Australia called for leasing US nuclear submarines to bridge the capacity gap

A former U.S. Navy intelligence officer says leasing of U.S. Los Angeles-class nuclear submarines should be considered to immediately upskill the workforce of the Australian Navy and deal with a growing threat from China.

Concerns about a capacity gap come amid growing questions about what the federal government’s “intention” to build the new submarines in Adelaide means.

Under the AUKUS Pact, signed in September, Australia’s next fleet of submarines will be based on a US or British boat design and be nuclear-powered.

But the first submarine is not expected to hit the water until around 2040.

Retired U.S. Navy Captain James Fanell spent nearly three decades as an intelligence officer specializing in Indo-Pacific security matters.

He told 7.30 that the delivery schedule for the new submarines was too far away.

Naval officer stands at a lectern and speaks.
James Fanell believes Australia should consider leasing nuclear submarines from the United States until the new submarines are delivered. (Delivered)

“The maritime capabilities of China (People’s Republic of China) have increased dramatically in the last two decades.

“So the idea that you need submarines [and] you can wait until 2040 or 2045 to get submarines … there are other options that could be pursued in the meantime as you work on the nuclear side of the house. “

The federal government has committed to upgrading the aging Collins Class fleet to help close the hole, but Captain Fanell said it would make sense to rent some U.S. nuclear submarines in the meantime as well.

Submarines sit half submerged at a dock in the ocean
The federal government has committed to upgrading the aging Collins Class fleet.(ABC News: Dave Weber)

“We have some Los Angeles-class boats that we are about to shut down, 11 over the next four or five years,” he said.

“They could be rented down to Australia, and I think the United States would be willing to do that.

“Perhaps one or two of them could be sent down to Australia and allowed to operate out of your ports, in a way on a temporary rotation basis.

“[That] would give them – Australian submarine crews – the opportunity to receive training on board nuclear submarines and expand their knowledge base and experience. “

Captain Fanell said the move would also allow the Australian public to get their heads around the idea that nuclear submarines were not “something that is dangerous.”

Upskilling required

Independent Senator and former submarineman Rex Patrick said significant work was needed to prepare Australia’s diesel-electric submarines for handling a nuclear submarine.

“When I was experimenting with a U.S. Navy submarine, I spent time with some of the nuclear technologies,” he said at 7:30 p.m.

“They went to nuclear school, they then went to a civilian reactor, where they practiced their skills, where they learned to operate a reactor safely before they were ever allowed to go to sea and operate a nuclear reactor underwater.”

Rex Patrick is sitting at a desk, wearing a suit and purple tie, with a laptop in front of him.
Rex Patrick says the new submarine plan is complicated because Australia does not have a civilian nuclear industry.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

The government is undertaking a consultation period of 18 months to plan the new nuclear submarine fleet.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham acknowledged that the skills gap was something Australia needed to overcome.

“I definitely think there are a number of issues around training, understanding how to work best [the submarines], the type of maintenance and infrastructure at quays and ports that are needed, which will see increased cooperation with the United States and the United Kingdom throughout the life of the program, “he said at 7.30.

Where should subs be built?

The federal government has said it intends to build the submarines in Adelaide. But when asked if he could give an iron-clad guarantee, Mr Birmingham repeated the first promise.

“It is absolutely the Government’s intention to build as much as possible in Adelaide and across Australia and to take advantage of all the different supply chains that are available,” he said at 7.30.

The government has indicated that the new boats will be powered by nuclear reactors built abroad.

Sir. Birmingham would not be drawn to reports that meant the submarines might have only 40 per cent local content.

Rows of houses in front of two large while buildings in the background
Australian Government Navy Shipbuilding Company ASC in Osborne, South Australia.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

Under the now-scrapped French contract was a promise from shipbuilder Naval Group to spend at least 60 per cent of the contract value in Australia.

“I think it’s too early to speculate on numbers. We want to make sure we get as much as possible [for the new nuclear submarines]”, Mr Birmingham said at 7.30.

Martin Hamilton-Smith is a former South Australian liberal leader who became independent and served as the state’s defense industry minister. He now leads an industry lobby group called the Australian Sovereign Capability Alliance.

He told 7.30 that he was worried that Australia would not get its fair share of the work.

Man wearing suit, standing next to a window.
Martin Hamilton-Smith is concerned that the majority of the nuclear submarines will be built abroad. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

“The language being used by the government that it will be built in Adelaide does not provide many details,” he told 7.30.

“It does not tell us to what extent it will be built in Australia, how much will be spent on building it in Australia, how much of the smart intellectual property rights in engineering will be carried out in Australia, what dollar amounts will be used.

Sir. Hamilton-Smith said the uncertainty reminded him of yet another chapter in the long, long history of the future submarine project.

“The last time we saw that language, the government talked about building a submarine in Japan back in 2014,” he said.

“At the time, we were told it would be built in Adelaide [only] to find out that the actual plan was to build it there [in Japan and] drag it out for final assembly here.

“The story of this is something that is quite sober.”

A blue and white sign reading Naval Group with a brown and glass building behind
Naval Group Headquarters in Port Adelaide.(ABC News: Eric Tlozek)

Senator Patrick said he was concerned that the government’s plans could change in the future, similar to the unexpected dumping of the French contract.

“By the time our first submarine hits the water in 2040, we will have been through seven federal elections,” he said.

Scott Morrison turns 72, Boris Johnson turns 76 and Joe Biden turns 98.

“When we get to our last submarine in the series, Halley’s comet will have passed by again.

“I think after the election, after the 18-month investigation period, the government will announce that they will actually go offshore to build these submarines.”

But Senator Birmingham said the public could have confidence in the AUKUS pact and Australia’s commitment to sovereign shipbuilding.

“I urge people to look at the rest of our naval shipbuilding program – the fact that we’ve seen successfully built air warfare destroyers, followed by offshore patrol vessels.

“This is the whole demonstration that we are actually building [and] delivers. “

Companies still count the cost of canceled French contract

Estimates from industry lobby groups suggest companies in southern Australia had invested $ 35 million to try to win work on the French contract.

Rowlands Metalworks owner Cameron Johnston said he made about $ 100,000 after collaborating with a French company in hopes of securing work.

Man wearing glasses and light blue shirt with folded arms.
Cameron Johnston saw great potential for his small business when it was announced that 12 French-designed submarines would be built in Adelaide.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

“Rowlands started a journey about three or four years ago looking at the submarine project and what the potential commercial opportunities would be in that project,” he said.

“It eventually fell apart when the decision was made to cancel the contract with the French.

“I was surprised it would happen so one-sidedly and so quickly. It really surprised me.”

Johnston said he was pursuing opportunities in other industries, with work on the new nuclear submarines now years away.

“There is no doubt that the defense capabilities are huge,” he said.

“The problem I have is timing – that we have no control over the timing and it can be moved as we saw in [French] submarine contract, with a stroke of the pen.

“I do not think the submarine is of any interest to me personally, but it is perhaps more interesting to my children.”

Senator Birmingham said the government would help affected companies and former Naval Group employees find new work.

“I can understand that a lot of people were looking forward to the opportunities in the Attack Class program,” he said.

“But with the information the government had about the changing capacity requirements for submarines operating in our region, the changing threats we face as a nation, it would have been negligent for us to simply push on.”

Watch this story tonight at 7.30am on ABC TV and iview.

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