US senators urge Joe Biden not to sell ‘scarce’ nuclear submarines to Australia

Democrat and Republican lawmakers reportedly warned president that Aukus security pact could stress US submarine industrial base ‘to breaking point’

Two top US senators have urged president Joe Biden not to sell nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, warning it would diminish US national security given the vessels are “scarce”.

The intervention confirms the US is under pressure not to sell its submarines before Australia is able to build its own as part of the Aukus alliance – meaning it could be decades before Australia gains nuclear submarines.

A spokesperson for the Australian defence minister, Richard Marles, played down the leak, saying “the optimal pathway for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines is taking shape, and an announcement remains on track to be made in the first part of this year.”

The Australian government is due to announce whether it plans to buy nuclear submarines from the US or UK by March.

According to US news site Breaking Defense, the Democratic senator Jack Reed, chair of the US Senate armed services committee, and the then ranking Republican senator James Inhofe, now retired, sent Biden the letter in December.

Reed and Inhofe wrote that “over the past year, we have grown more concerned about the state of the US submarine industrial base as well as its ability to support the desired Aukus SSN [nuclear submarine] end state.”

“We believe current conditions require a sober assessment of the facts to avoid stressing the US submarine industrial base to the breaking point,” they reportedly wrote.

“We are concerned that what was initially touted as a ‘do no harm’ opportunity to support Australia and the United Kingdom and build long-term competitive advantages for the US and its Pacific Allies, may be turning into a zero-sum game for scarce, highly advanced US [Virginia-class submarines].”

“We urge you to adopt a ‘do no harm’ approach to Aukus negotiations and ensure that sovereign US national security capabilities will not be diminished as we work to build this strategic partnership with Australia and the United Kingdom over the coming decades.”

The US aims to build its own fleet of at least 60 nuclear-powered submarines but is struggling to meet its own needs.

In December the US secretary of defence, Lloyd Austin, recommitted the Biden administration “to ensuring that Australia acquires this capability [nuclear submarines] at the earliest possible date”.

But the two senators reportedly noted “just 1.2 Virginia-class [nuclear submarines] have been delivered, on average, per year over the past five years”.

Selling or transferring Virginia-class submarines prior to meeting the US navy’s requirements would make it “less capable of meeting sovereign wartime and peacetime requirements”, they wrote.

“Make no mistake, we recognise the strategic value of having one of our closest allies operating a world-class nuclear navy could provide in managing long-term competition with an increasingly militaristic China.

“However, such a goal will take decades to achieve, and we cannot simply ignore contemporary realities in the meantime.”

Marles’s spokesperson said Aukus would “significantly transform Australia’s strategic posture and the work undertaken over the last 16 months speaks to a shared mission between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States”.

Australia was “grateful” for the US and UK enabling Australia to acquire a nuclear-powered submarine capability and “that important capability is not lost on us”, the spokesperson said.

In September 2021, Australia tore up a $90bn conventional submarine contract with France to instead acquire nuclear submarine technology from the US or the UK as part of the new Aukus alliance.

The deal created a looming capability gap, requiring the Collins-class submarines to be upgraded and their life extended until the first nuclear-propelled submarines could be made in Australia by the late 2030s.

In June, Peter Dutton, the opposition leader and former defence minister, revealed he “believed it possible to negotiate with the Americans to ­acquire, say, the first two submarines off the production line out of Connecticut”.

“This wouldn’t mean waiting until 2038 for the first submarine to be built here in Australia,” he wrote. “We would have our first two subs this decade. I had formed a judgment the Americans would have facilitated exactly that.”

The revelation prompted criticism from experts including Marcus Hellyer, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who said this had not been agreed by the US government and it would be a “pretty serious kind of breach or leak [to disclose it]” if it had.

“No boats are available before 2030 unless the US gives up its own – that would be quite remarkable – the US has been clear there is no way they can build additional submarines,” Hellyer told Guardian Australia at the time.


Paul Karp

The GuardianTramp

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