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Could Australia lease a couple of US Navy Los Angeles-class SSNs as a way of getting its feet wet with nuclear-powered submarines? 

Australia is looking at decades before receiving its first nuclear-powered submarines. But surely there are faster options available?

‘And I took the little book out of the angel’s hand, and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey: and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter.’ (Revelation 10:10)

Saint John might have been talking about the recent AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, United States) agreement. With AUKUS, the US and UK have agreed to share nuclear submarine technology with the Aussies and for all three to cooperate on a range of other technologies: AI, cyber, quantum, undersea, missile etc.

But the big thing is the promise to provide Australia with nuclear submarines. ‘Nuke boats’ are closely guarded technology, and they are one of Washington’s remaining ‘aces in the hole’, and maybe Britain’s only one.

You only share this technology with your very best friends – nobody else.

The AUKUS announcement was indeed good news to the Geobukseon, who has warned of China’s rising threat for many years. The purpose of the deal is clearly, if unstated, to take on Chinese expansion in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Equally impressive, the Biden administration kept it all secret.

Three major democracies standing up to China has a bracing effect region-wide. Done right, it augments the Quad, and maybe a few other regional nations will also lean that way.

AUKUS is broad enough to include other Asian nations on ‘non-nuke’ topics – and so undercut Beijing’s inevitable complaint that AUKUS is just the West bullying the Chinese again.

The taste of AUKUS honey was fleeting, however. Leaders Joe Biden, Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson stated that a ‘way forward’ for the nuclear submarines would be worked out over the next 18 months.

Really?

The way forward should have been ready to go – and in motion – when the three leaders announced the deal. Besides the urgency of taking on China, this would have helped lock in the submarine plan and offer some protection against a future Australian government – Labour or Liberal – killing the deal.

There is even talk that it may take a decade or two for Australia actually to receive its submarines.

Professor Donald Winter, a former USN Secretary, has reportedly been advising the Australian government on submarine matters for a few years, and is now engaged (at $6,000 a day) ‘supporting the work of the US, UK and Australia to explore the optimum pathway for Australia to acquire conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarines’.

Optimum pathway? Maybe at $6,000 a day that will still take a while to figure out.

After the AUKUS announcement, speaking to the Geobukseon two retired USN officers with decades of experience in the Pacific put together a practical ‘way forward’ in about an hour that would get Australia nuclear subs in short order.

Put briefly:

‘This is a four-step process: 1) Start operating USN boats out of Perth, and get Royal Australian Navy (RAN) sailors familiar with nuke subs; 2) Get Perth/Freemantle transformed into a nuclear-capable port; 3) Lease Los Angeles-class boats (presuming you can get the sailors); and then 4) Build new boats from scratch.

‘You can get steps 1-3 done in the next 18 months…the 4th step will take a decade. Yeah, step 2 could take a bit longer, but it does not have to. For example, get the RAN to Yokosuka in Japan or Guam to see how a nuclear-capable port operates now! This should not take a long time for Australia.

‘The sooner the US and Australia move forward on this first point, the sooner it can get USN boats operating out of Perth, and the sooner the Australians can start operating Los Angeles SSNs out of the same port.

‘And yes, all this needs to be done with dignity and respect for the Australian people, government and RAN. But I am telling you, these are the four steps that will get us the most capability in the theatre the quickest, which is what we all need to defend ourselves from China and the People’s Liberation Army Navy.’

The second retired officer elaborated: ‘In the meantime (before Australia’s own subs are built), how about if the RAN “leases” two Los Angeles-class SSNs that are scheduled for decommissioning from the USN soon anyway, refurbishing them with an overhaul and reactor refuelling in the US, thereby extending their service life for Australia’s use in the interim – before and until the new US-built SSNs can be delivered. If it works out, additional Los Angeles-class SSNs can be leased to make up the gap until the new SSNs arrive.

‘The Los Angeles class is still a superb nuclear attack submarine in its own right and, although older platforms, would provide the RAN the ability to man/train/equip crews for nuclear sub operations in advance of the new submarine force being created, thus smoothing the transition from diesel-electric boats to nuclear-powered boats. The Los Angeles-class SSN operating systems (weapons, navigation, engineering) would effectively be the same or close to those of the new SSNs, making the transition more seamless.

‘The RAN could use contracting support from the US and UK, as well as seconded USN nuclear submariners and nuclear chief engineers, or even recently retired USN SSN nuclear-engineers – and something tells me there would be no shortage of volunteers.

‘Establish train-the-trainer programmes to get RAN sailors and officers up to speed, particularly in the nuclear engineering space. Two submarine crews could be trained for each of the two SSNs, a green crew and a gold crew, so the submarines could be operated on an extended operational tempo. And again, if it works out well, additional Los Angeles-class SSNs could be leased down the road but still in the near term, not far term.

‘I’m sure there will be naysayers and many excuses and reasons “not to”…but if we did, we could have a nuclear SSN capability within the next several years, not next several decades.’

These practical suggestions were put together in less time than it takes to order and eat a pizza.

Meanwhile, the AUKUS talks were presumably in the works for some time. It is unsettling that the agreement was announced without a ‘way forward’ already set or, even better, already begun.

One also reasonably asks who is responsible for the success or failure of AUKUS? Or at least the submarine part of it? Probably nobody, given the way these things work.

AUKUS and Australia’s nuclear submarine effort require clear thinking, discipline, focus and speed.

The Geobukseon would feel a lot better if someone with submarine qualifications, fleet command qualifications and Western Pacific operational and strategic qualifications, like retired USN VAdm John Bird, were involved. Bring in former INDOPACOM commander Adm Robert Willard (even if he is not a submariner), and the odds would improve even more.

For now, however, AUKUS is a good step forward, but its nuclear submarine component gives the Geobukseon a troubling recollection of the Blue Dot Network.

Remember that one?

In 2019, the US, Japan and Australia announced the Blue Dot Network – a game-changing answer to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. It was launched with a handsome press conference. Three years later, American officials are still talking about its potential, though not its accomplishments.

Hopefully, a few years from now, we will not be remembering the press conference and talking about AUKUS’s potential, with a bitter feeling in our bellies.

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