Australia ‘heartened’ as US Congress expected to pass AUKUS provisions

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s government on Friday welcomed signs that a U.S. defense spending bill which would authorise the sale of nuclear submarines to Australia is set to pass Congress after a compromise between Republicans and Democrats.

The sale is part of AUKUS – a pact with the United States and Britain to develop nuclear-powered submarines and other high technology weapons and Australia’s most expensive defence project with a $244 billion price tag over three decades.

The Australian government is “heartened and hopeful,” Defence Minister Richard Marles told reporters in Victoria state on Friday, adding that the first U.S. submarine is expected to be sold to Australia in the next decade.

“It’s obviously a matter for the U.S. Congress, but we are hopeful of a good result. And if we achieve that good result, what’s in prospect is a once in a generation change,” he said.

AUKUS would create a “seamless defence industrial base” between Australia and the United States, he added.

As a first step, AUKUS provides for the sale of three U.S. nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, before the sharing of nuclear-propulsion technology to develop a new class of submarine to be built in Australia and Britain around 2040.

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, on an official visit to Washington in October, had urged Congress members to pass legislation needed to move the AUKUS project forward this year, after Australian officials had expressed concern about delays.

The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives Armed Services Committees on Thursday released the text of the Fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, that sets policy for the Department of Defense and authorises spending. It contains provisions that could pave the way for Australia to receive several U.S. nuclear-powered submarines.

The Senate could take its first votes within days, with the House of Representatives expected to follow suit later this month.

Australia has introduced legislation to replicate U.S. export controls on defence technology, to show it can protect defence secrets, as part of its AUKUS commitment.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham and Alasdair Pal in Sydney, and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)