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Senate Foreign Relations Committee Approves Transfer of Nuclear Submarines to Australia

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The U.S. Foreign Relations Senate Committee has triggered the start of the process of attaining U.S. Congressional approval for the United States to temporarily give Australia two nuclear-powered submarines, alongside other measures to deepen further defense sharing with members of the pro-liberty AUKUS defence alliance.

In a bipartisan move on July 13, the committee authorized the transfer of two used Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines from the United States’ own fleet to Australia and training for Australians on developing “their own Australian submarine industrial base.” It also approves the sale of a third unspecified submarine to Australia. Currently, a new Virginia-class sub costs around $4.3 billion to build.

The bill—presented as an amendment in the State Authorization Act of 2023—effectively fast-tracks the transfer of secret U.S. military hardware to Australia and the UK over the next five years, which sees the AUKUS members prioritised in line just behind Taiwan and Ukraine.

Bob Menendez
Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) speaks at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 23, 2021. (Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images)

While no date has been specified for the transfer of the two Virginia-class SSNs (submersible ship nuclear) and sale of a third SSN, the AUKUS agreement signed in March by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak, and U.S. President Joe Biden outlined a timeline for early to mid-2030. It had also promised Australia three Virginia-class SSNs.

SSN is the U.S. Navy’s hull classification for its nuclear-powered general-purpose attack submarines. They are quieter and faster than conventional diesel-powered submarines, while being able to stay submerged for longer durations, adding to their stealth capabilities.

The Senate committee’s amendment is expected to pass the Senate and the House with bipartisan support in the coming weeks.

Challenges to Resolve

However, there may be some challenges to resolve in Congress over the timing and number of submarines heading to Australia, as the U.S. fleet is suffering from maintenance backlogs as well as delays in construction.

Currently, U.S. shipyards are behind their target production rate of two Virginia-class SSNs each year, which ensures replacement of the U.S. Navy’s retiring vessels. According to Chief of U.S. Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday, production is currently hampered at around 1.2 vessels a year.

The admiral told a Centre for Strategic and International Studies event in June that until the Navy’s own requirements can be met, “We’re not going to be in a position to sell any to the Australians.”

Senior Biden advisor on AUKUS Kurt Campbell noted at the same event that “a troublingly large number of submarines in drydock that needed to be back into the water quickly.”

However, both believe the political will is there to deliver the necessary capacity—there’s just no solid deadline yet on when that can be achieved.

“I can‘t give you a specific date when we expect to close on two but we’re headed in the right direction,” Mr. Gilday said.

Last month on June 18, the U.S. Navy released its newest Virginia-class attack sub, the USS Iowa, upon its completion at a shipyard in Groton, Connecticut.

The U.S. currently has 21 Virginia-class vessels on duty, 26 previous model Los Angeles class vessels, and 3 Seawolf-class vessels, making up a fleet of 50 subs. This falls short of the 66-boat force-level goal outlined by Congress in 2016. During the Trump administration, this goal was increased to 72 to 78 vessels. The Biden administration has a goal of 66 to 72 vessels.

The 2023 congressional report warned that under current shipbuilding allocations, the U.S.’s SSN force is expected to drop to a minimum of 46 boats in 2030 before it grows to more than 60 by 2053.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party’s navy, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), currently has 56 submarines in its fleet, although only six are nuclear-powered attack vessels.

The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence noted in a report that China’s submarine fleet is expected to grow from 66 vessels to 76 by 2030. According to Nuclear Threat Initiative, China is also developing its nuclear-powered capabilities.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned during a Hudson Institute AUKUS discussion on May 31, “There’s a deep challenge in the American industrial base, it’s not just submarines and propulsion systems attached there too, it goes down to 155 rounds to deliver to Ukraine.”

He said that the U.S. Defense apparatus in recent years has lacked reinvestment and bipartisan support, leading to “a scale problem.”

Congress has now capped defense spending for the next two years on an inflation-adjusted basis, which Mr. Pompeo said “means there’s going to be very hard decisions to make.”

The industrial base problem is a political problem that President Joe Biden will need to articulate to the American people, to help them understand why they should prioritise their security and spend money on these things that will provide long-term security for them, he said.

“It is not an easy task,” he added.

The Biden administration in March said it is “examining what additional investments are required to accelerate submarine production and maintenance to support both U.S. and AUKUS needs.”

At the time, the White House had outlined $2.4 billion over the next four years to increase construction capacity of the U.S. submarine industrial base “to meet U.S. national needs,” and another $2.2 billion to improve Virginia-class SSN maintenance.

Australia’s Need

The AUKUS pact was birthed from Australia’s express need to upgrade its aging submarine fleet to respond to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rapid militarization in the South China Sea and wider Pacific under the Morrison government—a policy that was supported by the current Albanese Labor government.

