Who will build Australia’s nuclear submarines?

There are fears in the US that there is not enough shipyard capacity to meet the needs of the US Navy, let alone build an additional number of ships for Australia under the AUKUS agreement.

Vice Admiral William Joseph Houston is an experienced and thoughtful United States Navy officer entrusted with the command of perhaps the United States’ most powerful capability: its submarine fleet.

Houston also deeply understands the significance of the United States Submarine Force in the Allied victory over Japan in World War II.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US submarine force was the only viable weapon immediately available. In fact, the USS Gudgeon began the first offensive patrol of the US fleet just four days after the attack on December 7, 1941.

By the end of the war, American submarines had destroyed about thirty percent of the Japanese navy (including eight aircraft carriers) and sixty percent of the Japanese commerce fleet.
No wonder, then, that Houston likes to describe its submarines as “apex predators” that fear “nothing above the sea and nothing under the sea.”

That’s why Australia also wants the best possible submarines. The nuclear-powered ships would provide Australia with the same “stealthy, full-spectrum expeditionary platform” that the US Navy has, but without nuclear weapons.

However, Houston is experiencing difficulties because the US Navy’s intended number and size of submarines continue to expand, but the manpower necessary to produce those submarines continues to shrink.

The past week’s events have highlighted the risk that, despite strong political and military support for AUKUS, members of Congress may begin to adopt a more ambivalent stance if this is detrimental to the operational readiness of the United States.

The leak of a letter that Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed and then-ranking Republican member James Inhofe wrote to President Joe Biden showed senators were concerned that the AUKUS plan to sell or transfer Virginia-class submarines to Australia would undermine the very needs of the US Navy.

The letter highlights the risk that top US policymakers might conclude that nuclear-powered submarines for Australia are a great idea, but not right now. Not while the United States is simultaneously planning a war with China.

The difficulty comes from the fact that the United States has to produce two submarines annually but only produces around one and a half per year.

The capacity deficit of the shipyards is a problem that affects maintenance and reforms, and the construction of new ships. Last year, Rear Admiral Doug Perry, the US Navy’s director of submarine warfare requirements, admitted that of the 50 US attack submarines, “18 were on maintenance or awaiting maintenance.” That number should be closer to 10.

In the words of Senators Reed and Inhofe, “what was initially presented as a ‘do no harm’ opportunity to support Australia and the UK and create long-term competitive advantages for the US and its Pacific allies may be becoming a zero-sum game for the few and very advanced American SSNs.”

There will have been a lengthy briefing for Reed and Inhofe from US authorities. They were probably briefed in secret and concluded that the AUKUS program’s expected increase in demand would negatively impact military readiness in the United States.

The senators also noted that “they understand the geopolitical importance of having one of our closest partners running a world-class navy.” Reed later tweeted his support for AUKUS, writing that the United States has an advantage over China thanks to its “network of partners and allies.”

Or, as a high-ranking official in the United States administration is rumored to have said in private: “I adore AUKUS because China dislikes AUKUS.”

Nine members of Congress wrote a bipartisan open letter to Biden in support of AUKUS, urging expansion of the industrial base and stressing that “far from being a zero-sum game,” AUKUS could be a “rising tide elevating all ships.”

However, the back and forth shows that the overall commitment of Congress could be put under strain if the program is seen to enhance Australian capacity while stretching the US to capacity.

However, the capabilities of an integrated defense industrial base in the United States and Australia will be the deciding factor in the success of the AUKUS submarine program, not political expressions of support.

It will take some tough, even ugly decisions: more money, no doubt, in government support. But probably also a larger, more skilled, and deeper workforce that will need to start training almost immediately, and possibly a talent-stealing workforce abroad from countries also facing capacity constraints.

All this, plus a fundamental rethinking of how governments and the private sector engage with long-term, high-tech projects. Add to this the need for a concerted effort to overcome institutional and political barriers such as the labyrinthine US export control regime, and the way forward will not be easy.

However, the alternative to Washington’s status quo is a diminished ability to lead in the strategic realm, where it has always excelled. It is worthwhile to invest in AUKUS now that administrations in Washington, London, and Canberra recognize that the United States cannot be expected to bear the entire weight of strategic determination on its own.






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