FOCUS: Potential hole in submarine power in Australia looms as AUKUS marks 1 year

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As the AUKUS trilateral security partnership between Australia, Britain and the United States celebrated its first anniversary this week, Australian defense officials have emphasized that the “optimal path” to acquiring nuclear-powered submarines under the pact is taking shape.

But concerns remain about a potential capacity gap in the country’s submarine power, as the current aging conventional submarines are expected to reach retirement age before the new boats can be delivered.

The officials announced an announcement early next year about the type of ship the country will use and how any capacity shortages will be addressed.

The AUKUS partnership, announced on September 15, 2021, came in response to mounting security challenges in the Indo-Pacific and is widely regarded as a step to counter China’s growing influence in the region.

Royal Australian Navy submarine HMAS Rankin is seen during AUSINDEX 21, a biannual naval exercise between the Royal Australian Navy and the Indian Navy in September 2021 in Darwin, Australia. (Australian Defense Forces/Getty/TBEN)

About 50 officials from the United States and Britain were in Australia this week for discussions with the Nuclear Powered Submarine Task Force as the end of an 18-month study to determine which boat Australia will choose – a US or UK design , or some kind of hybrid – reported the Guardian Australia.

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Australian Defense Secretary Richard Marles said in a briefing to local media this week that Canberra is on track to make initial announcements based on the study in the first part of 2023.

However, the minister virtually ruled out the possibility of a uniquely Australian class of submarines, saying it would be “beneficial” for Australia to choose a submarine design that will also be in service with other navies, the Australian The Bharat Express News reported.

“Obviously, it’s much better if you operate a platform operated by other countries because there’s a shared experience and a shared industrial base to back it up,” Marles said. “It would be better if we were in a position where what we’re doing is really a trilateral effort,” he added, according to the Australian newspaper.

But the first nuclear-powered submarine isn’t expected to hit Australian waters until 2040, and a viable capacity isn’t expected for another 10 years, raising the potential for a capacity gap in the country’s submarine force.

Speaking to reporters in the country’s capital in August, Marles said he is “completely open” about what Australia needs to do to address a potential capacity gap, with options such as building a temporary conventional submarine or buying it. of new boats “off the shelf” from American or British production lines on the table.

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However, hopes of buying a submarine from one of the AUKUS partners have been virtually thwarted by senior officials from both countries. The director of the US Navy’s Strategic Submarines Program, Admiral Scott Pappano, said in August that any additional construction added to the US production line would be detrimental to the country’s defense needs.

Similarly, Britain’s Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told reporters this month that the country is unable to provide Australia with any of its Astute-class submarines.

Marcus Hellyer, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a defense policy think tank, warns that if Australia were to look for temporary conventional submarine capacity, the tight timeframe for delivery options will be limited and will face challenges, be it involves an evolution of the current Collins class boats or any of the foreign conventional designs available.

“We don’t have all the options we would like at this point, because in the last 13 years we’ve essentially gotten even further away from having new submarines than when we embarked on this journey in 2009,” Hellyer said, noting that a Defense White Paper released that year had already identified the need for increased submarine capacity.

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With senior defense figures and former naval personnel divided on the best way forward, it remains unclear how Australia will attempt to close the gap. An announcement on any measures is expected alongside the first purchase decisions scheduled for March.

One thing that is certain for Hellyer is that the capacity gap already exists and will only get worse as Australia’s strategic conditions deteriorate in the future.

The timeline for delivering new submarines to Australia has been delayed due to changing occupations under successive former prime ministers. In 2016, a leadership change halted progress towards a deal with Japan and saw French company Naval Group win the bid for the now-defunct Attack-class submarine program.

As Australia now appears to be making up for a lost decade in its quest for new submarines, the next year will be crucial as the three AUKUS partners move from the consultation phase to the implementation of the controversial partnership.

But as the expected delivery date of the ships remains well into the future, the three countries will have to work closely together in the coming decades to counter China’s growing military presence in the region.