US Congress progresses AUKUS

Department of Defence

Last week the US Congress passed the National Defense Authorisation Act in a historic moment for our AUKUS partnership.

The importance of this development cannot be overstated.

It demonstrated the AUKUS agreement continues to be implemented at pace by all three partners.

It will enable unprecedented levels of scientific, technological and industrial collaboration and pave the way for Australia to build up its sovereign workforce capacity.

It means tens of thousands of highly skilled jobs for Australians.

And it brings us closer to realising a generational opportunity to protect Australians and their interests and to support stability and security in the Indo-Pacific.

The NDAA paves the way for Australia to acquire three Virginia Class nuclear-powered submarines, and will turbo-charge cooperation between our countries.

It includes a powerful national exemption that means most Australian acquisitions of, and collaboration on sensitive military technology will no longer need to go through the onerous export licence process.

Items not covered by the exemption will be managed through a much faster and more streamlined approval process.

In an unprecedented step, Australia will be included in the US Defense Production Act’s definition of domestic source.

This means Australian-based businesses will be eligible to receive loans, grants and purchasing contracts direct from the US Government to support priority sectors, such as critical minerals supply chains, guided weapons, and advanced capabilities.

As we expand the industrial base of all three countries, there are opportunities for Australian defence industry and for Australian jobs.

For the first time, Australian workers and contractors, alongside ADF personnel, will be able to train in US shipyards – a key step in expanding our skills base to be ready to build, operate and sustain nuclear-powered submarines.

In tandem with the defence trade controls legislation introduced by the Albanese Government into the Australian Parliament, the NDAA will allow for seamless technology transfer and industrial base collaboration.

This is akin to building the principles of free trade into our defence collaboration, together with even stronger protections to safeguard our military technology.

The NDAA also changes US law to enable the maintenance of US submarines in Australia by Australians.

This is a key part of ensuring Australia will be “sovereign ready” by the early 2030s when we will acquire our first nuclear-powered submarines.

The Act also clears the way for Australia to invest in the US submarine industrial base to help realise the transfer of Virginia class submarines to Australia as soon as possible.

That’s fair enough. Australia always pays its own way. It is fair and proportionate. And this will lift the capacity of the US shipyards and help us get boats into the water faster.

We’re also putting Australian manufacturing at the forefront of the construction of Australia’s first SSN-AUKUS submarine later this decade.

The Australian Submarine Agency has already contracted the Australian steel manufacturer, Bisalloy Steels, to qualify Australian steel for use in the submarines’ construction.

Australians will have cause to be proud of the fact that Australian steel – a quintessential feature of our identity as a manufacturing nation – will be used to make Australian submarines.

As Congress voted on the NDAA, I reflected that I could fill the pages of this newspaper twice over with the opinions of those who declared this day would never come.

A bit of honest scepticism is fair enough. No one said this was going to be an easy pathway.

But in some quarters it has curdled into relentless negativity that’s at odds with reality, because the facts about AUKUS tell a story of remarkable progress.

Well before the passage of the NDAA, the first Australian Navy officers had graduated from the US Navy Nuclear Power School, Australian industry personnel had undertaken placements within the United Kingdom’s submarine industry, and we had signed off a land swap for the new submarine yard at Osborne – and much, much more.

The speed of this progress matters, because to use President Biden’s words, we are at an inflection point in world history.

Advanced military technology is more important than ever to Australia’s national security, and AUKUS is critical to getting this technology into the hands of the ADF as soon as possible.

The passage of the NDAA is the clearest signal of the strong bipartisan support for AUKUS in the US.

For our part, the Albanese Government has an unwavering commitment to working with our partners to get AUKUS projects moving – and delivering – because that will ensure Australia is better placed to meet the security challenges of today and tomorrow.

This opinion piece was first published in The Australian on Monday, 18 December 2023.

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