Rep. Joe Courtney: To make AUKUS work, Congress should look to the past

Rep. Joe Courtney: To make AUKUS work, Congress should look to the past
Joe COurtney

U.S. Congressman Joe Courtney (CT-2) speaks at the Tolling of the Boats ceremony held at the United States Submarine Force Library and Museum. (U.S. Navy/Tristan B. Lotz/Released)

Democratic Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut is one of the leading voices in Congress when it comes to seapower. In an exclusive op-ed with Breaking Defense, he lays out his view of how the new Congress should approach the AUKUS agreement to ensure Australia receives the capabilities it needs, without leaving America’s navy high and dry. 

On Sept. 15, 2021, the governments of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States announced a startling new security agreement to share their most advanced defense technologies in order to dramatically bolster deterrence and counter coercive behavior in the Indo-Pacific region. Nothing is more eye-catching than the centerpiece of the AUKUS agreement: providing “conventionally armed, nuclear powered submarine capability at the earliest possible date” for the Australian Navy.

David Ignatius, the longtime journalist covering foreign policy at the Washington Post, described AUKUS as “the most important strategic move in decades” — and from where I sit, I fully agree. The logic behind the endeavor is inescapable. Australia needs to recapitalize its submarine fleet, and a nuclear-powered submarine provides sustained stealth in a way that a new class of diesel electric submarines cannot achieve. Meanwhile, the agreement brings America’s relationship with Australia to new heights while also providing logistical support for the US Navy’s own fleet of nuclear-powered subs.

That strategic judgement of the agreement’s value, though, is the easy part. The logistical execution of AUKUS — which requires sharing of technology, naval training, and a complex industrial base all “at the earliest possible date” — is where the capability of the three countries will be tested.

The principals who negotiated this deal understood at the outset that developing such a plan would take time and intense planning. No details of a construction plan will be released until after a trilateral, 18-month, highly classified Working Group fleshes out this joint enterprise. Presumably, the Working Group will make its “reveal” in March 2023. There has been an immense amount of speculation and curiosity over what, when, and where the work will be distributed, but the group has maintained an impressively tight hold on deliberations. Despite all the external handwringing as we approach the completion of the consultation period, its clear that the principals are committed to formulating a workable plan for Australian submarine construction.

For the US Congress and the parliaments of Australia and the UK, this AUKUS hiatus does not mean that our work is just on standby. Regardless of the specifics of the Working Group Plan, the need to remove legal impediments to advanced nuclear technology-sharing between the three countries is screaming out for action. Even among the most trusted of allies, the strict regime of existing export controls, which are far-reaching in their scope, could decimate the “earliest possible date” edict in AUKUS, which is foundational to its efficacy.

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

To understand this point, legislators from all three nations should look to the last time the US government shared the “Crown Jewels” of its nuclear technology in the 1950s with none other than the UK.

It may be surprising for many to learn that in 1946, the US Congress passed and Harry Truman signed into law the Atomic Energy Act, also known as the McMahon Act, which prohibited the sharing of atomic energy technology with any country, including Great Britain, “on pain of imprisonment or death.” The McMahon Act’s proximity to the shock and awe of Hiroshima and Nagasaki explains the political desire to drastically limit proliferation of nuclear weapons, but from the time of its passage, Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Harold McMillan relentlessly complained about the Act and advocated for its reversal, including in a one-on-one between Churchill and Connecticut Sen. Brien McMahon, the sponsor of the legislation.

As time went on and the Soviet Union ended the US atomic monopoly in the 1950s, the Eisenhower Administration advocated for relaxing the law to permit the US “special relationship” with the UK to share nuclear secrets in the realm of both weapons and naval propulsion. Finally, Congress amended the McMahon Act in 1954 and then again in 1958 to allow the British Navy access to US designed and built nuclear naval reactors.

It was not long after that US Adm. Hyman Rickover, the head of Naval Reactors, cut through the impasse and simply sent a US-built submarine reactor to the Royal Navy to do as it wished. Since then, the two navies and their respective shipbuilders have successfully collaborated for decades on construction of new classes of submarines.

In 2022, the regime of export controls for modern attack submarines is more extensive than the one-statute impediment of the 1950s. Today, the amalgamation of statutes and bureaucracy that has grown up, known as ITAR, poses a daunting task for the US Congress to amend. There is multi-agency jurisdiction — Defense, State, and Commerce — as well as layers of both federal statutes and administrative rules to fix. For the Parliaments of the UK and Australia, there is also a need to make sure that their in-country end users that will be part of submarine design and production are required by law to protect sensitive technology. AUKUS’s intent is to tightly integrate naval reactor propulsion among three close nations, not to become a backdoor for proliferation.

This is a big “to-do” list that will require bipartisan commitment and discipline from all three governments, particularly their legislative bodies. We can’t sit around and wait for issues to appear — now is the time for my colleagues in the US and our international partners to work through these challenges. As former Chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, and as the sponsor of the first-ever AUKUS related legislation in the 2022 NDAA, legislative reform to ITAR will be a top priority of mine in the new Congress. Likeminded colleagues in the Friends of Australia Caucus, particularly caucus co-chair and senior House Armed Services Committee member Congressman Mike Gallagher (R-WI), are also determined to advance this issue.

In the 1950s, goodwill between allies accomplished this task. That example should motivate and inspire all AUKUS partners to do the same.

Congressman Courtney represents Connecticut’s 2nd Congressional District. He is a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, and is the incoming Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces