A nuclear submarine deal that China would actually respect
Why is it that we as a nation repeatedly sabotage our own plans at the starting block? We never learned from Iraq and Afghanistan that announcing troop surges, withdrawals or artificial deadlines undercuts our objectives by effectively signaling to our enemies that they can just wait us out. The Biden administration seems to be replaying this same game plan with the recent announcement of the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal with Australia and the United Kingdom.
After a wildly successful rollout of the plan to equip the Australian Navy with nuclear-powered submarines, which was both brilliant in design and a bold strategic signaling win, comes the recent statement from Adm. Michael Gilday, the chief of naval operations: “This is a very long-term effort that’ll be decades, I think, before a submarine goes in the water.” Talk about pulling the rug out from under our own two feet, not to mention our allies.
In effect, we have announced a major power shift in the Pacific but followed the announcement with an assurance to China that it will be decades (note the plural) before the shift takes hold. The message to China is clear: If you are going to cause problems, do it sooner rather than later. One can hear the air rushing out of the balloon the more that the admiral kept talking.
Gilday is correct in one sense: If we follow all our current bureaucratic processes and build a new submarine design, it will take decades. That will signal to China that we are not serious and give them the opportunity to change the strategic calculus long before that time. Instead, what if he had said the first nuclear submarine will be in the hands of the Australian Navy before the end of the Biden administration’s first term and a full complement of eight Australian submarines will be in the water a decade earlier than current practices would allow?
So, how could this happen? The first step is to start moving now. In the coming months, the Australians need to be sent to school, or more specifically the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command’s Nuclear Power School. Upon graduation, these enlisted personnel should complete their training on board operational U.S. submarines.
After training up a cadre of Aussies, and rather than wishing for a brand-new class of paper submarines, we should loan the Australians one or two of ours operated by skeleton crews. All we have to do is look back toward lend-lease during World War II to see that there is nothing new in this approach. If President Kennedy could commit to putting a man on the moon within one decade, we can certainly figure out how to get a nuclear submarine under the command of an Australian, with a joint U.S.-Australian crew, while this administration is in office.
Still, this would not yet increase the number of nuclear submarines on patrol in Asia. The fastest way to do that would be to extend the life of current Los Angeles class or British Trafalgar class submarines and transfer them to the Australians until new submarines can be built. Here, numbers matter. Not retiring these submarines and adding them to the total mix would immediately alter China’s strategic condition in the South China Sea.
Finally, the question of building new capability can be addressed. Under current U.S. acquisition timelines, the first new Australian nuclear submarine, optimistically, would not be delivered until 2038. That is too late to address the changing balance of power. Looming over future AUKUS cooperation is the fragility of the current U.S. submarine industrial base. It is stretched thin as it scales up to construct two Virginia class submarines a year, in addition to eventually building the Ohio class. The fear is that the Aussies will have to wait in line.
Fortunately, this is not the case in the U.K., where the Astute class submarine program is winding down. It makes perfect sense to extend that production line so that the Aussies can buy the next Astute that can be built after the current U.K. order. This potentially could take place as soon as 2028, with a new submarine then delivered every two years to replace temporary lend-lease submarines. Planning under traditional acquisition processes could then commence on a new submarine design for delivery post-2040.
We are sure that the U.S. Navy can come up with 100 reasons not to do any of this — and some of them, on their face, might seem valid. But now is not the time to shy away from risk. We are in a period of strategic vulnerability with China. They believe they are ascending, and we need to place them on the horns of strategic dilemmas now, not two decades from now.
John G. Ferrari, a retired Army major general, is a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a former director of program analysis and evaluation for the Army, and the chief financial officer at QOMPLX.