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Two powerful US politicians have raised serious concerns about the AUKUS pact, warning President Joe Biden the proposal to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines risked harming America’s industrial base to “breaking point”.
In a leaked letter dated December 21, first obtained by US publication Breaking Defense, the Democratic Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former Republican colleague outline their anxieties over the ambitious project.
“Over the past year, we have grown more concerned about the state of the US submarine industrial base as well as its ability to support the desired AUKUS SSN [nuclear sub] end state.”
Committee chair, Senator Jack Reed, and Republican Senator James Inhofe warn the White House explicitly against any plan to sell or transfer Virginia-class submarines to Australia before the US Navy meets its current requirements.
“We believe current conditions require a sober assessment of the facts to avoid stressing the US submarine industrial base to the breaking point,” the Senators are quoted as saying.
“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 US and its pacific allies, may be turning into a zero-sum game for scarce, highly advanced US SSNs.”
While Senator Inhofe has since retired, Senator Reed remains committee chairman in the new Congress, and is considered one of the most influential voices on defence issues in Washington, with oversight on AUKUS deliberations.
Their dramatic intervention comes just three months before the Albanese government unveils its nuclear submarine plan and is the first time members of Congress have raised major concerns about AUKUS, which enjoys bi-partisan support in Washington.
In August a senior US Navy official also warned helping Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines could be too big a burden for America’s already overstretched shipyards.
Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles rules out Australians paying extra to fund an ambitious plan to acquire a fleet of expensive nuclear-powered submarines.
Former defence minister, now Opposition Leader, Peter Dutton has claimed securing a small number of Virginia-class submarines “off-the-shelf” from the US would be the best way to bridge a looming capability gap as the current Collins Class fleet is retired.
A spokesperson for Australia’s Defence Minister Richard Marles said the deal to acquire nuclear submarines was “taking shape” and that an announcement would be made in the “first part” of this year.
“AUKUS will significantly transform Australia’s strategic posture and the work undertaken over the last 16 months speaks to a shared mission between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States,” the spokesperson said.
“As the Deputy Prime Minister has said, Australia is grateful for the work which we have been able to do with the United States and United Kingdom to enable Australia to acquire a nuclear-powered submarine capability, and the significance of the US working with the UK through the AUKUS framework to provide Australia with that important capability is not lost on us.”
The outgoing ambassador to the US, Arthur Sinodinos, has described helping facilitate the finalisation of the AUKUS deal as one of the key tasks for incoming ambassador Kevin Rudd.
“The (US-Australian) relationship is in great shape, but there are some big challenges ahead, particularly bedding down AUKUS and getting that implemented. That’s a particular challenge,” he said.
Mr Sinodinos told the Australian Strategic Policy Institute there would be more detail on the first and second stages of the agreement in the coming few months, including which country’s submarines Australia would buy.
“I think we can look forward in the first three or four months … to have more detail on pillar one, which is the submarines both in terms of the final pathway, if you like, as well as the interim capabilities building up to that,” he said.
“Also some more elaboration of pillar two which is the advanced capabilities, which are also designed in part to accelerate capability development and capability application in the field.”
Mr Sinodinos also noted helping the US navigate its relationship with China would be another challenge for Mr Rudd, but praised his experience as prime minister, foreign minister and his research on Chinese leader Xi Jinping as assets to his role as ambassador.
“I think he brings a lot of firepower to the job and I think it’ll be really exciting,” he said.
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