The decision that Australia will acquire nuclear submarines has enormous ramifications, the consequences of which are only now being worked through. High on that list will be the need to keep the Collins class in service for even longer than anticipated because of the timescales involved from changing technology direction so abruptly. The earliest that an Australian designed and built nuclear submarine could enter service would be around 2040.
There has been some speculation that with this timeline in mind the government will seek to lease some existing nuclear submarines to start training crews and have an interim capability available. This is fine in theory, but the reality is that the USN does not appear to have any spare Virginia class SSNs and the Royal Navy definitely cannot spare an Astute since only four out of a total order of seven are in service.
It is possible that the USN would be able to find some older Los Angeles class SSNs, which are being progressively retired. Despite construction of the final one finishing 25 years ago, many have been upgraded and they are still formidable platforms. Whether the US is interested in leasing them – something that has never been done previously – is still to be seen, let alone the terms and conditions that might be attached to such a deal.
However, to enter service in Australia a couple of obvious things are needed: crews able to operate them and facilities where they could be docked. While neither issue is insurmountable, time is needed. For a while mixed RAN-USN crews could be used while local expertise is built up. Facilities could take even longer given the lethargic pace at which many Australian infrastructure projects move – especially ones involving state governments. For a country happily watching the Sydney-Melbourne rail link degrade to one of Third World standard, it would be a surprise if a brand new, heavily regulated nuclear submarine base could be created from nothing in less than a decade.