Australia buying up to five secondhand Virginia class nuclear submarines would not amount to the US “foisting off clunkers” on to its ally, a senior US lawmaker has said.
On Sunday congressman Joe Courtney, the ranking member of the house seapower subcommittee and the second highest ranking Democrat on the armed services committee, also sought to reassure Australia that concern about joint crewing of nuclear submarines was “overhyped”.
Courtney made the comments before a joint announcement about Aukus plans for nuclear submarine purchases and development by Anthony Albanese, the US president, Joe Biden, and British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, in San Diego on Monday.
Australia is expected to buy up to five Virginia class submarines to cover a capability gap in the 2030s before working jointly on a next generation submarine with the UK, evolving from the existing Astute submarine design.
The three countries first announced the Aukus plan in 2021 as part of efforts to counter China in the Indo-Pacific region.
The US and UK agreed to provide Australia with the capability to deploy nuclear-powered submarines, resulting in Australia breaking its existing contract to buy conventional submarines from France.
Late in 2022 two top US senators warned the Biden administration not to sell nuclear-powered submarines to Australia because it would diminish US national security given the vessels are “scarce”.
But Courtney said that the US had built 21 Virginia class submarines over two decades, with two more to be built this year, and an increased “production cadence” as the program was “back on track” after a slowdown during Covid.
“We don’t have to do this tonight, we’ve really got some runway to stand up these programs and I think it’s going to be a transformational enterprise for working people in Australia,” Courtney told ABC’s Insiders.
Courtney also rejected the view expressed by the Democratic senator Jack Reed, chair of the US Senate armed services committee, and the former Republican senator James Inhofe, that the purchase of submarines was a “zero-sum game”.
Courtney said he was confident Virginia class submarines could be delivered, citing the fact the US submarine production had “grown and contracted” over decades and had delivered four attack submarines a year and ballistic submarines during the cold war.
“Right now we realise we’re going to have to do some more outsourcing … in terms of Australia possibly being a contributor, whether it’s steel fabrication, parts and components.”
Asked if Australia is more likely to get new or used Virginia class submarines, Courtney said “when it comes out you’ll see” but assured Australia that “what you will get is of the highest quality”.
“The shelf life of a Virginia class submarine is 33 years and it has life-of-boat nuclear reactor, it doesn’t require refuelling.”
“No one is going to be foisting off clunkers on good friends and allies.”
“China’s missile force is really, in my opinion, the real reason that is driving this decision because surface ships right now are so vulnerable and we saw it in Ukraine where two relatively crude short-range missiles took down the flagship of the Russian navy.”
“The surface is really a much more risky place and, unfortunately, a diesel or electric [submarine] which was the prior plan has to exist and operate on the surface.”
Courtney said there was “bipartisan” support for Aukus in congress, insisting he wanted to “foot-stomp” concerns “about who is in charge and who makes the decisions”.
“There is already existing collaboration between the Australian [and US] submarine forces – I’ve seen it personally and no one questions about who is the decision-maker in terms of how your subs operate.”
Courtney said Australian crew will be aboard “Virginia class submarines, but that will be for training purposes, not for operational missions where they are basically saluting US officers”.
Albanese has repeatedly reassured that Australia will retain full operational control of nuclear submarines acquired under the Aukus pact despite former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull questioning whether they can they be operated and maintained without the support of the US Navy.
Courtney said “the notion that there is going to be joint crewing is really overhyped, honestly”.
“I don’t [think there will be joint crewing]. Everyone understands we need to train up the Australian sailors and officers in terms of nuclear propulsion.
“And when the time comes for the deed, the title to be handed to the government of Australia of a vessel, that again, it is going to be totally with the full understanding that it is going to be under Australian control.”
On Saturday, Albanese said the program was also about Australian jobs, particularly shipyard and manufacturing work in South Australia and Western Australia.
Albanese said that government will justify the need to increase defence spending to pay for the Aukus submarine program, expected to cost $100bn.
“That’s why some of, frankly, the juvenile response of the opposition to some of the fiscal matters that are before us deserves contempt,” Albanese told reporters in New Delhi.