Lost in the debate surrounding the Collins-class replacement was serious consideration on leasing Virginia-class boats from the U.S. According to a former Bush administration official, conversations were held but failed to progress due in part because Canberra was not entirely confident the U.S. government would agree. No less a strategist than Hugh White, in a recent op-ed, urged Australia’s new defense minister to “…ask very searching questions about what submarines we are trying to buy… (and she should) satisfy herself that the submarines’ operational roles have been properly thought through, and fit with Australia’s strategic needs over coming decades.”
Leasing is a simple solution to the seemingly endless debates and acquisition negotiations with the Japanese and European governments, and it offers Washington and Canberra a number of strategic benefits. The operational procedures would be fairly straightforward. It would also strengthen the overall alliance in a context of increasing friction between the U.S. and China, and more closely integrate the two countries’ naval forces in a fundamental way.
The Japanese government has proposed the Soryu design, built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries. It is among the most advanced and largest non-nuclear attack submarine in the world. Displacing about 4,200 tons submerged, the submarine is powered by a series of four Swedish Sterling V4-275R air independent propulsion (AIP) units that allow the ship to operate its diesels without the need to surface or snorkel. The Soryu also have a range of more than 11,000 km (6,800 miles) and come armed with Harpoon missiles, the export or transfer of which would be a first in Japan and might face political opposition. It would also be a lethal new technology for Australia.
According to some reports, some Japanese military officials and lawmakers with an interest in defense policy have signaled a willingness to consider supplying a full version of the highly regarded Soryu to Australia if certain conditions can be met, including a military alliance. This could bring important long-term complications. It is not immediately clear that a military alliance with Japan, outside the framework of a multilateral alliance that includes the United States, would necessarily be in Australia’s long-term interests. The two countries are in very different geographic locations, with strategic interests that will not necessarily always align. That is not to say that they shouldn’t – just that Australia has thus far been ambivalent about its position in Asia’s evolving strategic landscape. Put more bluntly, an alliance with Japan would commit Australia to an uncertain future and uncertain strategic choices.
Leasing America’s Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines may be a less provocative option. It would avoid the question of a potential new alliance with Tokyo, and reinforce the existing alliance with Washington. It would also be an exercise in mixed-manning, which would strengthen the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence – something Canberra has had a distant and ambiguous relationship with since the late 1960s.
Not only would the Virginia-class provide Australia with a substantially greater capability to defend the so-called “air-sea” gap, it would significantly enhance Australia’s contribution to collective security in the region. The Virginia-class are equipped with Tomahawk and Harpoon missiles, for instance, which would give the Australian armed forces a vast amount of operational flexibility, not to mention credible strike capability in the event of hostilities with a strategic competitor, providing a greater range of military options in the event of a conflict. Indeed, one of the reasons for acquiring such long-range strike capabilities would be as part of a larger effort to become more of a team player with the U.S. as tensions increase with China over possible future freedom of navigation patrols and faits accomplis in the South China Sea.
The only limit to the time a nuclear submarine can remain submerged is the crew. This would provide Australia with a powerful deterrent as well as a persistent attack capability and become an important step in strengthening and demonstrating extended deterrence in the form of nuclear sharing.
How would it work? The U.S. Navy and the RAN would jointly crew the platforms – mixed-manning. One issue for potential eyebrow-raising is the fact that these subs are nuclear-powered and Australia has no experience with nuclear reactors in naval propulsion. Australian forces operating with nuclear reactors should not be controversial in the first place, since the South Australian government has recently seriously explored establishing a nuclear power industry in the State. In addition, Westinghouse has recently been negotiating with the government in Canberra to set up an industry in the country. If this comes to pass, Westinghouse could extend its capability to include a full array of training for RAN personnel. Even if the lack of experience in the RAN did come to be an issue, the solution would simply be for American naval expertise to man the reactors.
The Virginia-class option would also reduce Australia’s own waiting time for a credible submarine capability. Depending on the terms of the agreement, the Australian government would not necessarily have to cover all the lifecycle costs associated with producing submarines in Australia from scratch. In fact, experts are warning that the rapid onset of technology in unmanned underwater vehicles will likely render Australia’s submarine fleet obsolete before the acquisition program is complete. Leasing proven platforms would buy Canberra time in a race to the future.
Reactor technology would not be the only potential hurdle. Noise abatement and quieting technologies along with certain stealth features are considered sensitive and would likely need to be modified or removed. But these issues are not fatal. Canberra is unlikely to acquire cutting-edge Japanese technology in these areas, if a Japanese platform solution is chosen. However, the U.S. government has recently aided the U.K. in re-establishing the technology necessary to build and maintain Astute-class submarines under agreement.
Joint crew solutions find precedents among Commonwealth members and certainly Canberra and Washington share a plethora of combined defense working arrangements, from R&D to procurement activity to personnel exchanges. USPACOM is a warfighting command in the Pacific Theater and the Deputy J5 is an Australian flag officer. The Boat Rider Program allows personnel from both countries to participate in a wide variety of maritime security operations. Close allies, a way can be found to make this work.
Hugh White wrote eloquently about the “China choice.” We can’t think of a better way to avoid this choice by strengthening extended deterrence.
Christine M. Leah is a Postdoctoral Associate in Grand Strategy at Yale University. She was previously a Stanton Postdoctoral Fellow in Nuclear Security at MIT. David Hamon is an independent analyst in International Security Policy.