WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Defense asked Congress to authorize the transfer of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia as part of the trilateral AUKUS agreement with the U.K.
Three legislative proposals, submitted on May 2 and first posted online Tuesday, would greenlight the sale of two Virginia-class submarines to Australia, permit the training of Australian nationals for submarine work and allow Canberra to invest in the U.S. submarine industrial base.
Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee’s sea power panel, praised the proposals in a statement to Defense News, saying “I look forward to working with all my colleagues in Congress to fulfill these goals.”
“The Department of Defense’s legislative proposals are the latest example of President [Joe] Biden’s commitment to fulfilling the AUKUS agreement,” said Courtney. “Importantly, the proposals spell out a clear path forward to facilitate the transfer of Virginia-class submarines to Australia while ensuring we have the necessary authorities to accept the Australian Government’s investments to enhance our submarine industrial base capacity and provide training for Australian personnel.”
AUKUS stipulates that Australia will buy at least three and as many as five Virginia-class submarines in the 2030s as part of phase two of the agreement, giving Congress more than a decade to authorize the sale. This year’s proposal, which the Pentagon hopes will become part of the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, asks that Congress approve just two of those submarines “without a deadline to consummate the transfers and without specifying the specific vessels to be transferred.”
The proposal argues that this “small amount of flexibility is necessary” since the transfers depend on Australian readiness to operate the submarines, which will involve developing Australia’s submarine industrial base through training and appropriate shipyard infrastructure.
To that end, a second legislative proposal would authorize U.S. defense service exports directly to Australia’s private sector in order to train its own submarine workers.
“This development must begin as soon as possible for Australia to become ready to own and safely operate these submarines in a manner that both maintains the highest non-proliferation standards and strengthens the global non-proliferation regime,” the Pentagon argues in the proposal.
Finally, the Pentagon is also asking Congress for permission to accept Australian payments to bolster the U.S. submarine industrial base. Australia has offered to make an undisclosed sum of investments in the U.S. submarine industrial base as part of AUKUS.
The Pentagon states in the legislative proposal that those funds would be used to “add a significant number of trade workers” that will help address “the significant overhaul backlog” for the Virginia-class submarine. Australian monies would also be used for “advance purchasing of components and materials that are known to be replacement items for submarine overhauls” and “outsourcing less complex sustainment work to local contractors.”
Congress is also making its own investments to expand the U.S. submarine industrial base as the Navy ultimately aims to build two Virginia-class and one Columbia-class submarines per year. Courtney helped secure $541 million in submarine supplier development and $207 million in workforce development initiatives as part of the FY 23 government funding bill.
Austal USA, the American subsidiary of Australia-based Austal, plans to open a new facility at its shipyard in Mobile, Alabama to begin construction on nuclear submarine modules for General Dynamics’ Electric Boat shipyard in Connecticut, which produces both Virginia and Columbia-class submarines. Austal expects it will need 1,000 new hires in Mobile to staff that facility.
At Electric Boat, the prime contractor for the Virginia- and Columbia-class submarine programs, the hiring need will be even greater. The company currently employs more than 19,000 people, after hiring 3,700 new workers in 2022, according to local newspaper The Day. But the company needs to hire 5,750 new workers this year, to manage attrition and to help grow the workforce to about 22,000 to handle the increased workload.
The legislative proposal notes that Australian funds “would be applied to recruitment, training, incentivizing, and retention of key skilled trades, engineering and planning personnel in both nuclear and non-nuclear disciplines that are required by the additional AUKUS workload.”
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.