Nuclear-powered submarines will allow Australia to operate undetected in some of the most contested waters in the world, former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the Hudson Institute event alongside Mr. Pompeo. Both were among the initial architects of the AUKUS framework.

To date, the United States has only shared its nuclear-powered submarine secrets with the United Kingdom. Five-eyes partners Canada and New Zealand are not party to AUKUS and access to the U.S.’s nuclear propulsion technology.

In March, the United States offered three vessels, with the potential for two more if needed, which will stand in as a stopgap to fill in a cap in Australia’s capability left by its retiring conventional Collins-class submarines before its new fleet of eight next-generation SSN AUKUS submarines can be built.

Epoch Times Photo
Undated image of what an SSN-AUKUS submarine might look like underwater, released on March 13, 2023. (BAE)

Australia will use the U.S.’s Virginia-class SSNs as conventionally-armed submarines. As Australian law prohibits nuclear power generation, the weapons-grade uranium fuel that will power the SSNs is going to require processing overseas, and will only be returned to Australia as drum waste, to be buried hundreds of meters underground and monitored for hundreds of years.

In addition to the acquiring of SSNs, the bill creates an account for Australia’s $2 billion in annual AUKUS contributions over the next four years to the U.S. Treasury—mainly for bolstering the degraded U.S. submarine production facilities.

It also requests the creation of an AUKUS Senior Advisor position within the State Department to coordinate the partnership.

The bill also authorizes the easing of arms export controls to Australia on the condition that it adopt adequate safeguards to protect the technology, while also laying the groundwork for future sharing of technologies in “Pillar 2” of the alliance, which will focus on capabilities like hypersonic weapons, quantum technologies, and artificial intelligence.

The measures lay the groundwork for Australia building a domestic industrial base to ensure local readiness to safely and effectively operate the U.S. SSNs, and build and maintain its eight-vessel next-generation SSN AUKUS fleet for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). Building is scheduled for 2034 to be led by the UK in shipyards in Adelaide. The first vessel is expected to be completed by the 2040s and the last in the 2070s.

SSN AUKUS vessels for the UK Royal Navy will also be built in Adelaide under the partnership.

On July 1, Australia established a new agency dubbed the Australian Submarine Agency (ASA), which will be responsible for the building and delivery of its new SSN AUKUS submarines.

Australia is forecast to contribute up to $368 billion to AUKUS by 2050 for its eight vessels, and upgrades to naval base HMAS Stirling in Western Australia and Osborne shipyards in South Australia.

“The AUKUS partnership enhances deterrence in the Indo-Pacific and, through the pooling of research and development resources, is spurring innovations in advanced military capabilities,” Committee chair Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said of the measures.

“Deepening security relations with the United Kingdom and Australia sends an important signal about the durability and strength of U.S. alliances. This amendment in the State Authorization Act of 2023 provides Australia with a conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine capability and streamlines the export of U.S. military technology, while ensuring that technology is safeguarded from adversarial espionage.”

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who represents the state where a significant portion of the Virginia-class SSNs are built, said of the bill: “I’m working to make sure the AUKUS defense agreement strengthens our partnerships with Australia and the United Kingdom, especially in light of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, and creates jobs and economic growth in Hampton Roads.”

Ranking GOP member of the committee, Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), said in a statement that the bill advances both pillars of the AUKUS agreement.

“First, it lays out a prudent path forward to aiding Australia in the acquisition of nuclear powered, conventionally armed submarines. The bill endorses the broad concept of pillar 1 and signals our understanding of its potential to contribute to stability and deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. More immediately, on pillar 2, this text facilitates innovation and collaboration between the defense industries of the AUKUS partners.

He continued: “Given the current competitive environment, we urgently need to work with our partners and remove bureaucratic barriers that limit cooperation. This bill changes our approach to defense trade with our closest allies, the Australia and the United Kingdom—both of whom have an outstanding record in protecting U.S. technology. Further, the changes made to U.S. regulations will allow for more seamless defense innovation and trade among the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom and reduce some of the barriers that encumber our ability to compete with China. ”

Royal Australian Navy in Training

On Wednesday, the RAN announced that three of its officers had recently graduated from the U.S. Navy’s Nuclear Power School. The expertise gained by Lieutenant Commander James Heydon, Lieutenant Commander Adam Klyne, and Lieutenant. William Hall who started the U.S. program in November 2022, mark a significant step forward for Australia to successfully operate the nuclear-powered vessels.

“These officers will form the nucleus of the RAN’s nuclear-qualified submariners,” AUKUS Integration and Acquisition Program Manager USNth Captain Lincoln Reifsteck said in a statement.

“Through them Australia will develop its ability to operate, maintain, and build their own conventionally-armed nuclear-powered submarines when it receives its first Virginia class submarine from the early 2030s.”

The three officers will now continue their specialist training for the rest of the year at the Nuclear Prototype Training Unit in Charleston, South Carolina.

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