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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat

Why Nuclear Submarines For Australia Make Perfect Sense

Nuclear Submarines For Australia
U.S. Navy Sailors stationed aboard the Virginia Class New Attack Submarine Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) TEXAS (SSN 775) stands topside as the boat gets underway from Naval Station Norfolk, Va., Aug. 22, 2006. TEXAS is the second Virginia Class submarine built and the first major U.S. Navy combatant vessel class designed with the post-Cold War security environment in mind. TEXAS will be commissioned Sept 9, 2006 in Galveston, Texas. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Kelvin Edwards) (Released)

Huzzah!

The news broke this week that Australia, Great Britain, and the United States have forged a new alliance dubbed AUKUS, for Australia-U.K.-U.S. Among other things, the alliance will help the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) construct a contingent of at least eight nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) by the late 2030s. While allied leaders named no names, the SSN initiative is meant to help counter a certain large, domineering Asian country that operates the world’s most numerous navy.

Nuclear-powered boats make perfect sense for Australia, which occupies strategic real estate just outside the South China Sea rim, a.k.a. the southerly arc of Asia’s first island chain. A competitor has to be in embattled waters more or less constantly to compete there with any hope of success. But like all Pacific nations, Australia confronts the tyranny of distance. The RAN’s current flotilla of Collins-class diesel-electric subs (SSKs) can put in an appearance in the South China Sea but can’t stay on their patrol grounds for long before returning home for fuel and stores.

By contrast, an SSN’s on-station time is limited only by its capacity to store food and stores sufficient to supply the crew’s needs. Some years ago, in fact, a team from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments estimated that an SSN operating from Australian harbors could make a 77-day patrol in the South China Sea; an SSK could manage just 11 days. With just six Collins-class boats in the inventory, the RAN would find it hard to rotate boats out on patrol swiftly enough so that one was always on scene. The pace would run submariners ragged.

Nukes change that. For comparison’s sake, 77 days is comparable to how long U.S. Navy nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines spend on patrol. That’s a significant stretch of time. In short, naval nuclear propulsion confers staying power in distant expanses, and thus bolsters the allies’ capacity to deter conflict or to fight and win if forced to it. AUKUS portends well for the great-power strategic competition in the Pacific.

But the hoopla about Aussie SSNs obscured a bit of news that could be more consequential—in a good way—in the near term. The Australian Financial Review reports (hat tip: Joseph Trevithick, The Drive) that the U.S. Navy may start operating Virginia-class SSNs from HMAS Stirling, the RAN base in Perth. This would provide the allies an interim nuclear-submarine capability along that South China Sea rim, and it would do so years before RAN SSNs take to the sea.

Sooner is better. After all, senior leaders have come to believe a certain overbearing Asian country may act against Taiwan in the next few years. The same might hold true for South China Sea or East China Sea hotspots.

Basing American forces in Australia is an idea I’ve been pushing, on my own and with coauthor Toshi Yoshihara, for over a decade now. Think about the advantages such a scheme would bestow. One, geography. The U.S. military presence is rather sparse along the first island chain south of Okinawa. Relations with the Philippines have been tenuous during the Rodrigo Duterte presidency. While Manila opted not to cancel the visiting-forces agreement that permits U.S. forces on Philippine soil (or abrogate the U.S.-Philippine mutual defense treaty, as Duterte threatened to), it also seems doubtful that the archipelago will resume being the major military hub it once was.

It’s hard to compete in the South China Sea or Taiwan Strait without forces based nearby.

Australia furnishes a partial substitute for Philippine bases—a superior one in some respects. It occupies a geographic position at the seam between the Pacific and Indian oceans. Naval forces based there can swing between the oceans as circumstances warrant. Now, Perth lies along the country’s Indian Ocean coast, meaning Western Pacific operations will be more cumbersome for SSNs than they would be were boats based in a more centrally located seaport. Still, Perth permits ready access to straits that act as gateways to the South China Sea—Malacca, Lombok, and Sunda—as well as to the South China Sea itself.

HMAS Stirling’s strategic position represents an improvement on Guam, or even Japan, for staging operations in Southeast Asia.

It’s worth noting that AUKUS gives the allied posture in the Indo-Pacific a different look on the map. At present U.S. forces are based at the extreme ends of the Indo-Pacific, chiefly in Japan and Guam to the east and Bahrain to the west. In other words, this is a horizontal, predominantly east-west stance. Assuming Canberra does consent to host Virginia-class subs, the alliance will take on a more vertical, north-south character. Basing in Australia will also complete, round out, and firm up the midsection of the allied defense perimeter that traces along the first island chain.

The arrangement will resemble a distended ellipse enclosing East Asia.

