Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday on Thursday said the effort to design, build, support and properly oversee Australia’s fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines under a new deal may take decades.

Last week, the U.S., U.K. and Australia announced the new AUKUS partnership to help Australia pursue procurement of its first nuclear-powered attack submarines. This announcement came with Australia’s intent to cancel a potential $90 billion program to replace its current fleet of six

Collins-class diesel-electric attack submarines with 12 new conventionally powered submarines designed by France’s Naval Group (Defense Daily, Sept. 15).

The AUKUS partnership is starting with an 18-month period where the U.S. and U.K. wil help inform how Australia will approach a nuclear-powered submarine capability.

“I think strategically that’s a very, very important and I think brilliant stroke with respect to our posture in the Pacific, particularly vis-à-vis China,” Gilday said during a Defense One virtual conference.

The CNO said he thinks this will be a “very long term effort that’ll be decades, I think, before a submarine goes in the water – could be. I don’t see this as a short term timeline.”

The 18-month exploratory period aims to look at the details needed to have Australia build, support, and base nuclear-powered submarines as well as “help Australia come to grips with exactly what they need to do to get in a path akin to the United States Navy,” Gilday said.

Gilday said he expects the U.S. Navy to work very closely with the Australian Navy in this 18-month period and beyond to help the latter begin to determine “what the optimum path will be to safely deliver not solely the submarines, but the enterprise that has to support them. This is everything from a defense industrial base in Australia to a community inside the Australian Navy that’s able to man, train and equip those submarines, to sustain them, to the oversight mechanisms similar to what we have in the United States Navy to oversee those nuclear powered vessels.”

At the time the original announcement was made a senior Biden administration official said “It’s very hard to overestimate how important and how challenging this endeavor will be,” since Australia does not have any domestic nuclear infrastructure to start with (Defense Daily, Sept. 15).

After the announcement, Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said the current Collins-class submarines will go into a lifetime extension process in 2026 that will extend their service life into the 2040s and advice to the government was that a conventional diesel submarine would not provide needed capability into the 2030s, 2040s and beyond vs. a nuclear-powered vessel. He also said the U.S. and U.K. nuclear-powered submarine technology was judged superior to the French nuclear-powered Barracuda-class (Defense Daily, Sept. 16).

Gilday also said he does not see this agreement necessarily changing France’s cooperation with the U.S. on naval matters.

In response to the AUKUS announcement, the French foreign ministry announced it is recalling its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia, calling the announcement “unacceptable behavior between allies and partners, whose consequences directly affect the vision we have of our alliances, of our partnerships and of the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe,” (Defense Daily, Sept. 17).

Gilday said the AUKUS announcement occurred during the biannual International Seapower Symposium held in Newport, R.I., where his French counterpart was participating.

“We met four times last week and talked about this and other things. And what we committed to, although this announcement was a bit contentious for the French, what we committed to at our level, was to continue to work together.”

Gilday underscored how close the U.S. and French navies have worked recently. He said the French Charles DeGaulle carrier strike group served as part of a task force under the U.S. 5th Fleet commander.

“So under the operational control of the 5th Fleet commander was a French Strike Group with French ships and we had U.S. ships and others that were part of that strike group. That is a step beyond interoperability, to interchangeability when you can have a foreign strike group fill a carrier gap in a theater force seamlessly. There’s no reason why we can’t look to having that same arrangement in other theaters, whether it’s in the Mediterranean, or whether it’s in the 7th Fleet,” Gilday said.

He argued the bottom line with French military cooperation is that despite the AUKUS dustup, “ we continue to work lockstep with respect to our navies, marching together, 4th-5th generation operations in the air, as an example, our ships operating together, our submarines operating together. And so I’m very confident that that’s going to continue at pace without any bumps in the road.”

General Dynamics’ Electric Boat [GD] and Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII] build the Virginia-class attack submarines for the U.S., while BAE Systems makes the U.K.’s Astute-class submarines. Both classes are larger than the French Barracuda-class submarine built by Naval Group. The U.S. and U.K. vessels each have a submerged displacement of more than 2,000 tons over the French vessels: over 7,300 tons compared to 5,300 tons.