The US submarine industrial base can and will support the AUKUS defence technology partnership to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines and will itself be strengthened by that project, a senior Pentagon official said on Wednesday.
Mara Karlin, acting deputy under secretary of defence for policy, made the statement at a hearing of a subcommittee of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, during a visit to Washington by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
“AUKUS contributes to building a more robust defence industrial base ecosystem that contributes to integrated deterrence; and … the submarine industrial base can and will support AUKUS,” she said.
In a joint statement, the three representatives of the US Navy who testified at the hearing urged Congress to move ahead with President Joe Biden’s supplemental budget request last Friday, which earmarks $3.4 billion for further investments in the US submarine industrial base.
“This funding is critical to improve build and sustainment rates for attack submarines in order to meet U.S. military requirements, and will also support our commitments under AUKUS,” it said.
Twenty-five U.S. Republican lawmakers urged Biden in July to increase funding for the U.S. submarine fleet, saying that the plan under AUKUS to sell Australia Virginia-class nuclear-power submarines would “unacceptably weaken” the U.S. fleet without a clear plan to replace them.
Karlin said Congress was critical to the success of AUKUS, the biggest defense project in Australian history agreed to in response to China’s growing power in the Indo-Pacific.
She stressed the need for Congress to approve this year legislative proposals to authorize transfer of submarines to Australia, to allow maintenance of US submarines in Australia and Britain, and to authorize Australian funding for US shipyards and training of Australian workers in them.
She also highlighted a fourth proposal to streamline defence trade between the three AUKUS partners, something vital to AUKUS given the need to share US technology in the submarine project and a second AUKUS pillar involving three-way cooperation on high-tech weaponry.
Australian and British officials have expressed frustration with US export controls holding back faster progress on AUKUS.
Albanese held summit talks with Biden on Wednesday that included the AUKUS project, and Democratic Representative Joe Courtney told the hearing the Australian leader would have the opportunity to discuss it with members of the US House and Senate on Thursday.
At a joint news conference with Albanese, Biden also urged congress to approve the AUKUS legislation this year.
Vice Admiral William Houston, commander of the US Navy’s Submarine Force, told the hearing it was “absolutely critical” Congress moved forward with the proposals, saying failure to do so would send a “significant” negative message to the Indo-Pacific.
The US submarine industry is hoping it can improve its production rate to meet demand from the US Navy and AUKUS.
The “fact is, the supply chain still remains very fragile”, Jason Aiken, General Dynamics’ chief financial officer, told analysts on Wednesday. “Any additional funding and support, whether it’s through the supplemental or other Navy support would be extremely helpful.”
Aiken said his company needed to increase its production rate from 1.2 Virginia-class submarines per year to two – this on top of one Columbia-class submarine. “Then we’ll look to AUKUS beyond that.”
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