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Why Australia Should Lease Los Angeles-Class Submarines from the US Navy

Submarine
US Navy Los-Angeles Attack Submarine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Leasing Los Angeles-class submarines from the United States offers Australia a cost-effective option to acquire nuclear-powered submarines without jeopardizing funding of other defense programs.

Since the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) agreement, it is becoming clear that the acquisition and operation of eight nuclear-powered submarines will take decades and is estimated to cost Australia between $70 and $171 billion. In the span of 30 days in March, Australia has already had to make tough funding decisions, announcing $10 billion for a new submarine base on Australia’s east coast while disclosing the cancellation of a $1.3 billion purchase of General Atomics MQ-9B Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).  The Royal Australian Navy should consider leasing older Los Angeles-class submarines from the U.S. before committing to a more expensive purchase.

Although AUKUS makes it possible for Australia to acquire a nuclear-powered submarine from the U.S. or U.K., there is no easy way for Australia to fund the manufacturing of either U.S. Virginia or U.K. Astute-class submarines.  The U.K. stopped producing the Astute’s nuclear reactors, and the U.S. does not have the excess capacity to increase the production of Virginia-class submarines.  In addition, the U.S. and the U.K. do not have excess Virginia or Astute-class submarines to lease to Australia.

The U.S. has up to 28 active Los Angeles-class submarines for the Royal Australian Navy to potentially lease while Australia’s shipbuilding industry figures out how to build its submarines.  On the other hand, the U.K. only has two remaining Trafalgar-class submarines to lease, falling short of the required eight submarines. If not leased to Australia, the Los Angeles-class submarines being replaced by new Virginia-class submarines will be decommissioned, some before the end of their original 30-year service lives.

Moreover, to borrow the Royal Navy’s terminology, the Los Angeles-class submarines are basically ‘paid off.’  Australia would pay the U.S. an approximate $250 million for an Engineering Overhaul, or Engineering Refueling Overhaul if the reactor requires refueling, to extend the boats’ service life for at least another ten years. Subsequently, Australia gets a cheaper modern submarine than a $3.45 billion Virginia-class submarine, a $3.16 billion for a new Astute, or $4.5 billion to extend the service life of Australia’s six diesel-powered Collins-class submarines.

Unlike the U.K.’s Astute and Trafalgar-class boats, the Los Angeles-class already has the U.S. weapons and combat systems Australia wants, particularly the combat system that the RAN submariners already use in the Collins-class.  This is important because incorporating U.S. systems in a foreign submarine design, such as Australia’s original intent with France’s Barracuda-class submarine, increases the risk of incompatibility, delayed schedules, and cost overruns. There is no better way for the Royal Australian Navy to stay on budget and schedule than to acquire a submarine that is already built.

Finally, leasing, instead of buying, nuclear-powered submarines means that Australia can avoid the headache of paying for the scrapping of the submarine, and the disposal of its reactor, at the end of its service life.  Leasing also allows Australia to only pay for the years it operates the submarine, sending it back to the U.S. for disposal and avoiding the extra cost. Although it is hard to discern the cost of dismantling in the U.S., the U.K. spends approximately $112 million to dispose of each of its nuclear-powered submarines. The U.S. will pay the fee whether the sub is leased or rusting while tied up to a pier.

The question is whether the U.S. Navy is willing to part with its Los Angeles-class submarines. Seeking to grow its fleet of submarines, the U.S. Navy relies on its older submarines to sustain its number of operating boats while the U.S. shipyards struggle to increase the production of Virginia-class submarines.  Therefore, the U.S. Navy may not be as enthusiastic about Australia’s quick and cost-effective option to lease Los Angeles-class submarines.

The U.S. also benefits from leasing its older Los Angeles-class submarines. If the U.S. gets into a war with China, Australia has modern nuclear-powered submarines to contribute to the fight.  If Australia declines to join the battle, the U.S. can always repossess and recommission these leased submarines, fly in a crew, and sail away from Australia with a fully armed and operational submarine that Australia kept fully functional. The alternative is for the U.S. to continue paying for a functioning modern submarine tied up to a pier, rusting away while waiting for disposal.

Leasing submarines from the U.S. does not prevent Australia from developing its submarine manufacturing industry and building its new submarines. However, given the uncertainty of costs and schedules, a leased submarine is an affordable option that provides the Royal Australian Navy the platforms to train until the Australian submarines are built.

Andy Cichon is a retired United States Naval Officer, who has served in various ships and staffs, including as Air Warfare Project Manager at the Royal Australian Navy’s Australian Maritime Warfare Centre, and in the Chief of Naval Operations’ staff for the U.S. Navy’s international engagement with Australia, China, Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam.  He works for SAIC as a civilian war gamer at the U.S Navy’s Tactical Training Group Pacific.  His views are his own.

