the Australians,” Wittman said. “That’s not where we’re at right now.”
The lawmaker was referring to a backlog in Navy submarine production that limits output to less than two per year today. Congress has pushed to increase the rate to three, but companies have said they lack the capacity.
The submarine industrial base is also beset by labor shortages. Following a meeting with the chief executive of sub builder General Dynamics Electric Boat, which is seeking more than 5,000 new hires, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said expanding sub building capacity would require more federal spending on skills training programs.
“I have yet to see a strategy, or a strategy that seems to work,” Blumenthal said of AUKUS.
The U.S. Navy today has 49 attack submarines — three Seawolf-class, 25 Los Angeles-class and 21 Virginia-class — compared to a stated requirement for 66 to 72, according to the most recently released analysis of future fleet needs.
The submarine industrial base had fallen behind in deliveries even before the COVID-19 pandemic, and from April 2020 to February 2022 the industrial base delivered no new submarines to the Navy, compared to the planned two-a-year delivery schedule.
Meanwhile, the British have three nuclear submarine programs in build or design phases, but only one is being touted as a possible participant for AUKUS.
The Dreadnought-class nuclear missile submarines, set to provide the Royal Navy with its nuclear deterrent by the early 2030s, and the new Astute-class attack boats, still in fielding, appear to have been discounted.
The Royal Navy took delivery of the fifth of seven Astute-class boats last month with handover of the final two boats scheduled by 2026.
The replacement for those submarine, eyed for fielding in the 2040s and conceptually dubbed Submersible Ship Nuclear Replacement, is a likely contender for AUKUS, analysts in London say.
Platform builder BAE Systems and nuclear power plant provider Rolls-Royce were each awarded £85 million ($101 million) contracts in September 2021 to start a three-year effort helping define the approach to replacing the Astute boats.
Andrew Chuter in London contributed to this report.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.