Giving Australia a leg up

April 2012


As greater fiscal austerity looms, talk of the importance of allies and being able to partner and leverage their capabilities has grown ever more intense. Yet are we thinking big enough and about the right problems? Are we getting the biggest bang for our buck and helping them take a bigger step onto the main stage?

Case in point: Australia.

Yesterday was ANZAC Day, commemorating the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps participation in the disaster that was Gallipoli. Today they fight alongside NATO in Afghanistan — and are one of the allies that actually gets into the fight. Australia is also set to host 2,500 Marines, provide port facilities for the Navy and perhaps even airfields.

It is hard to think of a stronger or more compatible ally for America in the Pacific than the Australians. And they’re a scrappy people for good measure. Yet here is an ally that has found itself in a particularly difficult place with the fiasco in developing and fielding the Collins class SSKs, and which does not have a clear roadmap for building to a fleet of twelve large, capable submarines — though it has made the commitment to spend some US$30 billion over ten years to get it.

Australia’s problem is as simple as it is substantial (it is the same as Israel’s) — it’s military requirements far outstrip its economic and demographic base. This is particularly the case for Australia as it finds the region becoming far more sophisticated and contested, particularly with China’s growing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities that even the United States military is struggling to confront. And they mean that Australia, too, will need to be able to do much more from beneath the waves.

The idea of leasing new-build (and American-built) Virginia SSNs to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has been bouncing around Australia for a little while now. There is no shortage of problems: one of the RAN’s problems is manpower, so more than doubling the crew requirements from the Collin’s class is hardly a small thing; the training and infrastructure (and some legal issues probably) associated with nuclear engineering is enormous and comes at a cost above and beyond the cost of an individual submarine and money is tight everywhere. (A more robust analysis can be found on page 15 of this report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.)

Obviously, given the magnitude of the American Navy’s own problems, there is not much additional room to help from the Defense budget. But if we can share Trident with the Brits and we can give Israel more than enough money to buy a Virginia SSN each year, is there more we could do to help Australia help us buy throwing an enormous amount of money at Newport News and GD Electronic Boat while at the same time and putting more Virginia SSNs on station in the western Pacific? And are there other ways we can think bigger about our allies and their capabilities in ways that look expensive at first glance but have enormous benefits longer-term?

Posted by nhughes in Foreign Policy, Navy

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  • Former 3364

    Hey, if the Aussies need any nuclear submarine training cadre down under, I’m ready to pack my bags!

  • Nicky

    If the Aussies can come up with the cost for building the Virgina class SSN, Training cost and cost of Nuclear fuel and maintenance cost. I’m all for it. It would mean more jobs for EB in New London, Connecticut. More Boats being built and split between being built for the US Navy and the RAN. If they pay for their portion of the Virgina Class SSN, I’m all for it and I’d be willing to help with the delivery.

  • ND

    Hey 3364, Australia is already recruiting foreign nationals heavily for their military, including submarine service. I just came back from a business trip downunder where I happened to be working with a reservist. We got to talking and the need seems to be genuine.


  • Matt

    Frankly it is scandalous that we have not already been working to build up their fleet. How many yrs are we now into the Asian Arms Buildup? Catch up? You bet your ass its time. The distances involved demand the SSNs. At least 12.

    Send their Collins boats to the Philippines and start leasing them Los Angeles class boats…tomorrow (ok… train them first).

  • Byron

    ND, if I were 20 years younger and not married, I’d be happy to go down under and work with thim on shipbuilding and repair…or anything else that buys beer and gets me close to sheila 🙂

  • RickWilmes

    Two points worth considering.

    1) The Defense budget is not being cut or facing austerity measures.

    “A top news story of the day is that President Obama is supposedly cutting almost half-a-trillion dollars from the defense budget. But this is simply not true. President Obama is not cutting a single dime out of the military budget. He is actually substantially increasing military spending over the next several years. Washington has once again cleverly disguised a spending increase as a “cut”. 

    This is how it all works: the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has a baseline that predicts what will happen over the next decade given current projections of taxation and spending. It shows that military spending will dramatically increase over the next ten years. President Obama’s $480 billion in military spending “cuts” are only from the bloated CBO baseline. This means that he is merely reducing projected military spending, as opposed to cutting current spending.”


    2) The Marines being moved to Australia are some of the Marines being moved out of Okinawa.


    “No time frame was announced for the redeployment, which would leave about 10,000 Marines on Okinawa. About 5,000 of those leaving will go to Guam, an American territory in the western Pacific, and a smaller number to Hawaii.

    But with efforts to increase troop rotations and Navy ship visits — including a plan for Marines to rotate through a base in Australia — the overall American presence in the Asia-Pacific region will not decrease, and may grow in places at times, officials said.”

  • Nicky

    I totally agree with you. Australia should ditch the Collins and go with either a used Los Angeles class 688I SSN, Virgina Class SSN or a French Barracuda class SSN. As with the Collins, I would see if the Philippines or Taiwan is interested in buying them. If the Australians want either a used Los Angeles class 688I SSN or a Virgina Class SSN, they just have to pay for refit, maintenance, construction, training, and Nuclear Refueling/Fueling cost.

  • A used 88 boat would make sense as a starter. The Collins design was difficult to properly maintain, and to boot, they have manpower issues. I’m not sure Collins is fit for anything more than a target. If the RAN can’t maintain them, the Philippines nor Taiwan can.

  • The Aussies are top dolphins:

    and it seems we’ve got the production capacity available:


    Could we look forward to something like a Common SSN Platform, where the USN, RN, RAN and RCAN all run variants of a single Virgina-based design. The U214 or Oyashio SSK’s could become a Common SSK Platform.

  • Steve

    As an Aussie (though with P-3 VP backround) the big problem with an SSN is the current Australian government and its coalition with the Greens – a watermelon green on outside and red inside. So much as mention the word nuclear and all the most illogical barriers go up.
    We would have to wait for a change of goverment – next federal election by late 2013 – before an SSN hire or purchase could be considered.
    Reading Royal Navy blogs, the recent trials between HMS Astute and a Virginia with CNS on board appeared to indicate the Astute was very impresssive at holding the Virginia. Just another possibility.

  • Nicky

    I think Australia would be better off with a large SSK such as the U216,U214,U212 or the Scorpène class submarine. For the Nuke side, it would be either an Astute, Barracuda or Virgina class SSN. Though I believe the astute or Virgina would be perfect for Australia.

  • Matt C.

    Would the RAN be willing to take a couple dozen little crappy ships (LCS) off our hands?

  • Byron

    Matt, I kind of like the Aussies…so why would we want to inflict them with another money hole like the one they already have?