President Joe Biden speaks in San Diego along with the prime ministers of Australia and the United Kingdom. Photo by Chris Stone
President Joe Biden speaks in San Diego along with the prime ministers of Australia and the United Kingdom. Photo by Chris Stone

For five seasons on TNT ending in 2018, a fictional Navy destroyer with a crew of 218 sought to find a cure for a global pandemic that wiped out much of the world’s population.

On Monday, the crew of the real USS_Sterett — a setting for that TV show “The Last Ship” — did a line-the-rail salute to President Joe Biden as he announced measures to safeguard the world into the 2030s and beyond.

The Sterett was a backdrop as the commander in chief and two allied leaders made a historic visit to Naval Base Point Loma.

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“This is probably the most significant event that we’ve been part of in (submarine) Squadron 11 in quite some time,” said its commander, Capt. Kenneth Douglas. “This event today is very strategically important for the United States.”

Six major commands have been stationed in Point Loma since the 1960s, but it wasn’t until 1998 they were united as Naval Base Point Loma.

Officials believe Biden’s visit was the first by a president to the normally superexclusive base.

“Squadron 11 sailors are very proud,” Douglas said. “It definitely is the first sitting president to be here in a very long time.”

Lt. j.g Jubal Schmit is diving officer, assistant weapons officer and anti-terrorism officer on the USS Santa Fe, one of four Navy submarines in port here now (among 35 in the Pacific).

“It’s a huge moment not just for our boats that we have here,” he said, noting the difference between a typical POTUS visit to Camp Pendleton or another major county base.

“Everything here is a lot more locked down and confined,” said Schmit, a Naval Academy graduate and a submarine officer since 2019. “We try to make sure that it remains as hidden and guarded as possible so that we can complete our jobs.”

His boat provided 21 sailors Monday — perhaps a fifth of those seen amid the dozens of international media members.

“Helping out our allies is very exciting because we want to strengthen up not just our military but the people who are going to be fighting alongside us,” he said. “So in the event that something does spin off, we’ll have the strongest allies in the world.”

Squadron commander Douglas heard about the Biden visit only a week and a half ago.

“As you can imagine, the United States military is able to execute a lot of operations on short notice and this is just one example of how they can do that,” he said. 

Douglas spoke with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro. But also JFK-daughter Caroline Kennedy, the 65-year-old U.S. ambassador to Australia, “which was a treat.”

Only two years younger was four-star Adm. James F. Caldwell Jr., who got a special reception as the Old Goat — the longest-serving Naval Academy graduate on active duty.

Caldwell walked onto the pier where sailors gathered on a balcony of overlooking the three lecterns and dozens of dignitaries, including Reps. Sara Jacobs and Scott Peters.

Jacobs doesn’t represent the Point Loma base but is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and House Armed Services Committee, including its subcommittee on seapower and projection forces.

She called Biden’s announcement on submarine deals with the United Kingdom and Australia historic, “working with partners and allies to fulfill our values of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

She called it a “real testament to San Diego and our proud military history that this is the location chosen for declaration that’s going to be so transformative in the international system.”

The three leaders — Biden called them his “shipmates” — unveiled details of a plan to provide Australia nuclear-powered attack submarines, a major step to counter China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.

In a joint statement, Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak endorsed plans for the so-called AUKUS project, first announced in 2021, at Naval Base Point Loma.

Under the deal, the United States intends to sell Australia three Virginia class nuclear-powered submarines in the early 2030s, with an option to buy two more if needed, the joint statement said.

The statement from the leaders said the multi-stage project would culminate with British and Australian production and operation of a new class of submarine — SSN-AUKUS — a “trilaterally developed” vessel based on Britain’s next-generation design that would be built in Britain and Australia and include “cutting edge” U.S. technologies.

“The first UK submarines built to this design will be delivered in the late 2030s … and the first Australian submarines will follow in the early 2040s,” a British statement said.

The vessels will be built by BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, it said.

The agreement will also see U.S. and British submarines deployed in Western Australia to help train Australian crews and bolster deterrence, the senior U.S. official said. The joint statement said the United States and Britain would begin these rotational deployments as soon as 2027 and a senior U.S. official said this would increase to four U.S. submarines and one British in a few years.

This first phase of the plan is already underway with the USS Asheville,* a nuclear-powered cruise missile attack submarine, currently visiting Perth, Australia, officials said.

Biden spoke for 39 minutes to about 40 people, including Rep. Peters, D-San Diego, at a fundraiser Monday night in Rancho Santa Fe, recounting his decision to make a third run for president in 2020 and touting his legislative record.

The event raised $1 million for the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund, according to a Democratic National Committee official.

Biden flew into Naval Air Station North Island, arriving shortly after noon. He was greeted upon arrival by Vice Admiral Roy Kitchener, commander of Naval Surface Forces, and Capt. Charles McKissick, commanding officer of Naval Base Coronado.

The visit was Biden’s first to the San Diego area since a 19-hour visit Oct. 3-4, when he spoke at MiraCosta College in Oceanside and a technology company in Carlsbad.

