Facing US lawmaker concerns, Australian prime minister defends AUKUS sub efforts

Facing US lawmaker concerns, Australian prime minister defends AUKUS sub efforts
Anthony Albanese Richard Marles

Current Australian PM Anthony Albanese and defense secretary Richard Marles, seen in a 2020 file photo. (Luis Ascui/Getty Images)

SYDNEY — Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese this weekend attempted to quell concerns that the AUKUS defense pact could be facing headwinds in Washington, telling reporters that the United States, United Kingdom and Australia all remain committed to the plan — even if he provided few details.

Albanese faced questions about the AUKUS agreement following Breaking Defense’s exclusive report of a letter, sent to US President Joe Biden from Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, citing concerns that the United States could not build enough nuclear attack submarines to meet its own needs, let alone provide any to Australia.

“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 U.S. and its pacific allies, may be turning into a zero-sum game for scarce, highly advanced U.S. SSNs,” Reed and Inhofe, the two leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote in the Dec. 21 letter to Biden.

The bipartisan letter, which seemed to signal Senate disapproval with the idea of providing Australia either refitted Los Angeles-class or new Virginia-class boats, became top news in the Lucky Country, where the question of how and when the Australian navy will get its nuclear submarines is a major topic. (While Inhofe has retired since the letter was sent, Reed remains the chairman of the SASC and will have input into any plan that involves America’s nuclear submarines.)

Under repeated questioning by reporters at his first news conference of the new year, standing alongside his defense minister, Richard Marles, Albanese declined to share any facts or new information about the program. Instead, he pointed to the many meetings he and his team have had with the Biden Administration since AUKUS was first announced in Sept. 2021.

RELATED: AUKUS at 1 year: Aussie defense brief says Navy faces ‘high risks’ in modernization race

“I have had meetings with President Biden now in Tokyo, in Madrid, in London, and then in Bali. I met twice with Vice-President Harris, in Tokyo and then in Bangkok,” he told a reporter when asked about the letter.

Instead, Albanese stuck to the line that Australia will lay out “the optimal pathway that we have to advance the AUKUS relationship with the United States and the United Kingdom, including the development of Australia having nuclear-powered submarines in order to ensure our national security going forward…” in the first quarter of 2023.

Albanese put the decisions in the context of Australia’s Defense Strategic Review, due on March, “that is taking place to make sure that every dollar that we put into defending our country and into our national security is done in the best way possible.”

Industrial Base Concerns 

Marles comments highlighted what appears to be the basic problem that led Reed and Inhofe to write to Biden: Australia may be committed to the AUKUS subs but has provided very little detail about how it will build the fleet or how much money it may spend.

Meanwhile, the US industrial base is struggling to meet domestic demand from the US Navy, with uniformed officers acknowledging AUKUS could exacerbate a production challenge.

The letter from Reed and Inhofe makes clear their conceptual support of the AUKUS sub plan. “Make no mistake, we recognize 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,” they wrote. “However, such a goal will take decades to achieve, and we cannot simply ignore contemporary realities in the meantime.”

The lawmakers flagged concerns about the industrial base, noting in the letter that while the Virginia class program has increased production from one to two boats per year in 2011, “just 1.2 Virginia-class SSNs have delivered, on average, per year over the past five years.”

Reed and Inhofe, as the chair and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, receive the most highly classified briefings of any members of Congress, and neither are known as bomb throwers when it comes to national security. Their letter comes at a time when the idea that the United States may have to provide subs for Australia to fill a capability gap as its domestic nuclear defense industrial base is built up is being discussed.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has pledged to ensure Australia does not face a gap between its ageing Collins conventional subs, due for decommissioning in 2039, and the deployment of the Aussie nuclear boats. All six Collins-class submarines will have their operating life extended starting in 2026, while the new nuclear boats are expected to deploy sometime in the 2030s.

“There’s been a lot of talk about well, the Australians would just buy a US submarine. That’s not going to happen,” Rep. Rob Wittman, who was the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower subcommittee, told Breaking Defense last month. The issue, he said, is that the US cannot afford to interrupt its own submarine buy: “I just don’t see how we’re going to build a submarine and sell it to Australia during that time.”

That unequivocal statement from Wittman made clear the speculation that America would sell Australia a Los Angeles- or Virginia-class sub to get them going until Australia can build and deploy its own nuclear-powered attack submarine would face serious headwinds in Congress. Reed and Inhofe’s letter confirms it.

Marles admitted Saturday “there are lots of challenges and there’s no doubt that the pressure this places on the industrial base of the United States, also the United Kingdom, is really significant. We’re very aware of it. It’s why it’s so important that Australia develops its own industrial capability to build nuclear powered submarines, which we will do in Adelaide.”

Pressed three times by reporters to provide details on how they would address Reed and Inhofe’s concerns, Albanese and Marles said everyone will have to wait, in Marles’ words, “until we announce what the optimal pathway will be.”

Marles’ most specific answer to reporters’ questions about AUKUS came in relation to industrial policy. “I mean this is a really exciting opportunity for Australia to develop the industrial capacity to build a nuclear powered submarine for our nation. And one of the things we are really clear, as I said earlier, is that we will need to develop that capability in order to contribute to the net industrial base of the three countries of the United States, the United Kingdom and ourselves.”

So Australia will help the US and UK broaden their industrial base by increasing its base. How?

“People are going to need to wait until we announce the optimal pathway, which will not be too far away,” Marles said. “But the point that we’ve made is that we will need to develop an industrial base in this country to build a nuclear powered submarine, and we seek to do that as quickly as we can.”