What would a second Trump presidency mean for AUKUS?

March 26, 2024
Blog

As we contemplate the real likelihood of Trump #2, what does that mean for AUKUS?

We start off with absolutely no leverage.  Morrison’s big idea in AUKUS was to cancel a submarine construction programme with France, which would have given us new boats to replace the Collins Class subs as they retired in the 2030s, with a partnership to build new (as yet design incomplete) nuclear powered “AUKUS SSN”  submarines with the UK assisted by the US, the first of which would not be available, assuming all went on time, until the 2040s.

But how do you fill the capability gap left by the retirement of the Collins Class submarines in the 2030s? Most big defence projects run late and the UK contractor, BAE, has consistently run late and over budget on its naval projects, including the most recent UK Astute class submarine and the Australian Hunter class frigate.

The solution was to acquire 3 and possibly 5 Virginia Class submarines from the United States, with the first arriving in 2032 and the next two in 2035 and 2037 with an additional two if the AUKUS SSNs are late. 

They would be a mix of second hand boats with twenty years of life left and new boats. These would cover our submarine needs until the AUKUS SSNs were constructed. 

If submarines were like iPhones and you could buy them off the shelf that would all make sense, but as it happens the US Navy is short of submarines. It has at least 17 fewer Virginias than it currently needs. Not only is US industry not building enough to meet the US Navy’s needs, it cannot maintain a satisfactory rate of  repair and maintenance of  the submarines it has. As of last September 33% of the SSN force was in depot maintenance or idle awaiting maintenance versus a target of 20%.

At the moment the US is completing between 1.2 and 1.3 Virginia Class submarines a year.This year the US Navy has cut its order for new Virginias from two boats to one in recognition of the inability of industry currently to meet its needs. 

In order to meet the US Navy’s own stated needs and catch up on its current submarine shortage, this rate of production needs to grow to 2 boats per year by 2028 and 2.33 boats per year shortly after that.  In order to provide boats to Australia as contemplated by AUKUS that higher rate of production would need to be maintained.

The AUKUS legislation passed by Congress last December specifically states that submarines cannot be sold to Australia unless the President certifies that their sale will not detract from the needs of the US Navy. This is stating no more than political common sense; the US will not sell Virginias to Australia unless the US Navy avows that it does not need them. 

This means that in order to get to that point you  have to assume the rate of Virginia class submarine construction will nearly double over the next four years, the submarine needs of the US Navy will not increase and that by the early 2030s the Navy will be sufficiently relaxed about the China threat that it is prepared to reduce its own submarine fleet by 3 and maybe 5 of its most valuable underwater assets.

Many US defence experts, like former Trump era Assistant Secretary for Defence Elbridge Colby, say it is just not realistic to expect the US Navy to diminish its own fleet of such vital assets during a period when they believe war is a very real possibility.. 

So in a nutshell - the provision of Virginia class submarines to the Royal Australian Navy depends on US industrial development, US military needs and US politics. Australia has no agency or leverage over any of these factors. So much for Australian sovereignty.

Is there a Plan B? Well, nobody in Canberra seems to have one, but the United States certainly does. It is set out, in considerable detail, in an official research paper* prepared by  the US Congress and is described as a “Military Division of Labor” whereby Australia would have no submarines. The US Navy would base some submarines of their own in Perth, at the submarine base we are building for them, and Australia would invest the money it has saved into other capabilities. Or, it could just hand over  more cash to  the US Government - pay for our own protection perhaps like South Korea or Japan do.

This arrangement could continue until such time as the AUKUS SSNs to be built in partnership with the UK arrive (sometime in the 2040s we hope) or continue forever. RAN officers and sailors could perhaps be included in the crew of some of these Virginias.

What will Trump’s attitude to AUKUS be?  Well, we have already agreed to give the Americans US$3 billion as a contribution to expanding their submarine industrial base. Trump will no doubt be bemused that we would spend money on expanding HIS country’s industrial base rather than our own (and even more amazed we are sending a similar amount to the UK to support the construction of the AUKUS SSNs.) . His natural instinct will be to ask for more money both as a contribution to the US submarine construction industry and for the submarines if we get around to buying one - although that is likely to be after his four year term.

Trump’s second favourite slogan is “America First” and that is very much the zeitgeist in Washington nowadays, on both sides of the aisle. So if there is any contention or suggestion that the US Navy cannot spare Virginias for Australia, there is no mystery where Trump will land.

It seems to me that the most likely outcomes will be that the Viriginias will not be available to Australia because the US Navy cannot spare them and that the AUKUS SSNs will, almost certainly,  be late. This would mean an extended capability gap from the early 2030s when Australia will have a diminishing and then no submarine fleet. Even someone with the  most optimistic perspective would have to acknowledge this scenario was a serious possibility.

We could look back and reflect that with the now cancelled Attack class submarine programme with France, Australia was entirely in control of its own destiny. All of the relevant IP had been transferred to Australia where the submarines were being built. Their completion depended  on us. France had no possible motive or reason to be anything other than supportive. The design was established and nuclear powered versions of the submarine were already in the water. Compared to AUKUS it was a much lower risk, and lower cost, exercise.

But it is now too late to revive the French partnership. There was a window of opportunity to do that after the election of the Albanese Government, but it resolved to stick with Morrison’s policy and the risks it carried. 

At the time AUKUS was announced I was concerned the  nuclear powered submarines using weapons grade uranium provided by the US or the UK would not be able to be operated without foreign supervision and support. This was not, to my way of thinking, a sovereign submarine capability. 

We now have to face the real prospect, for much of the next decade and beyond,  of not having any Australian submarine capability at all. 

*https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/RL/RL32418/274


Click here to read the article:  Australia chose Aukus and now it faces the prospect of having no submarine capability for at least a decade | Malcolm Turnbull | The Guardian 

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