Australia could push to acquire retired US Navy Los Angeles-class nuclear submarines


The recently signed Australia-UK-US Defense Agreement, or AUKUS, calls on the US and Britain to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia. Although the agreement was light details on what, when and how, plans are apparently for Australia to eventually build at least eight nuclear-powered attack submarines. In the meantime, former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is now advocating for Australia to get second-hand nuclear submarines to start sharing to develop the Royal’s submarine capabilities and nuclear know-how. Australian Navy. Australia has never had a nuclear power plant of any kind.

Speaking last Friday at a Wilson Center event in Washington, DC, Abbott suggested that in the short term Australia should consider leasing or purchasing one or more existing US submarines to expand the capability. of Australia to operate nuclear powered submarines.

Abbott asked the question: “Would it be possible for Australia to acquire a pension? [Los Angeles] class or two and put it under the Australian flag and operate it, if you wish, as an operational training boat? Abbott added that he would make a similar proposal for British nuclear submarines “if I was in London.”

“It would be, as such, if you will, an addition to the order of battle in the Western Pacific, if it were necessary,” he added.

The US Navy has experience Los Angeles-class submarines in floating schools. Last summer, the former USS San Francisco completed its conversion from a nuclear powered attack submarine (SSN) to a docked training ship, MTS-711, which now operates in Charleston, South Carolina. There he joined the converted former USS La Jolla, who started her new life in this training role last year. And while Abbott is clearly calling for a deployable ship, not an MTS, if two submarines were secured, a moored training ship could be a valuable educational tool to add.

NNSY / Tony Anderson

USS San Francisco at Norfolk Naval Shipyard nearing completion of its conversion from a nuclear powered attack submarine to a moored training ship.

Potential applicants for such a lease could include: USS Providence (SSN-719), whose decommissioning is scheduled for next December; and the Oklahoma City (SSN-723), whose decommissioning is scheduled for June 2022. Two additional submarines – the formerPittsburgh (SSN-720) and the former Louisville (SSN-724) – were decommissioned in April 2020 and March 2021, respectively, but both may be too far into the process of disposal to be hijacked and restored. All four submarines are equipped with vertical launch systems (VLS) for Tomahawk cruise missiles. Pittsburgh and Providence were both commissioned in 1985. Louisville was commissioned in 1986, and Oklahoma City was commissioned in 1988. Two Vol I boats, lacking the VLS and other improvements, also retired in 2021: the Bremerton (SSN-698) and Olympia (SSN-717).

According to SeaPower magazine, the next tranche of “688 boats” to face the Breaker yard will be: the USS Chicago (SSN-721), Key West (SSN-722), San Juan (SSN-751), and Topeka (SSN-754), during fiscal year 2024. The San Juan and Topeka, which entered service in 1988 and 1989 respectively, are the first improved “688i” submarines to be decommissioned. The “upgraded” boats have better sensors and better silencing technology, and, most notably, have moved the dive planes from the sail to the bow, into which they can retract.

Britain has withdrawn four of its seven Trafalgar class attack submarines. A fifth, the HMS Sharp, has been set up since March, but has not yet officially decommissioned. HMS Talent received a major upgrade in 2018, and Jane reported in March 2021 that the boat would be extended for a year beyond her announced retirement in 2021, while the last submarine in the class, HMS Triumph, would benefit from an 18-month suspension beyond his planned retirement in 2022. The two extensions were allegedly caused by delays in the follow-up Clever to classify.


Observers observe the Royal Navy submarine HMS Talent conduct scuba and surface exercises in the Kyle of Lochalsh, Scotland. The Trafalgar Submarine class is due to retire within the next two to three years and could be a candidate for transfer to Australia.

It is not known how much expected life remains in the nuclear fuel and reactors of any of the American or British ships, but it seems likely that the submarines would require major work in this area. Refueling and Overhaul (ROH) is an extremely expensive business that requires the submarine’s hull to be opened. During the refueling process, the ship’s systems are also upgraded and overhauled. Given the limited options, this might be necessary as part of such a short-term procurement program.

