Since the announcement of the Australia, United Kingdom, and United States (AUKUS) agreement, there has been a lot of speculation about the effects of the cancellation of the submarine deal between Australia and France and the meaning of the new deal. Rumors claimed that the French were surprised by the announcement and that France felt betrayed by Australia, UK, and the US. This line of reasoning made sense until rumors emerged that the French contract was off schedule and above costs. This information began to unravel “le pauvre français” (the poor French) empathetic tone taken by many reporters and pundits.
A new story came out last week that, in fact, the Australian-French contract had many off-ramps written into the contract to allow Australia to cancel it for cause. According to former Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott in a recent interview with Project 2049, he said:
…that the deal with the French had many exit ramps that was part of the contract. So, we haven’t broken the contract. We have simply chosen to take one of the contractual exit ramps and whatever obligations we have, financial obligations we have, to the French Naval Group, obviously, we will honor them because we’re certainly not in the business of playing dirty pool with anyone particularly the French with whom we’ve always had a very good relationship.
Demonstrating Australia’s commitment to France, he noted that 46,000 Australians died fighting for France in World War I and he concluded his discussion on this topic by stating that he felt that relations with France are still strong, although national pride might have been hurt, but “that the fundamental goodwill between the French and the Australian people will be unscathed by this.” Consequently, the French were fully aware beforehand that the Australians had several contract mechanisms to cancel the submarine project. Secondly, the delays and cost overruns were also well known by the French. For this matter, the French government, especially the French Naval Group were not surprised by the Australian change of plans. If the French Naval Group failed to notify the President of France, well as they say, “c’est la vie.”
Nevertheless, the most important note that Abbott made during his interview regarding submarines was the following statement:
Without boring people with too much detail about Australia’s submarine program, our existing submarine fleet was originally planned to be phased out from the middle of the 2020s. So, to start, in about five years-time, we really need new submarines now, not in ten or twenty years-time. And one of the things that I hope our government is exploring as a matter of extreme urgency would be the possibility of taking over retiring British or American nuclear submarines. If needs be, with a composite crew and running them as if you like part training, part operational boats. If needs be, they could be based in Guam because the sooner we have a much more substantial Australian sovereign capability in this field, absolutely the better for everyone.
This important statement means that the Australians, with the AUKUS agreement, could start training and getting nuclear powered attack submarines (NPAS) as soon as the US or the UK made them available.
What are the US and the UK plans for decommissioning their nuclear attack submarines? Interestingly, this information is not classified. The retirement schedule of the US Los Angeles-class attack submarines is as follows:
- Two in 2022: Providence (SSN 719) and Oklahoma City (SSN 723).
- Four in 2024: Chicago (SSN 721), Key West (SSN 722) San Juan (SSN 751) and Topeka (SSN 754).
- Two in 2025: Helena (SSN 725) and Pasadena (SSN 752).
- Three in 2026: Newport News (SSN 750), Scranton (SSN 756) and Alexandria (SSN 757).
As soon as next year, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) could begin training on two Los Angeles-class attack submarines and then two years later another four nuclear powered submarines. By 2026, the RAN could have 11 US NPAS.
The Royal Navy has 20 nuclear attack submarines that are retired and scheduled for full decommissioning. They are planning a three-phase decommissioning process beginning with the removal of Low-Level Radioactive Waste (LLW). Two of the 20 nuclear attack submarines have completed the first phase with a third submarine in the first phase. An additional active seven NPAS are also scheduled for eventual retirement. With the new AUKUS agreement, at least 17 UK nuclear attack submarines could be transferred to the RAN in the near future and an additional 7 in several years.
In other words, combining the available US and UK submarines means that Australia could have up to 35 NPAS available to them by 2026. According to the most recent statistics, the following countries have the following nuclear powered and diesel attack submarines (highest to lowest numbers):
|Nation||Nuclear-Powered Attack Sub||Diesel Attack Sub|
|Republic of Korea||0||16|
Based on the probable cost of these 35 NPAS, Australia does not have the defense budget to purchase all of these, nor the manpower for them or to maintain them. So, the question is could the US and UK sell their retired or retiring NPAS to countries other than the RAN? Certainly, the French Navy, which already has seven could add to their nuclear submarine inventory, but they could build their own. Indo-Pacific allied and partner countries—South Korea, Japan, India, Singapore (and possibly others)—could join the AUKUS group. In other words, these 35 US and UK NPAS could be re-purposed by allies and partners to keep the seas in the Indo-Pacific region more secure and greatly reduce the threat from the People’s Liberation Army Navy and/or the Russian Navy, should they join forces. Furthermore, the US and UK taxpayers would not have to pay for the nuclear submarine decommissioning and our allies and partners could save a lot on costs. If the above is an accurate analysis, then this is a brilliant nuclear attack submarine acquisition strategy!