Sharing Nuclear Propulsion Technology

AUKUS will be the first time Washington has shared nuclear-propulsion technology since it did so with Britain in the 1950s.

China has condemned AUKUS as an illegal act of nuclear proliferation. In launching the partnership Australia also upset France by abruptly cancelling a deal to buy French conventional submarines.

Briefing a small group of reporters on Friday, Sullivan dismissed China’s concerns and pointed Beijing’s own military buildup, including nuclear-powered submarines.

“We have communicated with them about AUKUS and sought more information from them about their intentions,” he said.

Big questions remain about the plan, not least over strict U.S. curbs on the extensive technology sharing needed for the project and about how long it will take to deliver the submarines, even as the perceived threat posed by China mounts.

President Biden and his counterparts from Australia and Britain speak to the press at Naval Base Point Loma. Photo by Ken Stone

In a reflection of stretched U.S. production capacity, the senior U.S. official told Reuters it was “very likely” one or two of the Virginia-class submarines sold to Australia would be vessels that had been in U.S. service, something that would require congressional approval.

Australia had agreed to contribute funds to boost U.S. and British submarine production and maintenance capacity, the official said.

He said Washington was looking at “double digit billion” investment in its submarine industrial base on top of $4.6 billion already committed for 2023-29 and that the Australian contribution would be less than 15 percent of the total.

One senior U.S. official said AUKUS reflected mounting threats in the Indo-Pacific, not just from China towards self-ruled Taiwan and in the contested South China Sea, but also from Russia, which has conducted joint exercises with China, and North Korea as well.

New Jobs for Allies

Albanese said on Saturday that South Australia and Western Australia would be big beneficiaries of AUKUS. “This is about jobs, including jobs in manufacturing,” he said.

Britain, which left the European Union in 2020, says AUKUS will help boost its economy’s low growth rate.

Sunak said AUKUS was “binding ties to our closest allies and delivering security, new technology and economic advantage at home.”

Australia’s Defense Minister Richard Marles said last week the submarines would ensure peace and stability across the Indo-Pacific, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.

“It is difficult to overstate the step that as a nation we are about to take,” he said.

Political analysts said that given China’s growing power and its threats to reunify with Taiwan by force if necessary, it was also vital to advance the second stage of AUKUS, which involves hypersonics and other weaponry that can be deployed more quickly.

U.S. officials said Monday’s announcements will not cover this second stage.

“We’d like to leave that for another day,” the senior administration official said.

British and Australian officials said this month work was still needed to break down bureaucratic barriers to technology sharing.

Biden, Xi to Speak

After unveiling details of the deal aimed at countering China, Biden said that he expected to speak to Chinese leader Xi Jinping soon, but declined to say when.

Asked at a meeting with Sunak in San Diego if he was worried that China would see the AUKUS submarine deal as aggression, Biden replied “no.”

Asked if he would speak to Xi soon, Biden said “yes,” but to another question as to whether he would tell journalists when they would talk, he replied “no.”

Biden said in mid-February he expected to speak to Xi about what the United States said was a Chinese spy balloon that flew through American airspace, worsening already tense relations, but no such call has been announced.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said last week the United States wanted to re-establish regular communications with China and Biden expected to speak with Xi by telephone sometime after China’s government returns to work following its annual National People’s Congress that ended on Monday.

The AUKUS agreement to provide Australia with nuclear- powered submarines is aimed at countering China in the Indo-Pacific and Beijing has condemned it as an illegal act of nuclear proliferation.

“Competition requires dialogue and diplomacy,” Sullivan told a small group of reporters last week in reference to China while discussing AUKUS. “We encourage the PRC (People’s Republic of China) to have regularized patterns of communications at senior levels.”

Asked when a call with Xi might happen, Sullivan replied: “When the People’s Congress is over and the government, including the president, return to work in Beijing the (U.S.) president anticipates the opportunity to engage in a phone call.”

“Over the course of 18 months we have communicated with (China) about AUKUS and sought more information from them about their intentions,” Sullivan added, referring to China’s military buildup, including nuclear powered submarines.

China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a regular briefing Tuesday that both China and the U.S. were maintaining necessary communication.

“We believe that the value and significance of communication is to enhance the level of understanding and manage our differences, not to communicate for the sake of communicating. The U.S. side should come forward sincerely, with practical actions to promote China-U.S. relations,” Wang said.

The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that Xi plans to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for the first time since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That call was likely to take place after Xi’s visit to Moscow next week to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, the newspaper said.

Sullivan told reporters en route to San Diego on Monday that Washington has been publicly and privately encouraging Xi to talk to Zelenskiy so that they hear “not just the Russian perspective” on the war.

Sullivan added that Ukraine had not confirmed a call between Xi and Zelenskiy.

Updated at 1:45 a.m. March 14, 2023

Reuters and City News Service contributed to this report.

*An earlier version of this report gave the wrong name of submarine visiting Perth, Australia.