USN submarine tender visit to RAN base demonstrates AUKUS implementation

USS Emory S Land
The US submarine tender USS Emory S Land comes alongside in Darwin, Australia for a port visit in May 2024. More than 30 Australian personnel are embarked onboard, as part of a deployment designed to build Royal Australian Navy (RAN) capacity to maintain deployed nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs).

The US submarine tender USS Emory S Land arrived in Darwin, northern Australia on 28 May for a port visit. The visit, hosted at HMAS Coonawarra naval base, illustrates evolving progress in developing collaborative submarine operations and capabilities between the US Navy (USN) and the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), as well as the UK Royal Navy (RN), under the trilateral AUKUS strategic partnership.

Emory S Land has been on deployment since mid-May. The Guam-based vessel is one of a class of two tenders designed specifically to service nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs).

For this deployment, the ship has embarked more than 30 RAN sailors onboard, to develop their experience of how to conduct tender-based maintenance of deployed SSNs. Under Pillar 1 of the AUKUS programme, the RAN and RN are building together a new SSN – SSN-AUKUS – for each of their navies.

An Australian Department of Defence (DoD) media release stated that the officers and ratings in the RAN group onboard Emory S Land – with trades encompassing, for example, electrical technicians, marine technicians, and boatswain’s mates – have spent five months onboard to deepen their experience of tender-based maintenance at sea. According to the DoD, they are “integrating with US sailors and building unique knowledge, skills, and experience in how the US conducts SSN maintenance.”

“For those RAN officers and sailors onboard Emory S Land, this deployment is an incredible opportunity to put their training and technical skills into practice,” RAN Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Mark Hammond said, in the media release. “This unique programme will contribute significantly to our navy’s future, developing our people to have the skills to operate, maintain, and steward conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines.”

It is planned that, while the RAN personnel are onboard, Emory S Land will conduct an upkeep activity on a USN Virginia-class SSN.

The USN SSN USS Annapolis
The USN SSN USS Annapolis prepares to tie up alongside at Fleet Base West, Perth during a port visit in March 2024. The USN, RAN, and UK Royal Navy are collaborating to build increased SSN presence out of Perth.

Another part of the AUKUS process that will assist RAN sailors in building skills to operate and maintain SSNs are regular visits by USN SSNs to the RAN’s HMAS Stirling fleet support facility at Fleet Base West, Perth. The most recent visit took place in March 2024, by the 688I/Los Angeles-class boat USS Annapolis.

Such visits are initial steps in establishing the trilateral Submarine Rotational Force (West) operational concept, under which the USN and RN will forward deploy SSNs to Fleet Base West to help build increased regional presence and support development of the RAN’s capacity to operate and maintain SSNs. USN Virginia-class submarines are set to start deploying there, and operating from there, around 2027. From around 2032, the RAN will begin crewing and operating its own Virginia-class boats, provided by the USN.

The personnel exchange and qualification processes involved in building Australia’s SSN capability are significant. By the end of 2024, around 100 RAN sailors will have graduated through the USN’s officer and enlisted personnel submarine schools, including passing through nuclear power school. Australian personnel are also working at the USN’s shipyard facilities at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

by Dr. Lee Willett, London