As global tensions continue to require an increasing rotation of US force multipliers and strategic deterrence assets, Norway is setting the benchmark for allied ‘home porting’, as the Nordic nation expands its basing arrangements for US Navy attack submarines.
Next-generation submarines are emerging as another battleground for the competing superpowers, with the US, Russia, UK, China, France and India all seeking to develop and introduce ever more deadly, silent and persistent submarines to sea.
The frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Arctic Sea have long been a battleground for submarine warfare, throughout the First and Second World War as German and allied submarines played a tense game of tactical and strategic cat and mouse to turn the tide of the global conflict.
Throughout the Cold War, the US, British and French navies competed with the vast Soviet submarine arm to ensure that the nuclear balance of power preventing global nuclear conflict between the superpowers.
While the collapse of the Soviet Union saw the submarine competition of the Cold War significantly diminish, the competition didn't completely fade into the ether, as Russia reorientates itself and begins to flex its muscle off the back of Russian engagement in the Middle East and increasingly assertive actions towards central and western Europe.
In response, the US and its traditional allies have sought to increasingly counter balance the resurgent capabilities of the Russian Navy, particularly the growing number of increasingly capable Russian conventional and nuclear-powered submarines operating in the Mediterranean, Baltic, Atlantic and Arctic waterways challenging the the security of the region.
At the forefront of this concerted effort is an increasing US Navy submarine presence in the UK and, increasingly, in Norway as the US seeks to counter efforts of Russia's active Northern Fleet and its capabilities as they transit into the northern Atlantic.
In a major shift and escalation of America's presence in the region, it has collaborated with Norway to provide an enhanced and increasingly frequent US forward deployment of US nuclear attack submarines.
Paul McLeary of Breaking Defense speaking to Marita Isaksen Wangberg, a spokesperson for the Norwegian military, revealed work currently underway at the Norwegian port of Tromso would enable the successful port visit of US Navy nuclear submarines.
"[Works] are now doing necessary adjustments and changes to various local regulations and plans. This work has to be finalised before nuclear submarines can visit the actual harbour," Wangberg explained.
While the details of the works remain highly secretive, the model establishes a basis for broader US and allied collaboration for the basing and shared infrastructure investment to support the forward deployment of nuclear submarines, while promoting increased interoperability between allied forces.
Forward deployment as 'burden sharing'
For Australia, a continent and nation at the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific, supporting greater interoperability and enhancing the 'special relationship' alliance with both the US and UK is a critical component of the nation's long-term defence and strategic posture.
Promoting increased forward deployment of major tactical and strategic force multipliers like carrier strike groups and fast attack submarine squadrons in Australia is a central part of supporting these efforts.
There has been significant conversation in recent decades about the permanent basing and development of supporting infrastructure to accommodate nuclear submarines at key ports like Fremantle in Western Australia.
Domestically, there has been significant debate about Australia's nuclear energy potential, with much of the debate being dominated to the costs and time frame associated with developing such energy production, the idea of permanently basing forward deployed carrier strike groups and nuclear-powered fast attack submarines provides two interesting options:
- An option for embedding Australian enlisted, non-commissioned and submarine officers into both Royal and US Navy fast attack submarines forward deployed to key facilities to better develop such a capability domestically; and
- To share the costs associated with developing the infrastructure necessary to support nuclear-powered vessels with flow-on benefits for the Australian economy and local development of a viable, world-leading nuclear energy industry.
Spreading the infrastructure costs
Australia's relative isolation from potential attack when compared with the likes of Guam, Yokosuka and Honolulu presents Australian, US and UK strategic leaders with an attractive alternative to jointly develop the infrastructure necessary to sustain, maintain, repair and overhaul nuclear-powered vessels.
However, simply developing a single iteration of the infrastructure required, ranging from dry docking facilities through to the refuelling and complex overhaul support and containment facilities required, would provide limited benefit to supporting the vessels and the concurrent development of Australia's own domestic nuclear power industry.
Accordingly, two locations serve as ideal possibilities, namely Fremantle, which has long been proposed as a potential facility to accommodate major US naval forces, and Osborne, the hub of Australia's submarine and naval shipbuilding enterprise and within close proximity to potential radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel storage facilities.
Spreading the costs for developing the critical infrastructure across the three nations provides each with incalculable benefits, ranging from increased tactical and strategic availability and presence, through to greater levels of interoperability and independent capability of allied forces and economic independence.
For all three nations, the path forward in the increasingly challenging contemporary geo-political, economic and strategic environment is murky and subject to change as technology, regional and global challenges and both state and non-state actors continue to directly impact the broader security of both Australia and the UK – this evolving environment will require nuance and collaboration to navigate safely.
As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea-lines-of-communication in the 21st century.