Export regulations and the overloading of shipyards pose numerous problems for the US-UK-Australia deal.
The leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia will meet in San Diego next Monday to discuss building nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian Navy. San Diego is located on the Pacific coast.
The AUKUS agreement, a sprawling military pact first announced 18 months ago, promises to introduce seismic changes to how allies share the world’s most secret military technologies, with strategic implications for how the three friends from across the life can unite to face China in the coming decades.
According to two people close to the talks, the three governments have agreed to a complex three-part deal that will be carried out in stages to stagger the huge moves of industrial muscle needed to carry it out. Like others interviewed for this article, these people requested anonymity to discuss the deal before it was formally announced.
Also, Australia will host several U.S. submarines as a forward stations later this decade. After this, in the 2030s, Canberra will purchase at least three US-made Virginia-class attack submarines.
Australia will also finance the construction of joint UK-Australian nuclear submarines based on the British Astute-class ships. Those hulls would not enter service until at least the 2040s, with some delivered well into the 2050s.
Whatever the final outcome of all the details, the result will be a historic exchange of ultra-sensitive technology that could bolster the ships of all three countries in Beijing’s backyard.
None of this will be easy, however. The pledges of allied unity by the three leaders meeting Monday belie the extraordinary complexity of the necessary changes to export control rules and the growing concern that U.S. and U.K. shipyards, Overworked, can take on the load. And countries have to cope with all this while Beijing produces ships and submarines at a rate that allies – even working together – are unable to match.
Although the three leaders are making their mark on the burgeoning deal in a public and obvious way, the decades-long scope of the project means all three will be long gone by the time the subs are ready to break ground.
According to Brent Sadler, a retired Navy submarine officer who now works on the Heritage Foundation think tank, keeping the AUKUS project afloat for decades to come “is going to take significant political leadership, and that unity is a big assumption.”
The commitment and funding have to remain intact, “at least until the first piece of steel is cut out of a new design, so ten years and the final lever is how far Australia is going to stay committed to this. If there is political commitment, they will find the money, but it is not cheap; they are going to get a good scare »at the final cost of a nuclear-powered submarine.
“Cost is a big problem,” added a diplomat familiar with the planning, saying there is recognition among allied governments that “the U.S. export control system is a relic of the Cold War” and that Washington needs to act more quickly and effectively to give the green light to critical nuclear technologies within a reasonable time frame.
The construction of the Virginia-class submarines will be another problem. General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries, the two American corporations responsible for making the submarines, cannot reach the Navy’s yearly production objective of two submarines and instead manufacture roughly one and a half ships per year.
The companies also have the first 12 Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines they plan to build soon, a backlog that was already stoking concerns about industrial capacity and raising serious questions about how they could add more Virginia submarines to their operations.
A member of Congress expressed skepticism that Australian money alone would be sufficient to add to U.S. facilities to build the new Virginia submarines in the 2030s, implying that further arrangements may still be in the works between the U.S. and the United States. U.S.A. and Australia.
More than Submarines
The issues surrounding the U.S. shipyards also affect other parts of the AUKUS agreement, which includes the sharing of sensitive technologies for hypersonic missiles, cybernetics, and artificial intelligence.
The United States has never exported or shared this type of technology before, and any deal requires a profound rethink of export rules and calls for regulatory changes.
“If we don’t get it right with the U.K. and Australia, we’re not going to get it right with any other country in the world,” said Dak Hardwick, Vice President of International Affairs for the Aerospace Industries Association.
Doubts also linger about how quickly Washington and London can renew those policies.
“How it will be organized will be the question of the day,” said Connecticut Rep. Joe Courtney, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Seapower subcommittee, adding that it will be “daunting.”
Courtney was confident the job would get done, though he also noted that both the U.S. and the U.K. are in the early stages of building their new classes of nuclear submarines and adding a third class to already struggling shipyards. Finding new workers and keeping stressed supply chains moving is no easy task.
If the deal is implemented successfully, however, “I think, over time, this deal is actually going to emerge as one of the true trademarks of Biden’s national security policy,” as argued by Courtney.
Australia has 16,000 troops in its Navy, so training smaller crews and maintaining a smaller hull are major concerns for Canberra. To address these issues, the nation is considering constructing a version of the British submarine rather than a version of the large American Virginia-class ships.
The subs will undoubtedly be more expensive to buy and operate than the 1990s-era Collins-class subs they will replace, especially considering the nuclear power plant and more advanced weapon systems they will carry.
Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director general of the London-based Royal United Services Institute, said Canberra has economic and geopolitical reasons to choose a submarine model based on the British submarine.
“The American submarine would be much more expensive than the British one because the American defense budget is much bigger,” he said, adding that the U.S. Navy would have placed more emphasis on capability than cost compared to Britain. Also, mid-size economies like the U.K. and Australia don’t want to be overly dependent on the U.S. for critical intellectual property.
“From a U.K. point of view, it is very difficult to buy these very expensive and sophisticated platforms without international collaboration. The logic points towards collaboration with other medium-sized countries.
Even so, the U.K. submarine program remains dependent on U.S. technology, and a joint UK-Australia model would still rely on U.S. components.
There are still a lot of unanswered concerns about the UK-Australia submarine’s design, such as what kind of nuclear reactor it would carry. Chalmers said that using a version of the Rolls-Royce reactor, which will be fitted to Britain’s anti-missile submarine due to enter service in the 2030s, would make sense.
Given decades of planning to buy U.S. and U.K. submarines, both countries will have to build the infrastructure needed to build the submarines while training hundreds of Australian workers on how to work with the new manufacturing systems and processes and developing new facilities, Maintenance, and manufacturing in Australia.
All of this will require individual governments to commit for decades to developing their industrial capabilities and facilitating the transfer of sensitive technologies faster than is currently possible to meet deadlines.