The US Congress has passed legislation allowing the country to sell Virginia class submarines to Australia under the Aukus security pact.
Sweeping legislation covering a wide range of military priorities including Aukus passed the US House of Representatives on Thursday Washington time, a day after it cleared the Senate.
The development has been warmly welcomed by the Australian government, which had hoped to secure the legislative tick before the US entered the politically charged environment of a presidential election year.
The deputy prime minister, Richard Marles, said Australians could “have a sense of confidence about this multi-decade arrangement actually coming to pass” because of the strong bipartisan votes in the US Congress.
“We are on the precipice of historic reform that will transform our ability to effectively deter, innovate, and operate together,” he said.
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The 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes provisions to allow the US to sell Virginia class nuclear-powered submarines to Australia – expected to occur in the 2030s.
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The acquisition of at least three such submarines from the US is an interim step before Australian-built nuclear-powered submarines start to enter into service in the 2040s.
However, the transfer would still require certification from the president of the day. Under the plans, two of the submarines to be transferred to Australia would be secondhand while one would be new and come off the production line.
The NDAA – which must next go to the president, Joe Biden, to sign into law – also allows the maintenance of US submarines by Australians in Australia. It creates the ability for Australian contractors to train in US shipyards.
The legislation contains other measures to free up the sharing of advanced defence technology among the US, Australia and the UK. This includes exempting Australia and the UK from US defence export control licensing.
Both countries will also be added to Title III of the US Defense Production Act, giving their firms access to incentives to produce and supply critical materials and goods.
The legislation passed the Senate with a strong 87-13 vote. In the Republican-controlled House, the result was 310 in favour and 118 opposed.
Joe Courtney, a Democratic congressman and strong backer of Aukus, said authorising the sale of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia was particularly significant.
“That’s never happened before,” he said after the vote, Breaking Defense reported.
“There’s a lot more work to be done in terms of making that a reality, but Congress gave its blessing to allow this very unique and unprecedented step to be taken amongst the three countries.”
The Australian minister for defence industry, Pat Conroy, had earlier welcomed the passage of the legislation through the Senate. Conroy said it was “a momentous day in the alliance with the United States”.
“Many people were very sceptical that the US system would come behind so quickly and strongly and have been proven wrong,” Conroy told ABC Radio during a visit to Washington DC.
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Biden had told the prime minster, Anthony Albanese, at the White House in October that he was confident of securing congressional support for Aukus, saying the question was “not if, but when”.
The Aukus security partnership, first announced in 2021, will see the three countries increasingly collaborate on defence capabilities including artificial intelligence, hypersonics and undersea warfare.
The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, said the Aukus agreement was “a game changer”.
“It will create a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines to counter the Chinese Communist party’s threat and influence in the Pacific,” Schumer said on Wednesday.
Some in US congress had previously raised fears that the transfer of Virginia class submarines to Australia could jeopardise the US’s own needs, given that its shipyards were already struggling to meet existing demand.
As part of attempts to assuage those concerns, the new legislation will enable Australia to make financial contributions to the US to lift capacity at its shipyards.
Australia is expected to transfer $US3bn ($A4.5bn) to the US industrial base under the plan, with the mechanism for the payment to go into a dedicated account forming one part of the legislation.
The US$3bn contribution is understood to be a one-off, although the exact timing of the payment is still subject to negotiations between the two governments.
The US Congressional Budget Office has previously said the amount could be spread over several years, with an estimate that the bulk of it – $US2bn – would arrive in 2025.
Aukus has bipartisan support in Australia, but some critics have raised concerns that it risks locking Canberra into joining the US in a potential future conflict with China.
Former prime ministers Paul Keating and Malcolm Turnbull have both argued the plan increases Australia’s dependence on the US and therefore reduces its strategic autonomy.
The Australian government has repeatedly emphasised that it will have sovereign control of the submarines. Marles said in March that the Aukus deal did not include any pre-commitments to the US over a Taiwan-related conflict.
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