Two years after AUKUS announcement, American politicians are divided on delivery of subs to Australia

Two years after AUKUS announcement, American politicians are divided on delivery of subs to Australia
  • PublishedSeptember 16, 2023

A Republican senator has renewed calls for the US to step up its production of nuclear-powered submarines before selling them as part of AUKUS, arguing America is as “unprepared” as it was ahead of the Pearl Harbor attack. 

The US is set to transfer at least three Virginia-class submarines to Australia from the early 2030s under the AUKUS agreement.

However, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services committee, Roger Wicker, told a hearing in Washington this week that the US was failing to meet its own shipbuilding targets.

“We should be producing somewhere between 2.3 and 2.5 attack submarines a year to fulfil our own requirements as we implement AUKUS,” he said.

“Instead, we’re down to building 1.2 attack submarines per year… and the path back toward two per year is based on hopes and wishes.

“We are as unprepared as our fleet was for the Japanese attack on the eve of Pearl Harbor in 1941. We need to act.” 

Senator Wicker insists he supports the AUKUS agreement but has refused to back legislation in congress authorising the transfer of the submarines, arguing substantial new investments are needed in America’s shipbuilding capacity first.

In a letter to the president last month, he and 24 other Republicans argued selling submarines to Australia without a clear plan to replace them would “unacceptably weaken” the US fleet at the same time that China expands its military power.

“AUKUS presents a generational opportunity to strengthen deterrence in the Indo-Pacific, and there is strong bipartisan support for the agreement,” Senator Wicker said in emailed comments to the ABC.

“But the Biden administration must complete significant work before I can be convinced that it has a comprehensive vision for how AUKUS can be implemented fully in the near term.

“That work includes immediately delivering to congress a major submarine industrial base study and working with congress to build a plan to fix our submarine production and maintenance problems.” 

Push for speed amid prospect of another Trump term

The AUKUS agreement will see Australia obtain up to five Virginia-class submarines from the US before eventually building its own nuclear-powered boats.

But two years after the deal was first announced, the US Congress still needs to sign off on several legislative proposals to progress it.

They include legislation to approve the sale of the subs, to allow Australia to make a promised $3 billion contribution to US shipyards, and to facilitate the sharing of sensitive technology.

One of AUKUS’s most public backers in congress, Democrat Joe Courtney, argued the US legislative body was “not built for speed” but he remained optimistic of overcoming the issues raised by Republicans.

Joe Courtney stands in an office. A desk behind him has a small Australian flag on it.
Democrat congressman Joe Courtney founded the bipartisan AUKUS Working Group.(ABC News: Bradley McLennan)

“It’s a valid concern, you know the US Navy has its own needs in terms of its submarine fleet,” he told the ABC.

“But I think with the investment that we’re seeing in the lead time, in terms of the demand signal, we can get that cadence production above two Virginias a year and really satisfy both nations’ navies, in terms of what they need.”

Senators on both sides of US politics last week urged their colleagues to move quickly on the legislation, with one warning congress risked “doing Beijing’s job for them”.

Mr Courtney said the potential for Donald Trump to win the Republican presidential nomination next year, and then a second term in the White House, was also cause for speed.

“He’s such an unpredictable, erratic person in terms of just, you know, what strikes his fancy,” he said.

“Honestly, that’s another reason why I think we should really move this year in congress to really sort of lay a strong foundation so that it’s going to be able to go on regardless of changing government.”

Leaders reaffirm AUKUS commitment despite lingering concerns

The political debate in the United States comes amid ongoing questions in Australia about the merits and the cost of AUKUS, which could have a price tag of up to $386 billion.

Tensions within the Labor Party were exposed at its recent national conference, while former prime minister Paul Keating has described the agreement as the “worst deal in all history”.

Anthony Albanese (left) stands and shakes hands with Joe Biden in front of US and Australian flags.
Anthony Albanese and Joe Biden unveiled details of AUKUS in California in March.(Reuters: Leah Millis)

In a joint statement to mark two years since the initial announcement of AUKUS, the leaders of the US, the UK and Australia reaffirmed their commitment to the plan and to working with legislators in each country to make it a reality.

 “As democracies, our legislatures have an important role to play to oversee and enable our progress,” the statement said.

“We are committed to working with them, and look forward to historic action that will empower AUKUS’s success.”

Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles also previously expressed confidence in the level of bipartisan support for the agreement in the US.

“We very much understand the heat and light that comes with the passage of legislation through parliaments,” he told a press conference last month.

 “And we are completely sanguine about what we are seeing in America and understand that is just part of the process.”


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