Correction: An initial version of this story understated the total cost of submarine industrial base investments in the House NDAA. That value is $735 million.
WASHINGTON ― The House on Wednesday advanced a series of authorizations needed to implement the trilateral AUKUS agreement, meant to enable the U.S. and U.K. to help Australia obtain its own nuclear-powered submarine fleet as the three countries simultaneously deepen cooperation on disruptive and emerging technologies.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously advanced an authorization to sell up to two nuclear-powered Virginia-class submarines to Australia despite consternation from some lawmakers about industry’s capacity to meet production goals.
But authorizations to give Britain and Australia a broad, general exemption to a key U.S. export control regime ran into Democratic opposition, prompting Republicans on the committee to advance the legislation along party lines. The U.K. and Australia have pushed for a blanket export control exemption, arguing it’s necessary to better facilitate AUKUS cooperation on advanced technologies like artificial intelligence, quantum computing and hypersonic weapons.
“They need these exemptions to move at a faster pace because it’s too slow, and it’s critical right now given the threat from China,” McCaul told Defense News ahead of the vote. “And the nuclear sub, that’s the one thing the Chinese don’t have us beat on. We’ve got superiority with the nuclear sub. So getting that moving is hugely important for deterrence reasons.”
The submarine transfer bill, introduced by Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., authorizes the sale of two Virginia-class vessels to Australia so long as the president certifies that doing so will not impact U.S. underseas operational requirements and that the industrial base can maintain submarine production requirements.
The Navy seeks to build two Virginia-class attack submarines and one Columbia-class ballistic submarine per year, though industry is currently only producing approximately 1.2 Virginia-class vessels per year. Under the AUKUS roadmap unveiled in May, Australia will buy at least three and as many as five Virginia-class submarines from the Navy in the 2030s, either newly built or used.
The submarine capacity debate in the Senate has complicated passage of AUKUS authorizations as amendments to the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act. The Pentagon in May asked Congress to attach the submarine transfer authorizations to the NDAA.
Australia has agreed to invest $3 billion in the U.S. submarine industrial base as part of AUKUS, and the Huizenga bill advanced by the House Foreign Affairs Committee also authorizes the Pentagon to accept those payments from Canberra. Additionally, it authorizes private-sector Australian employees to begin training in nuclear-powered submarine work.
The Senate is currently debating the NDAA, but Politico reported last week that Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., is holding up the AUKUS amendments unless Congress injects additional funding into the submarine industrial base. Wicker is the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee.
Wicker’s office confirmed the hold on Wednesday, but told Defense News it does not apply to training Australian personnel or export control waivers. His hold applies to the submarine transfer provision and the language allowing the U.S. to accept Australian investments in the submarine industrial base.
“President Biden should immediately send Congress a request for supplemental appropriations and authorities — including a detailed implementation plan — that increases U.S. submarine production to 2.5 Virginia-class attack submarines a year,” Wicker wrote in a July Wall Street Journal op-ed. “It is time to make generational investments in U.S. submarine production capacity that include supplier and workforce development initiatives.”
The House’s FY24 NDAA invests $735 million in the submarine industrial base, and the Senate version authorizes multiyear procurement for the Navy to procure the next block of 10 Virginia-class submarines.
The Senate bill also includes a nonbinding provision calling for additional defense spending beyond the $886 billion top line agreed to in the debt ceiling compromise. Wicker wants the additional submarine funding in a supplemental defense spending bill Senate leaders agreed to take up later this year to secure the debt ceiling vote, despite opposition from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
‘A faster pace’
Two other bills advanced by the House Foreign Affairs Committee would give both Britain and Australia a blanket exemption to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR.
The committee voted 25-22 to advance a bill from Rep. Young Kim, R-Calif., that would give Australia a blanket exemption to ITAR — a privilege currently only enjoyed by Canada. It voted 26-23 to advance another bill from Rep. Thomas Keane, R-N.J., to extend that same exemption to Britain.
A June legislative proposal from the State Department, seen by Defense News, asked Congress to give Australia and Britain the ITAR exemptions only if the two countries implement their own export control regimes “that are at least comparable to those administered by the United States.”
Democrats on the committee sided with the State Department and Pentagon, opposing exemptions that do not require Australia and the U.K. to first tighten their export control laws.
Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, the top Democrat on the committee, noted the Biden administration is pushing both countries to do just that, and argued the legislation would undermine those efforts “by mandating premature exemptions.”
“The [People’s Republic of China] focuses significant personnel and resources on surveilling, stealing, capturing or otherwise gaining an advantage over the United States and our allies,” Meeks said ahead of the vote. “The targeting of Australian defense industry insiders and experts has increased since AUKUS’ announcement. The U.K. faces similar intelligence threats.”
The Senate’s AUKUS bill, introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., exempts Australia and Britain from certain ITAR licensing requirements, but stops short of the blanket exemption in the House bills.
McCaul said “there’s too much bureaucracy within the ITAR system” and argued both countries need the exemptions to “move at a faster pace” in developing advanced defense technologies to counter China.
Republicans and Democrats compromised to advance a fourth bill from McCaul that would require the State Department to establish a senior AUKUS adviser. McCaul agreed to remove additional language on ITAR exemptions from his bill to secure support from Democrats.
The Senate NDAA also includes a provision that would require a senior Pentagon official to coordinate AUKUS activities within the Defense Department.
McCaul said he hopes Congress will add the four AUKUS bills when the House and Senate convene a conference committee later this year to draft a final NDAA.
“I’ve already gotten texts from the Australian ambassador, prime minister and the U.K. secretary of defense thanking us for moving this forward,” McCaul told Defense News.
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.