WASHINGTON — The United States, the United Kingdom and Australia have spent the last year discussing in detail the capabilities that each partner of the so-called AUKUS agreement will bring to the table for a future Australian nuclear-powered attack submarine, according to the undersecretary of the U.S. Navy.
Speaking at the Defense News Conference on Wednesday, Erik Raven said he doesn’t have submarine design announcements yet, but could say the three nations are focused on “how to get there in the smartest way to make sure this partnership pays dividends well into the future.”
It’s been nearly one year since the allies signed the security pact under which the U.S. and U.K. would share nuclear-powered submarine technology with Australia. The three nations agreed to an 18-month consultation period to work through what would be involved in a multinational nuclear submarine development effort.
“Some time in the future, journalists and historians are going to look back at this moment and look at how much work has been done over the past 12 months of this consultation period and ask: ‘Why can’t [the Defense Department] react as quickly to a major program and establish requirements and a process to meeting those strategic goals as quickly as we have been doing?’ ” Raven said.
“We don’t have solutions ready for prime time, but what we have been doing over the last 12 months is really spending it engaging with our partners, understanding what capabilities we all have to bring to the table, what capabilities are needed, and start aligning those against how are we going to perform to plan,” he added.
Top of mind shortly after the AUKUS announcement was choosing the class of submarine the Royal Australian Navy may use — the U.S. Navy’s Virginia-class submarine, the British Royal Navy’s Astute-class submarine or something new. But the conversation later turned toward whose industrial base has the capacity to handle additional construction work.
Rear Adm. Scott Pappano, the program executive officer for strategic submarines, has closely tracked industrial base issues related to his top-priority Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, as well as what capacity remains to build and maintain the Virginia attack subs.
Although he’s not directly involved in AUKUS conversations, he said last month that, “if we are going to add additional submarine construction to our industrial base, that would be detrimental to us right now without significant investment to provide additional capacity and capability to go do that.” He added the U.K. submarine-industrial base faces similar constraints.
Despite the challenges, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday has called the arrangement “a strategic stroke of brilliance … for all three countries.”
“That puts all three countries working in lockstep with advanced capabilities to put us in a position where we’re not just interoperable, but we’re interchangeable,” he said.
Raven noted that the National Defense Strategy focuses the U.S. military on China and that AUKUS is a prime example of how to approach that. Not only does the collaboration create a new high-end platform to deter or counter China, but it also launches a discussion about basing and forward presence that could help U.S. naval forces spend more time forward in the Pacific, he explained.
Another issue gaining early attention is training. Given the length of time it takes to grow enlisted and officer leadership who understand nuclear propulsion, the U.S. and U.K. are looking at training opportunities now.
Legislation introduced in the U.S. Congress in June would establish a training program in the United States. The program would induct at least two Australian officers each year to receive training at the Navy’s nuclear propulsion school, enroll in the Submarine Officer Basic Course and then be assigned to duty on an operational U.S. submarine at sea.
During a recent commissioning ceremony for a new Astute-class sub, the U.K. announced Royal Australian Navy personnel are already participating in specialized nuclear training courses conducted by both the U.K. and U.S.
Several American leaders have noted the importance of starting this training this early, given it takes years to prepare an officer to take command of a nuclear-powered sub. In fact, it takes so long that women first began serving on American submarines in 2011, and more than a decade later, no woman has commanded a sub yet. Last month, however, a female senior enlisted sailor was selected to serve as chief of a sub.
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.