And two, operations. Proliferating bases in the Western Pacific conforms to U.S. Navy operational concepts such as “distributed maritime operations” and to U.S. Marine concepts such as “littoral operations in a contested environment.” Sea-service chieftains envision breaking the fleet down into a force made up of swarms of cheap, small warships and warplanes and using that force in concert with geography to make things tough on an antagonist.

Astute-class submarine Audacious

British nuclear-powered Astute-class submarine Audacious under construction at Barrow in Furness shipyard in Cumbria.
Audacious is the fourth of the seven Astute Class submarines being built for the Royal Navy.
The first two boats, HMS Astute and Ambush, are currently undergoing sea trials. The third boat, Artful, is reaching the final stages of her construction at Barrow shipyard. All three are to be based at Faslane on the Clyde.

The more naval stations able to support a distributed force, the better.

There are immediate practical benefits to collocating submarine forces. As the RAN submarine force starts to take shape, and as U.S. SSNs start to make Perth their home, the AUKUS navies ought to fuse allied subs into a multinational fleet to the maximum extent possible. In so doing they can help Australian crews learn how to use atomic propulsion and acquaint them with British and American practices for undersea warfare.

040825-N-5268S-002
Portsmouth, Va. (Aug. 25, 2004) – The nationÕs newest and most advanced nuclear-powered attack submarine PCU Virginia (SSN 774) passes the skyline of Portsmouth, Va., on its the way to Norfolk Naval Shipyard upon completion of Bravo sea trials. Virginia is the NavyÕs only major combatant ready to join the fleet that was designed with the post-Cold War security environment in mind and embodies the war fighting and operational capabilities required to dominate the littorals while maintaining undersea dominance in the open ocean. U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 2nd Class Christina M. Shaw (RELEASED)

Heck, naval leaders ought to think about forming AUKUS crews, regardless of which flag flies over the boat. That would show hostile powers that the allies have skin in the game of their common cause, namely preserving freedom of the sea and fending off great-power predators. That’s the genius of the U.S. Marine F-35 deployment aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy aircraft carrier currently plying Western Pacific seas: pick a fight with the British flattop and you’ve automatically picked a fight with America as well.

The concept of skin in the game can dive beneath the waves. And it should. Small tactical and administrative moves such as merging crews can carry major political benefits—benefits such as proving an alliance is indivisible.

So, all hail the incipient Royal Australian Navy SSN program—but let’s commence operating as a team immediately. Time is short.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, U.S. Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Slack

    September 16, 2021 at 6:39 pm

    When I read about the ‘modern large’ twin island carrier and now the ‘superior nuclear-powered’ submarine, pictures of the war panzer mark III and mark IV come to mind.

    Both panzers were wonder weapons, with the final mark III edition sporting a long barrelled 50mm gun and the mark IV living out its final days with a long barrelled 75 mm gun.

    Both panzers weren’t military defensive systems to its owners but were used offensively to conduct great military misadventures in distant lands. That modern carrier and the superior nuclear sub are expected to be used for similar purposes judging by remarks made by politicians involved in both cases.

  2. Slack

    September 16, 2021 at 9:40 pm

    This 2021 nuclear project by AUKUS is exactly like the TRIPARTITE PACT of 1940.

    Both pacts believe that wars and wunderwaffe are just the right thing to solve problems that they thenselves have created in the first place.

  3. Slack

    September 17, 2021 at 9:08 am

    This nuclear project exposes the reckless & irrresponsible nature of ‘global leaders’. Now, other countries have no excuse not to have nuclear subs.

    Nuclear subs will entice Canberra to make miscalculation in coming future, foolishly thinking its sub is ‘superior’ to those of others.

    Global leaders, instead of fomenting fatal/deadly arms race, should boycott 2022 winter olympics, issue arrest warrant and/or have SEAL Team 6 on standby. But now they’re being wholly and totally reckless.

  4. Donald Link

    September 17, 2021 at 12:31 pm

    A side benefit is the dust up this is causing with the French who thought they had the nuclear sub contract locked up. For decades they have tried to massage their international agreements to work to their singular advantage regardless of international obligations. Hopefully this will remind them that it was the allied nations that prevailed in WW I and WW II, not an individual country.

  5. sarsfield

    September 18, 2021 at 1:22 pm

    Aussies have 6 diesel subs and have been deploying subs since 1964. the most recent iteration of their on/off sub service. This suggests not much experience in undersea ops – they will need more training especially on nuke operations. How will this be done? New Subs themselves aren’t enough.

  6. Andrew N

    September 19, 2021 at 8:56 pm

    Yes commentators, countries shouldn’t act like Germany. Could you start by ending the large holiday camps in your country and claiming the world. Greatly appreciated. Ending the trade war and threats against Australia would also be appreciated. Also returning those scientists from holiday camps who might have info on covid.

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