JUST IN: AUKUS Capacity Shortfall ‘Comes as No Surprise,’ First Sea Lord Says

By Stew Magnuson
Royal Navy’s First Sea Lord Adm. Ben Key

Stew Magnuson photo

ABOARD THE HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH — The Royal Navy’s First Sea Lord Adm. Ben Key said revelations that the United States and the United Kingdom may not have the shipyard capacity to help Australia build a new fleet of submarines shouldn’t be a surprise.

The trilateral security agreement calls for the United States and the United Kingdom to help Australia build a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. The U.S. Navy’s Program Executive Officer for Strategic Submarines, Rear Adm. Scott Pappano, recently said that U.S. shipyards may not have the capacity to build another class of submarines when the nation is in the middle of building its Virginia-class and Columbia-class boats.

“That would be detrimental for us right now without significant investments to provide additional capacity and capability to go do that. … I think that exists for the U.S. and the U.K right now,” he said in August at a think tank talk.

Of course, there is no excess capacity to build extra submarines, Key told reporters aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, currently anchored in New York Harbor for the Atlantic Futures Forum, a gathering of U.S, and U.K. defense and foreign policy leaders.

Both nations have right-sized their capacity to build submarines according to their own national security requirements, he said.

“Up until the AUKUS announcement was made, we had scaled our industrial capacity to deliver what each nation requires in terms of submarine building. AUKUS is a new and very welcome addition to that,” he said.

Key said it comes as “no surprise to me” that the three nations are now having to do a lot of work to figure out the capacity issue. The long-term vision is for Australia to have its own sovereign submarine building capability, but in the short term much of the work will happen in U.S. and U.K shipyards.

Australia is looking to announce some details on the path forward in the March or April 2023 timeframe, he noted. There are a huge number of working groups sorting out these kinds of issues across the three nations, he added.

“It would not have been sensible, and it is difficult to see why we would have had latent submarine building capacity just waiting to see if someone else came along shopping to buy submarines. It’s no surprise that this is putting a little bit of stress on the system,” he said.

Key said he actually finds the notion “amusing.” Otherwise, the press would be asking why the two nations would waste taxpayer dollars by keeping unused facilities open, he said.

“Let’s not forget what a profound shift [AUKUS] is, and we are working at speed to adapt accordingly,” he said, adding that there is a lot more to the agreement than submarines. The second part of the agreement calls for cooperation between the allies on a host of technologies, including artificial intelligence, hypersonics, electronic warfare, and so on.

At its heart, the AUKUS agreement is not about submarines, it’s about technology transfer, he said.

People “are naturally focused on the submarine because that’s a big lump of metal — that’s a really strategic ship — but let’s not get away from the other ideas that are coursing through the veins of this tri-national security agreement,” he said.

It is “about technology transfer between three very close partners and removing the [policy] barriers that traditionally have prevented the exchange of ideas and capabilities at the speed of relevance. And I welcome it,” he said.

Earlier in the conference, Vice Adm. Martin Connell, the Royal Navy’s second sea lord, questioned how the United States could participate in such agreements.

“I think the U.S. needs to reform the way in which it thinks about collaboration,” he said. The International Traffics in Arms Regulation “definitely needs to be looked at, and ‘no foreign’ restrictions need to be looked at. Because otherwise these collaborations are going to be very seriously retarded when we can't really afford them to be so,” he said.

Key said: “It’s going to be a stretch for all three partners, but it’s a really good stretch.”

Topics: Maritime Security

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