Intellasia East Asia News – FOCUS: Potential gap in Australian submarine force looms as AUKUS turns 1

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

But concerns remain about a potential capability shortfall in the country’s submarine force, as its current aging conventional submarines are expected to reach retirement before new boats can be delivered.

Officials reported an announcement early next year on what type of vessel the country will use and how any capacity gaps will be handled.

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

About 50 officials from the United States and Britain were in Australia this week for talks with the country’s nuclear-powered submarine task force, as it nears the end of a study of 18 months to determine which boat Australia will choose an American or British model, or some sort of hybrid reported by the Guardian Australia.

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

The minister has all but ruled out the possibility of an Australian-only class of submarines, saying it would be “beneficial” for Australia to choose a submarine design that will also be in service with other navies, said reported the Australian Associated Press.

“It’s obviously much better if you’re running a platform that other countries are running because there’s a shared experience and a shared industry base to support it,” Marles said. “It would be better if we were in a position where what we do is truly a trilateral effort,” he added, according to the Australian newspaper.

But the first nuclear-powered submarine is not expected to hit Australian waters until at least 2040, and a viable capability is not expected for another 10 years, creating the potential for a capability gap in the submarine force. from the country.

Speaking to reporters in the nation’s capital in August, Marles said his mind “is completely open” on what Australia needs to do to address any capacity gaps, with options such as building a interim conventional submarine or the purchase of new “off the shelf” boats from American or British production lines on the table.

However, hopes of buying a submarine from one of the AUKUS partners were all but dashed by senior officials in both countries. The director general of the US Navy’s strategic submarine program, Rear 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, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told reporters this month that the country was unable to supply Australia with one 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 seek an interim conventional submarine capability, the tight timeframe for delivery means options are limited. and will have challenges whether it is an evolution of the current Collins class boats or one of the foreign conventional designs available.

“We don’t have all the options we’d like right now because we’ve basically spent the last 13 years moving away from new submarines even further than when we started this journey in 2009,” Hellyer said, noting that a defense white paper published that year had already identified the need for greater submarine capability.

With senior defense officials and former navy personnel divided over the best way forward, it remains unclear how Australia will look to close the gap. An announcement of any measures is expected alongside the first procurement decisions scheduled for March.

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

The schedule for the delivery of new submarines to Australia has been delayed by developments in business under successive former Prime Ministers. In 2016, a leadership change halted progress towards a deal with Japan and saw French-based Naval Group win the tender for the now-cancelled Attack-class submarine program.

As Australia now seeks to make 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 with the expected delivery date of the ships still well in the future, the three countries will need to work closely together over the coming decades to counter China’s growing military presence in the region.

Category: Japan

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