US congressman Joe Courtney has given the clearest signal yet that Australia could receive second-hand Virginia-class submarines from the United States under the landmark AUKUS deal.
But Courtney – widely regarded as one of the top experts in Congress on submarines and shipbuilding – has vowed Australia won’t be receiving “clunkers” under the deal to be unveiled on Tuesday morning. He also dismissed suggestions the boats may have to be jointly crewed by US sailors, or that Australia won’t have sovereign control over its submarines.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will formally unveil the terms of the AUKUS deal, which will see Australia become the seventh nation in the world to operate nuclear-powered submarines.
The deal is expected to see Australia acquire three to five of the United States’ Virginia-class nuclear submarines, with the first to arrive as soon as 2032. The deal will also see US and potentially UK submarines begin to be based out of Perth’s HMAS Stirling base from 2027 and on the east coast, likely at a new naval base at Port Kembla.
Australia would then acquire a second AUKUS-class submarine, based on UK designs and US technology, would be built from the mid-to-late 2030s with at least some of the construction taking place at the Osborne shipyards in Adelaide.
Courtney, a Democrat who is a member of Congress’s Armed Services committee and chair of its seapower subcommittee, was asked on the ABC’s if Australia would receive second-hand submarines.
“What you will get is of the highest quality. And I say that sincerely,” he said. “The shelf life of a Virginia class submarine is 33 years and it has a life-of-boat nuclear reactor, it doesn’t require refuelling. No one’s going to be foisting off clunkers on good friends and allies.”
Former prime ministers Paul Keating and Malcolm Turnbull have both warned that Australia’s acquisition of nuclear submarines will make the nation too reliant on the United States.
But Courtney, the co-chair of the US House’s AUKUS Working Group dismissed that suggestion and the prospect of US crew operating Australian boats.
“No one questions about who is the decision maker in terms of how your subs operate, there will be some moments, I’m sure, when Australian sailors will be on board [US] Virginia class submarines, but that’s going to be for training purposes. That’s not for operational missions, in terms of where, you know, they’re basically saluting US officers,” he said.
“I think the notion that there’s going to be joint crewing is really overhyped. Everyone understands we need to train up the Australian sailors and officers in terms of nuclear propulsion, which is all we’re talking about here, not nuclear weapons.”
However, “when the time comes for the deed, the title, to be handed to the government of Australia of a vessel … it’s going to be totally with the full understanding that it’s going to be under Australian control”.
However, Courtney did confirm reports that Australian workers would likely be required to scale up production at the two US shipyards, operated by General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries, that currently produce about two boats per year.
This would also provide Australian workers with the training they needed to begin building nuclear submarines in the future.
“I think it’ll benefit Australia in terms of really getting a workforce that’s going to have the skill set to build its own subs,” he said.
“I mean, everybody’s going to be sort of contributing to each other’s needs. And certainly to the extent that, you know, getting the Australian workforce sort of up and running.”
Courtney dismissed concerns raised by American senators on the Armed Services Committee that the United States may not have the industrial capacity to deliver up to five Virginia-class submarines to Australia, when the US has 66 on order.
“I think it’s important to step back and recognise that … the US industrial base has delivered 21 Virginia class submarines over the last two decades. There’ll be two more this year, the Rickover and the New Jersey, that will bring it up to 23,” he said.
“Our workforce has been growing, we hired 4000 people in southern New England last year, 5700 projected for this year. Six years ago, we saw this bow wave coming in terms of hiring and we have job training programs for young adults who are doing something else that can quickly get trained up and skilled up as welders, electricians, machinists.
“We have again, secondary school programs for tech kids, you know, tech schools, for kids in those same professions, they can walk out of school at age 17, or 18, and walk into a career. So again, I think it’s actually going to be a very exciting opportunity for Australia.”
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