The good news is that there is a well-established process for doing this, although extending the life of the submarine beyond what has been achieved in the past is another factor to consider. On the other hand, find the dry-dock time and the resources for the ROHs for the Los Angeles class boats outside of those already planned would be a challenge. And the rules for transferring a nuclear powered ship to a foreign power are unknown waters.

US Navy / MC2 Kelsey J. Hockenberger

The Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine USS Asheville (SSN 758) transits through the Port of Apra in January 2021 as the ship deploys from Guam to conduct surveillance, training and other critical missions for the U.S. 7th Fleet.

There has already been an appalling maintenance backlog for the US submarine fleet. USS Wooded (SSN-764), for example, waits for its maintenance turn since fiscal year 2016. Taking time for the needs of the allies, in addition to the increasing demands of the Navy, could become a major issue. The The Congressional Budget Office already estimates that the “size of the US submarine fleet will exceed the capacity of shipyards to sustain it, not only for the next few years, but for 25 of the next 30 years.” Still, strategic imperatives could outweigh those concerns, and the United States could make Australia in the nuclear submarine game as quickly as possible a top priority.

Australia has expressed interest in building its future nuclear powered submarines at the national level, in whole or in part. That might be just as good, given that General Dynamics’ Electric Boats division is already at full capacity or almost build submarines for the US Navy, although British builders may be in a better position to increase production – if they can avoid further delays in the Clever program.

Australia seems likely to base its sub on a mature design like the United States Virginia class or UK Clever to classify. Given the long lead time in building such complex and specialized warships, let alone creating the infrastructure necessary to do so, many analysts believe it could take until 2040 or later before the first new nuclear powered submarine enters service with the Royal Australian Navy. This makes Abbot’s suggestion to buy or lease one or two existing submarines intriguing, to say the least.


HMS Ambush, the second of the new powerful in the Royal Navy Clever Nuclear powered attack submarines, sails in Her Majesty’s Clyde Naval Base.

Abbott, a member of the Liberal Party, is a former prime minister who served from 2013 to 2015 – coinciding with Xi Jinping’s rise in China – the same party as current Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Although Abbott is not a member of the current Australian government, it seems unlikely that he will speak openly about the submarine proposal without at least an informal blessing from the Australian Foreign and Defense Departments, both of which are led by other liberals.

At the Wilson Center event, Abbott described himself as “like everyone else – until probably the end of 2015, I was a Chinese optimist. We all thought for a long time that China and the West were on… converging paths. China has become the biggest customer for Australian exports, he said, but then “militarized trade against Australia”. And now, he noted, “China is constantly stepping up its intimidation against Taiwan. In the few days leading up to my [early October] visit [to Taiwan], there was something like 150 Chinese warplanes sent into the Taiwanese air [defense identification] areas. I’m waiting for this [such behavior] will become more intense.

Abbott was referring to a speech he gave in Taipei on October 7, in which he used remarkably blunt language. “Australia has no problem with China,” he said. “We welcome trade, investment and sightseeing – without, however, placing more emphasis on being the gum on China’s boot. “

He added: “Victor Gao, Senior Beijing Foreign Policy Analyst and Former Translator for President Deng [Xiaoping] directly threatened the Australians. “Do you want to be the target of a possible nuclear war?” he said, in response to our decision to acquire nuclear power plants but not [nuclear-]armed submarines. So if the drums of war can be heard in our region – as one of our officials noted, it is not Australia that is beating them. The only drums we beat are for justice and freedom.

Regardless of percussion metaphors, it looks like Australia may want to consume its nuclear submarine alliance sooner than some might have expected.

Author’s Note: A reader emailed to point out that while the above statement that Australia has never had a nuclear power plant is correct, the country only has one nuclear power plant. reactor for research and medicine purposes. It is not connected to the electrical network.

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