SYDNEY — During a visit this week to Australia, the US Navy’s top officer acknowledged that there is some “risk” that America’s submarine industrial base cannot deliver on the navy’s requirements, but expressed his belief that the Pentagon and its industry partners could figure out a way forward with key submarine programs.
Speaking exclusively to Breaking Defense during his visit, Adm. Mike Gilday also expressed optimism that US restrictions on tech transfer known as ITAR can be managed when it comes to working on key AUKUS-related technologies.
“Because of all those high end capabilities … because of the finalized framework. I remain an optimist that we’re going to be able to work our way through those challenges with respect to ITAR. So,” he said yesterday, “in a nutshell, I remain optimistic that we’re heading in the right direction in a very transparent, open and candid way.”
The question of ITAR is one that was raised in a recent op-ed by Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., who wrote that it “poses a daunting task for the US Congress to amend.” The US embassy here has been working on the issue as part of the ongoing AUKUS negotiations.
The chief of naval operations’ visit came less than three weeks after a visit by his Marine counterpart, Gen. David Berger. During his visit, the CNO met with Gen. Angus Campbell, head of the Australian Defense Force, and the commander of the Australian Defence College, Air Vice Marshal Steve Edgeley. He also spoke with US Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy “about the importance of advancing our bilateral and Navy-to-Navy relationships,” according to a US press statement.
Gilday was not able to go into details on the upcoming AUKUS nuclear attack sub announcement, to be made soon in Washington by the leaders of Australia, the UK and the US. But he didn’t shy from discussing the difficulties the Navy and industry are having building the Columbia-class boomers, the next-generation nuclear missile submarines that are the highest acquisition priority for the entire US Defense Department.
The Government Accountability Office published an authoritative report on Jan. 24 about the difficulties facing the Columbia- and Los Angeles-classes, which Gilday acknowledged. “The fact that we were able to begin construction with over 80% of the design complete, I think, put us in a much better place to mitigate risks, but it doesn’t mean that the risk is not there,” he told Breaking Defense.
“You’re right — industry is balancing. We’re leaning more towards Columbia because we’ve required to, and there has been a bit of a cost there for the attack boat line, for the Virginia-class production line.”
The Navy’s top officer, who has taken shots at industry for not listening to his guidance in the past, pointed out that the service has provided industry with “a really clear set of headlights in terms of what our demands are looking out 20 years, and so there’s no secrets there.”
Three areas remain for industry to improve in, he said. Top of the list is pretty simple: “Getting the production work done on time, with little to no rework required. And so that’s typically a stumbling block, if you will, with respect to schedule.”
Gilday noted that when workers have to correct mistakes it just slows production. The good news, he said: “the trend lines are beginning to move in the right direction, but we need to move even faster and more precipitously, to put us in a better place.”
Getting materiel in place and ready to be used is second on the list: “We need to get the material on site ready to go early, so there are no delays.” Congress, he noted, has helped with this, approving advanced procurement of key materiel.
The final focus has to be on the workforce. “I think it’s really tied to number one with respect to rework or driving down rework.” And key to that is having a mature, well trained workforce. Interestingly, he pointed out that companies are beginning to generate efficiencies in the workforce by subcontracting out some work to smaller shipyards.
“The thing that I probably ought to mention is the fact that what we’re seeing both Electric Boat and Newport News shipbuilding do now is to [subcontract] some of their work out to smaller companies. I think that’s a step in the right direction. That’s going to create efficiencies for them inside the shipyard for the larger work that needs to be done on those on the sub production line.”
As an example, he pointed to the recent agreement for Austal USA, the Mobile, Ala.-based shipyard best known for its aluminum-hulled Littoral Combat Ships, to produce two modules for Electric Boat for Virginia- and Columbia-class submarines. They are building the Command and Control System and Electronic Deck modules that will be used by both classes.
That tension between the Columbia and Virginia boats was a key factor in the decision by two senior defense senators to warn President Biden against pushing the industrial base to the “breaking point” in the effort to assist Australia in building a nuclear attack submarine fleet.
During his visit, Gilday also declared the pursuit of All Domain operations “vitally important” for the two countries. At a speech to the Australia Defense College, he noted “the need for complementary nature of comms from seabed to space.”
He pointed to exercises coming up this year in the Indo-Pacific — Pacific Sentry, Pacific Source, Talisman Sabre and others — as proof that the focus on All Domain is hitting the real world.
“These are all high exercises that are also multi-domain,” he said. Because Australia and the US are members of the Five Eyes countries that share the most sensitive information, “we’re able to share more than just intelligence. We’re able to share technical data at a highly classified level with those systems I spoke to earlier.” He’d mentioned the P-8, Next Generation Jammer, F-18 Growlers, Aegis Baseline 9, SM-6 missiles as examples of high-end systems Australia has either bought or is buying.
Australia has some very advanced programs that may end up providing the United States with examples to follow as it pursues JADC2, the backbone of All Domain warfare for the Pentagon, designed to link satellites, submarines, ships, tanks, soldiers and planes.