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Christmas gift: US Congress green-lights submarine sale to Australia

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, the Hon Richard Marles at Capitol Hill, in Washington D.C. on 1 November 23. Photo: Kym Smith

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles has been handed an early Christmas gift by the US Congress, as members voted to allow the sale of three Viriginia Class submarines to Australia in the 2030s.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles has been handed an early Christmas gift by the US Congress, as members voted to allow the sale of three Viriginia Class submarines to Australia in the 2030s.

The agreement, added to the US Congress’s National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024, would allow transfer of the nuclear-powered conventionally armed submarines to Australia after the bill is enacted, according to Bloomberg.

Deputy PM and Minister for Defence Marles reportedly welcomed the news of the AUKUS breakthrough after months of glacial-speed progress in the US.

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“Australia welcomes the continued progress of legislation through the US Congress and acknowledges the ongoing work of Congress and Biden administration,” he said, according to the Herald Sun.

“Ultimately, the passage of this legislation remains a matter for Congress, but the bipartisan support for AUKUS provides us with an enormous sense of confidence.”

Earlier this year in July, a US Congressional Research Service report raised some concerns about upcoming operations with Australia under AUKUS and maintenance backlog in the US nuclear-powered submarine fleet.

The report discussed Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class attack submarine procurement information and issues for Congress.

The US Navy has been procuring Virginia Class nuclear-powered attack submarines since 1998 and accumulated 38 as of 2023 at a rate of two per year and cost of around $4.3 billion per boat; however, the vessel is part of a proposed AUKUS defence agreement with the sale of Virginia Class boats to Australia announced in March.

The US Navy anticipates building additional Virginia Class SSNs in the 2030s as replacements for three to five Virginia Class submarines sold to Australia but warns the full impact of AUKUS shipbuilding plan cannot be characterised in the report.

“Strictly construed, building additional SSNs as replacements for three to five Virginia Class boats sold to Australia would involve building three to five SSNs that would be in addition to those that were already envisaged as being built in the 2030s for US Navy (20 SSNs from 2030 to 2039),” the report said.

The report gave variations of the arrangement in which US naval nuclear propulsion technology is shared to Australia; however, as Australia builds its own AUKUS SSNs, there is a reduction in the need for US SSNs to perform Australian SSN missions. Another variation suggests the performance of Australian SSN missions by US SSNs would continue indefinitely and instead of technology sharing, Australia would continue investing in other military capabilities.

The report also highlighted internal US concerns that 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.

That number has increased from 11 boats (21 per cent) in 2012 and is much higher than the US Navy industry best practice of 20 per cent of the SSN force in depot maintenance.

The US Navy has also already begun a 20-year, multibillion dollar investment plan, the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program, to modernise facilities and increase staffing.

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