US admiral issues stark warning over construction of Australian submarines in overcrowded shipyards

A senior US Navy official has warned that helping Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines could be too much of a burden on already overstretched US shipyards.

During an online forum, the Director General of the US Strategic Submarine Program was asked about the US shipbuilding workforce and the implications of the AUKUS partnership with Australia.

Rear Admiral Scott Pappano said the ambitious plan could hamper his country’s nuclear submarine programme, as well as that of the UK, in comments to the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

“If you ask my opinion, if we were to add additional submarine builds to our industrial base, it would be detrimental to us right now,” Admiral Pappano said.

The rear admiral added that a significant investment would be required to provide “additional capability, the capability to go and do that”

“I won’t speak for the UK, but I think it exists for both the US and the UK where we’re looking right now,” he said.

The Department of Defense is currently conducting an 18-month study into the best option for Australia to acquire a nuclear-powered submarine capability, with a report due to make formal recommendations in March.

Earlier this year, former Defense Minister, now Leader of the Opposition, Peter Dutton said he was confident Australia could secure two American-made Virginia-class nuclear submarines from here 2030.

Mr Dutton insisted that if the Coalition had remained in power it might have been “able to make an announcement around July-August” on the acquisition of US-made nuclear submarines.

Private reservations

US Navy figures have long had private reservations about allowing Australia to join a US nuclear-powered submarine production line, but Admiral Pappano’s comments are the strongest public intervention to this day.

During his appearance at the Mitchell Institute, Admiral Pappano predicted that US submarine production in fiscal year 2025 is expected to be five times what it was two years ago.

The increased workload includes doubling the construction of new Virginia-class submarines to two boats per year and introducing a new version of the Virginia-class known as Block V, which allows more Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Later this decade, production of the next generation of Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, or SSBNs, is also expected to go into effect.

Admiral Pappano said the US Navy was working with local shipbuilders to receive the Columbia-class boats six months ahead of schedule, cutting the delivery schedule from 84 to 78 months.

UK declares submarines a ‘collaborative programme’

UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace remarked that Australia’s future nuclear-powered submarines, under the AUKUS deal, were “not a matter of type” between UK or US designs, but could be a collaborative program between the three nations.

He said Australia’s submarine “could look like something none of us have in our inventory”, with the latest post-Astute-class submarine designs fully shared between Australia, Great Britain -Britain and the United States.

“The question is how do we get to 2035 and 2040 in our (submarine building) deliveries that we all need?” said Mr. Wallace.

“We need to be really collaborative as much as possible, we could have a bit of the three of us on it, and in the meantime we’ve helped build a skills base, a workforce and a operational navy to achieve this.”

Jennifer C. Burleigh