Written By

Andy Cichon is a retired United States Naval Officer, who has served in various ships and staffs, including as Air Warfare Project Manager at the Royal Australian Navy’s Australian Maritime Warfare Centre, and in the Chief of Naval Operations’ staff for the U.S. Navy’s international engagement with Australia, China, Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam.  He works for SAIC as a civilian war gamer at the U.S Navy’s Tactical Training Group Pacific.  His views are his own.

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Quo Vadis

    April 4, 2022 at 12:45 pm

    Idea makes plenty of sense, meaning it probably won’t happen.

    • alan B'stard M P

      May 17, 2022 at 8:31 am

      this is all nonsense

  2. Commentar

    April 4, 2022 at 1:16 pm

    US will eventually send tactical nukes to Canberra, not just nuke submarines.

    This is similar, or will only just be following a pattern set in the past, like Obama’s no military boots in Syria, and recent statements about US not getting involved in ukraine.

    For the US, sending nuke systems and nuke weapons overseas is as natural as drinking water.

    US is full of crap, or full of nonsense, thus exporting nonsense is it’s primary aim.

    In the late fifties and early sixties, US stationed nuclear missiles (Thor and Jupiter) in Europe and Japan, forcing USSR to send dvina missiles to Cuba.

    See the familar pattern ?

  3. Perry Black

    April 4, 2022 at 1:20 pm

    Good idea!

  4. Peace-keeping nukes of US arsenal

    April 4, 2022 at 2:12 pm

    It’s way past due time for US to lease nuclear submarines to australia, which now sees itself as america’s right-hand lawman (henchman) or frontier sheriff in the south-east asia region.

    Next, washington should assign h-bombs and b-21s on the transfer roster. Pronto. No time to lose. Ww3 about to start in europe anytime now.

  5. Richard Staples

    April 4, 2022 at 6:06 pm

    Anyone who thinks at least a substantial % of the decommissioning costs wouldn’t be passed on to Australia via a lease is a turkey. Australia would be paying a premium price for everything in such a deal.

  6. Andrew

    April 4, 2022 at 6:33 pm

    How many submariners are on a LA class? Australia would need to recruit and increase numbers dramatically and find suitably qualified Engineering Officers and sailors to maintain the boat at sea. It takes up to 15 years to qualify as a nuclear propulsion engineer. No good having 8 LA class boats if they can’t be manned. Or we would need to borrow suitably qualified US Navy officers and sailors. Either way, this all take 15+ years for Australia to have its own sovereign capability.

  7. LarryC

    April 4, 2022 at 9:59 pm

    The boats being retired by the USN are within 5-6 years of needing refueling. They may be of value to Austrailia for a short period, but they be unavailable for any future conflict.

  8. Eric Shimer

    April 5, 2022 at 1:03 am

    You do know the USS Los Angeles in itself is blown apart now and a part of the coral reef. 688 is no longer. My brother served aboard her. Not many of that class are left.

  9. cacarr

    April 5, 2022 at 5:32 am

    The US should make the same arrangement with India, in exchange for weaning themselves off Russian weapons. And otherwise telling Putin to piss off.

  10. James Kell

    April 5, 2022 at 7:05 am

    If they are not built in America then Australia’s nuclear subs will take at least a decade longer and cost $35 billion more. The Americans can increase production of Virginias, they just need the funding and a national security reason. Australia provides both. It would be a win-win situation. Australia could spend some of the savings developing the next generation of unmanned autonomous vessels. In a nutshell, Australia’s SSNs should be built in the USA. I say that as a rational, patriotic Australian; I’m not being paid by anyone.

    • alan B'stard M P

      May 17, 2022 at 8:43 am

      but the boats are nearly 30 years old, and the British boat has superior sonar, allegedly

  11. James Kell

    April 5, 2022 at 7:06 am

    Ps I forgot to add that I agree entirely with your thoughts on leasing LA class in the short term; if they are available!

  12. Kenneth Willis

    April 5, 2022 at 3:01 pm

    First week in office Trump ordered those boats. It is a good thing because it’s going to be awhile before anymore upgrades or orders go out im thinking. I say get it done,it would be nice to see them subs down under.

  13. BuzzBoss915

    April 5, 2022 at 5:37 pm

    Here’s another vote for leasing Los Angeles class subs and their weapon systems. There is no faster way to accomplish what the Australians want to do and it sounds cost effective. If they have to pay for salvage down the road, it still sounds cheaper than the billions required for a new design and what do they do in the meantime? They have a unique position, geographically and I’m sure China hates the idea. Sign the papers, what else do you need to know?

  14. Start Small Now

    April 20, 2022 at 7:46 am

    Okay so the crews and subs may take 15 years to be ready, but note that with the P-8 sub hunters we sent our people to Pearl Harbor to learn from the US crews. So we only need about 1/3 of the crew to be nuc qualified, how many US Navy people would happily transfer over here for 5-10 years ( with families ), while our people train? Deployment/maintenance can be 70% handled by locals ( clean & paint, equipment changes ), after all the US had sub bases in Australia in WW2 so it’s not a new thing.

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