U.S. Names Leader for Australia Submarine Program Aimed at Countering China
The Biden administration has appointed a former top Pentagon official to spearhead its plan to help Australia develop nuclear-powered submarines and broaden military cooperation with the country.
James Miller, a former undersecretary of defense for policy during the Obama administration, assumed the newly established position on Tuesday and will report to national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
The post was established to help the U.S. implement the new security partnership with Australia and Britain, known as AUKUS, announced in September to counter China’s growing might in the Pacific.
The three countries are in the midst of an 18-month consultative period during which they are to select a submarine design and resolve related issues, so the Australian Navy can have its own nuclear-powered submarines.
Mr. Miller’s mission is to implement, and if possible, accelerate the effort, which by all accounts will be a formidable and lengthy undertaking involving sharing sensitive technology, settling on a submarine design and training shipyard workers and crews, U.S. officials say.
He is also taking on a parallel initiative to specify military projects within 90 days that the new security alliance can pursue, such as unmanned undersea vessels, long-range missiles, cyber technology, artificial intelligence and encrypted communications systems, the officials added.
Allied officials and security experts outside government have discussed a number of ideas to expedite the provision of nuclear submarines to the Australians.
Those include enrolling Australian engineers at U.S. nuclear training facilities, putting Australian sailors on U.S. nuclear subs, and moving a U.S. submarine tender ship to Australia so that Australian personnel can learn how to sustain U.S. nuclear submarines.
Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said in September that his country would consider leasing U.S. or British submarines before developing their own. That idea is expected to be explored, though it has drawn skepticism in some quarters because U.S. shipbuilding capacity is already strained.
“Just because we have no capacity in our shipyards for any additional submarines, I think it would be very unlikely to go down that path,” said Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “But we did promise the Australians and the U.K. that for the next 18 months, we’d look at everything.”
Brent Sadler of conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, a former Navy captain who spent 18 years as a nuclear submariner, said that the alliance will need to work hard if Australia is to deploy a nuclear-powered submarine within a decade.
“Naval nuclear power is wickedly complex, and it is not easily transferred to a new partner,” Mr. Sadler said. “If they are going to get this before 2035, Australia will have to make this a national priority. Five to seven years is the most optimistic, if they work it all in parallel and money does not become an issue.”
Mr. Miller will oversee the full array of U.S. government programs to carry out the initiative, which also involves the Pentagon, Energy Department and State Department, and will be known as the U.S. Coordinator for AUKUS Initiatives. The Pentagon is also assembling a separate team of 20 to 30 officials, which is expected to be led by a retired admiral, to support the submarine efforts.
“The biggest challenge will be to keep this multidimensional initiative on track over time and across successive administrations in both the U.S. and Australia,” said Michele Flournoy, who served as a senior Pentagon official in the Obama administration. “It is essential for the Biden administration to build bipartisan support and to create early wins in the emerging technology space to sustain its momentum into the future.”
The AUKUS initiative comes as China has moved to expand its maritime power. In two decades, China’s Navy has tripled in size to 360 vessels. Submarines have come an increasingly important part of the effort to project power in the Pacific.
The U.S. has 68 nuclear-powered subs. Britain has 10. China has roughly 15 and is building more. Satellite imagery has shown the recent expansion of China’s nuclear-sub construction facility at the Bohai shipyard in Liaoning, in the Chinese northeast, which now enables construction of two submarines simultaneously.
U.S. naval intelligence predicts China will add six nuclear-powered subs by the end of this decade. Some experts say the number could be higher.
By Michael R. Gordon and Brett Forrest