WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy’s chief of naval operations is committed to helping Australia with its newly announced nuclear-powered submarine program and equally committed to operating seamlessly alongside the French Navy, after the recent Australia-U.K.-U.S. submarine agreement caused a political fallout between the triad and France.
Adm. Mike Gilday called the so-called AUKUS agreement, in which the U.S. Navy and U.K. Royal Navy would help Australia design, build and support a nuclear-powered attack submarine program of its own, “strategically … very important and, I think, a brilliant stroke with respect to our posture in the Pacific, particularly vis a vis China.”
He said the arrangement would require the U.S. Navy to work “very closely with the Australian Navy to help determine what the optimal path will be to safely deliver not solely the submarines, but the enterprise that has to support them. This is everything from a defense industrial base in Australia; to a community inside the Australian Navy that’s able to man, train, and equip those submarines; to sustain them; to have the oversight mechanism similar to what we have in the United States Navy to oversee those nuclear power vessels.”
“This is a very long-term effort that’ll be decades, I think, before a submarine goes in the water — it could be. I don’t see this as a short-term timeline. We have an 18-month exploratory period that’ll get after a lot of these questions and help Australia come to grips with exactly what they need to do to get in the path akin to the United States Navy,” Gilday continued during his remarks at Defense One’s State of the Navy event online.
The U.S. Navy not only has program offices that support submarine design, construction and maintenance, but a Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, or Naval Reactors, program exists under the U.S. Department of Energy to handle the nuclear-powered propulsion system design, maintenance and safety.
Gilday said last week’s announcement came as 140 international heads of navies and coast guards were gathered at the Naval War College in Rhode Island for the International Seapower Symposium. Though Australia’s naval leadership participated virtually, French naval chief of staff Adm. Pierre Vandier was at the event in person, allowing Gilday to speak with him four times about that topic and others.
“Although this announcement was a bit contentious for the French, what we committed to at our level was to continue to work together,” Gilday said. He noted recent joint operations between the 5th Fleet and the Charles de Gaulle Carrier Strike Group as an example of the two sea services cooperating.
“There’s no reason why we can’t look to having that same arrangement in other theaters, whether it’s in the Mediterranean or whether it’s in the 7th Fleet,” Gilday said. “So the bottom line with the French is that we continue to work lockstep with respect to our navies marching together … and so I’m very confident that that’s going to continue at pace without any without any bumps in the road.”
Australia had previously planned to replace its 1990s-built Collins-class attack submarines with a French diesel-electric submarine, in a deal worth $66 billion between the Royal Australian Navy and French majority state-owned Naval Group, according to the Associated Press.
When the AUKUS arrangement was announced — along with the news that Australia would not be buying the French submarines, opting instead of nuclear-powered submarines that are quieter and don’t need to be refueled, allowing them to operate longer without the need to surface or come to port for gas — France recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra in protest.
U.S. President Joe Biden was not able to speak to French President Emmanuel Macron until Sept. 23, eight days after the announcement, to begin to smooth things over at the political level. Due to the timing of the ISS event, Gilday said he was able to ensure continued good relationships with his French naval counterpart right away.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.