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Australia risks becoming US submarine parking lot, says senator

The crew of USS Indiana salute during the commissioning ceremony of the USS Indiana, the Navy's 16th Virginia-class fast-attack submarine and the third ship named for the State of Indiana, in Port Canaveral, Fla., Sept. 29, 2018. Photo: Navy/Senior Chief Petty Officer Leah Stiles

Australia is at risk of becoming a paid parking lot for US nuclear submarines, according to Australian Greens senator David Shoebridge.

Australia is at risk of becoming a paid parking lot for US nuclear submarines, according to Australian Greens senator David Shoebridge.

Senator Shoebridge made the comments during a Questions without Notice session in Parliament of Australia on 7 September.

They referenced a US Congressional Research Service report which raised concerns about upcoming Virginia (SSN-774) Class attack submarine operations with Australia under AUKUS and an existing maintenance backlog in the US nuclear-powered submarine fleet.

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In July, it was proposed that the US Navy would organise a US–Australian military division of labour under which US SSNs would perform both US and Australian SSN missions, instead of directly selling three to five Virginia Class submarines to Australia.

Such a plan would potentially safeguard a maintained Virginia Class nuclear-powered attack submarine fleet for the US, free up Australian defence investment, bypass ballistic missile restrictions on proposed Australian crewed boats (which are only allowed conventional weapons), and provide a division of labour similar to US–NATO allies.

Australian Greens senator David Shoebridge said there are concerns the Australian federal government is taking billions in taxpayers’ money to bail out the US shipbuilding industry.

“With opposition growing in the US Congress to passing any legislation that allows Australia even one Virginia Class nuclear submarine because of an entrenched lack of capability in the US industry to build enough submarines for their use, what is the Albanese government’s Plan B for when no subs are approved and the first pillar of AUKUS sinks?” Senator Shoebridge said.

“Australia might have a neat little agreement with President Biden but there is no agreement with Congress.

“The Special Minister of State (Don Farrell) seemed to be ignorant of the requirement to get congressional approval, saying: ‘But we’ve got an agreement with Joe Biden. We signed it. It should all be sweet. We’ve given them $3 billion to build their industrial base! It should all be sweet. We’ve got $368 billion that we’re stripping out of climate action, schools and hospitals. It should all be sweet.’ He’s failing to understand the most basic fact that it’s not sweet.

“One of those critical roles (of the US Congress) is approving any export of critical US defence technology such as the Virginia Class submarines. The United States Congress has to approve it, and Congress hasn’t approved it.”

The US Navy has accumulated 38 Virginia Class submarines as of this year at a rate of two per year and cost of around $4.3 billion per boat. However, around 37 per cent of the US SSN fleet (18 boats) are caught either in maintenance or awaiting depot maintenance in a critical SSN maintenance backlog as of 2023.

“The US Congressional Research Service has also proposed a division-of-labour plan in which Australia never receives a Virginia Class submarine,” Senator Shoebridge continued.

“Instead, the US would station their nuclear submarines in Australia under their control and we would pay the US for them to use us as a parking lot. Is that Prime Minister Albanese’s Plan B?”

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