The U.S. Foreign Relations Senate Committee has taken steps towards gaining U.S. Congressional approval for the temporary transfer of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, along with other measures to enhance defense cooperation within the AUKUS alliance. The committee has authorized the transfer of two used Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines from the U.S. Navy to Australia, as well as the sale of a third submarine. These submarines will be used to strengthen Australia’s defense capabilities and establish a domestic submarine industrial base.
The bill, presented as an amendment in the State Authorization Act of 2023, aims to expedite the transfer of classified U.S. military technology to Australia and the UK within the next five years. 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 the transfer of the submarines, which is expected to occur between early to mid-2030.
The Virginia-class submarines are highly advanced, nuclear-powered attack submarines that offer increased stealth capabilities due to their quieter and faster nature. They are capable of remaining submerged for longer durations than conventional diesel-powered submarines, making them an invaluable asset for Australia’s defense strategy.
However, there are potential challenges to overcome in Congress regarding the timing and quantity of submarines to be transferred. The U.S. Navy is currently facing maintenance backlogs and construction delays, leading to a production rate that falls below the desired target. Chief of U.S. Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday has acknowledged these challenges but expressed confidence in finding a solution to meet the requirements of both the U.S. Navy and the Australian defense forces.
The U.S. Navy currently operates 21 Virginia-class submarines, along with other previous model submarines, in its fleet. However, this falls short of the fleet-level goals set by Congress. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy, on the other hand, currently has 56 submarines in its fleet and plans to expand its submarine capabilities in the coming years.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has highlighted the challenges the U.S. defense industry faces, emphasizing the need for reinvestment and bipartisan support. The Biden administration has expressed its commitment to addressing these issues and has allocated funding to increase submarine production capacity and improve maintenance.
The AUKUS pact was formed in response to Australia’s need to upgrade its aging submarine fleet and counter the growing military presence of the Chinese Communist Party in the South China Sea and the wider Pacific region. The acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines will enable Australia to operate covertly in contested waters, enhancing its national security.
The transfer of U.S. nuclear propulsion technology to Australia is significant, as the United States has only previously shared this technology with the United Kingdom. The AUKUS alliance aims to strengthen defense cooperation among its members and explore future collaborations in areas such as hypersonic weapons, quantum technologies, and artificial intelligence.
To ensure Australia’s readiness in operating these submarines, the bill calls for the establishment of a domestic industrial base and the creation of an Australian Submarine Agency responsible for the construction and delivery of the new submarines. Australia plans to build its next-generation SSN AUKUS fleet, consisting of eight submarines, beginning in 2034.
In conclusion, the U.S. Foreign Relations Senate Committee’s authorization of the transfer of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia marks a significant development in the deepening defense cooperation among the AUKUS alliance. While challenges related to timing and production capacity persist, both the United States and Australia remain committed to addressing these issues to enhance their respective defense capabilities.