While the Pentagon has yet to decide who will lead the process, it is certain that the US Navy will play a key role in helping the Australians.
“The real work is going to be done by the Navy’s Office of Naval Reactors in terms of actually setting up the technology sharing structure,” Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) Said in an interview. This office works with the Department of Energy to develop, design and maintain nuclear powered propulsion systems on board submarines and aircraft carriers.
Courtney State is home to General Dynamics Electric Boat, one of the country’s two submarine builders alongside Huntington Ingalls in Virginia. Together, the two build and repair all of the country’s 68 submarines.
“There is clearly going to be action from Congress,” Courtney added, which will have to include “changing statutory language on export controls and other types of classified restrictions and certain technologies.”
These questions will require debate and votes. But after Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit to Capitol Hill on Wednesday where he was celebrated by both Democrats and Republicans, there is a feeling that a bipartisan consensus can be reached on sharing classified military technology with them. .
Changes in international technology-sharing agreements will also have to go through the Pentagon and the State Department. And these changes don’t happen quickly.
One of the main challenges is the sharing of nuclear know-how. The United States has not signed an agreement with a foreign government to transfer nuclear technology since 1958, when it signed a pact with the United Kingdom to allow the Royal Navy to begin building its own fleet. nuclear powered submarines.
The Australian government has already set up a Future Nuclear Submarine Task Force to work with its UK and US counterparts over the next 18 months to determine how best to acquire the boats. In Washington, aside from the Navy’s clear involvement, it’s still unclear which civilian office will lead the process.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Martin Meiners said “there is no predetermined path” for the process to unfold, but the next 18 months “will answer all questions. implemented because they will identify the best way to deliver the capacity “.
Although a specific type of submarine design has not yet been determined, the likely candidates would be either the British Astute-class attack submarine or the U.S. Virginia-class ship, both of which operate at nuclear energy and share weapons and command and control. technologies. Construction is expected to take place at a shipyard in Osborne, South Australia.
But the work to start the actual construction on this shipyard will be a heavy burden.
It is unclear what role US and UK defense contractors will play, but Courtney said he did not expect industry to play a role in initial talks to determine the way. to be continued.
In a corporate podcast posted last week, Electric Boat President Kevin Graney said “there is no specific action requested of us at this time,” but his company is “ready to support this endeavor and has conveyed this message to our navy and government officials “.
A big problem on the US side: There is little to no excess industrial capacity to provide much support to the Australian effort, at least in the short term. The Navy struggles to build two Virginia-class submarines per year while adding a new Columbia-class ballistic missile boat to the production line at the rate of one per year from 2026 to 2035.
The Pentagon has injected hundreds of millions of dollars in Defense Production Act funds to bolster shipyards over the past year, and members of Congress have suggested investing $ 25 billion to modernize and expand yards. Aging public navies that handle work on nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers. Both types of ships have undergone longer maintenance periods in recent years and extended deployments.
Given the construction schedule of the tight national submarines and the problems of the shipyards, “any capacity that Electric Boat and Huntingotn Ingalls would be able to generate for more submarines, the Navy and Congress would like to use. for US submarines, ”said Bryan Clark, a former submarine officer. now at the Hudson Institute. “I really don’t see any case in which this would become a Virginia-class submarine, because even sending people overseas to build them to support this effort would hurt the capacity building of US submarines.”
The UK will undoubtedly have more industrial capacity available in the years to come, as it completes work on its last two Astute-class submarines, while moving to work on four new Dreadnought-class submarines. , which will share the technology with the Columbia boats. The US Navy will build at least three submarines per year during these years, putting a strain on its relatively limited manpower and the capacity of its shipyard.
Even if the Australians opt for a design based on British submarines, most of the non-nuclear technology that will enter ships will require US approval before it goes to Australian shipyards.
“It’s the unclassified stuff that is going to trip them up because that’s what the State Department is concerned about,” said William Greenwalt, former Assistant Deputy Secretary of Defense for Industrial Policy now at the American Enterprise. Institute. “It’s not just the nuclear power plant, which I think can be dealt with, it’s all on the submarine. Our export control laws are so complicated ”that it will be a huge effort to get parts and spares into the hands of Australians.
Of particular concern are the US international arms trafficking rules, which govern the export of defense-related materials.
ITAR rules can take months to sort through for a whole host of non-technical parts that allies are looking to acquire.
The Australians had no plans to launch their first French-made submarine until 2035, a date that will almost certainly be unachievable for their new nuclear-powered design of any kind.
Given the allies’ common concern for the growth and capabilities of the Chinese navy, and Australia’s need to replace its old submarines, the three governments will find a way to launch new ships. . The announcement was hailed by the White House as proof of the Biden administration’s determination to refocus U.S. attention on the Indo-Pacific, and is a clear test of strengthening alliances in the region.
“It will be a signature, if not the signature of the Biden administration’s foreign policy event,” Courtney said.