WASHINGTON, D.C. — The technology sharing agreement meant to help Australia build its own nuclear-powered submarines will help deter China from invading Taiwan, the former head of U.S. Pacific Command said today.
“This will serve certainly as a deterrent in the mindset of the Chinese military when they consider things like acting against their neighbors, acting on the global stage in negative and nefarious ways,” retired Adm. Harry Harris said today at an event co-hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the U.S. Naval Institute.
“I now agree completely with Sidharth Kaushal, who’s with the U.K.’s RUSI – the Royal United Services Institute – when he said this will make China’s potential aggression against Taiwan a lot less appealing. That’s his words – a lot less appealing. I agree with him,” Harris added.
Harris, who led U.S. Pacific Command before it became U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said he doesn’t think selling Virginia-class submarines to Australia will hurt U.S. defense capabilities.
“It’s not a zero-sum game. We’re not going to sell a submarine to Australia and then have some deficit in the global submarine force. Australia is a key American ally,” Harris said.
“So an Australian Virginia- class submarine under sovereign Australian colors is a good thing. It’s good for the free and open Indo-Pacific. It’s good for the reach that Australia will have globally with a submarine of that capacity,” he added.
President Joe Biden, along with his counterparts from Australia and the United Kingdom, earlier this month unveiled how the three nations will pursue the agreement known as AUKUS. The technology-sharing pact will help Australia develop its own nuclear-powered submarine capability that it can eventually build and maintain domestically.
The multi-phase deal would have Royal Australian Navy sailors continue training already underway with U.S. sailors and start training with U.K. sailors. Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. would also pursue a submarine rotational force out of Australia that could operate as soon as 2027.
The RAN could buy up to five Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack boats in the 2030s before Australia’s domestic capability can build and maintain its own submarines. Those boats would likely be a mix of old and new attack boats. Eventually, the U.K. would build the first submarines for Australia, a platform known as SSN AUKUS that’s based on the U.K.’s SSNR design, for a late 2030s delivery. Once Australia builds out its own workforce, it could start the domestic construction of the first boats in the 2040s.
Harris said training the industrial base how to build and maintain nuclear-powered submarines is crucial. But the deal’s success also depends on the industrial bases in both the U.K. and the U.S. While the U.S. Navy is buying Virginia-class submarines at a two-per-year cadence, industry is currently building about 1.2 submarines per year. In order to sell to the Australians, the U.S. industrial base needs to build more than two submarines per year, according to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday.
To help bolster industry, the Navy in its Fiscal Year 2024 budget request is looking to infuse the submarine industrial base with cash.
“That won’t just go to the two big shipbuilders, which are HII Newport News and Electric Boat up in Groton, but those other companies that I talked about that we’re doing the strategic outsourcing with, they need to get some of that money,” Gilday said at the McAleese Conference earlier this month. “They need to make the investments in their infrastructure and their workforce so that we can sustain that 2.0 cadence, which by the way needs to go above 2.0 attack boats per year if we’re going to be in a position to sell any to the Australians.”
For the Navy to sell Australia Virginia-class boats, in addition to building two boats per year the service also needs to work on the spare parts inventory for the class, Naval Sea Systems Command chief Vice Adm. Bill Galinis told reporters earlier this month.
“We’ve made some tremendous progress over the last year or so in kind of replenishing some of the parts that we have. There’s clearly more to do in that area,” Galinis said.
The Navy’s FY 2024 request seeks $541 million for Virginia-class spare across the five-year budget outlook. But Galinis said the Navy also needs to evaluate its long-term maintenance plans for the Virginia boats to ensure the U.S. can sell some of them to the Australians.
“We put them into shipyards – the Virginians – for an extended period of time. And just historically – and whether you’re talking Virginia or any other ship class – the longer you keep a ship in the shipyard, the more difficult it is to execute and finish that availability on time. And as the size and the duration of the avails grow, it gets more difficult,” Galinis said.
Harris during Thursday’s event said the success of AUKUS also means decades-long political and financial support for the endeavor.
“You have to have sustained political support in three countries for three decades, at least. You have to have sustained resourcing by those same three countries for three decades. And you have to be maximally flexible across three decades,” he said.
“Some people would say that those are three impossibles that have to come together to pull this off. I don’t agree with that. I think it is entirely possible because … the criticality of the need for Australia to have this capability against the threats that we all face in a region as vitally important as the Indo-Pacific demands something big bold and creative.”