US Congress has given the green light for Australia to buy Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines, a key interim measure in Canberra’s quest for a nuclear-powered fleet under the AUKUS military pact. CND warns that this decision by Congress is speeding up an arms race in the Indo-Pacific.

Passed on Thursday, the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) covered a range of US security issues, including AUKUS. Having cleared both the House of Representatives and the Senate, it will now be signed into law by US President Joe Biden.

Australia hopes to buy at least three Virginia-class subs by the early 2030s in order to replace its ageing Collins-class fleet. The vessels are intended to plug an interim capability gap while a new nuclear-powered submarine design is built with US and British help. In addition to replacing Australia’s Collins fleet, the SSN-AUKUS design will replace the Royal Navy’s Astute-class fleet. However, the AUKUS subs are not expected to enter service until the 2040s.

Other aspects of AUKUS found in NDAA include permission for the Virginias to be repaired at Australian shipyards; training for Australian contractors in the US; the sharing of advanced military technology; and exemptions for both the UK and Australia from the US export licensing regime. Australian and British companies will also be given access to critical contracts.

Welcoming the move, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the ability to acquire the Virginias was “important for Australia’s national security.” Meanwhile, US Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer called AUKUS “a game changer” and that Australia’s new nuclear-powered fleet would “counter the Chinese Communist party’s threat and influence in the Pacific.”

In addition to supplying Australia with submarines, AUKUS has already expanded to include research and development of hypersonic missiles, AI and cyber technology, as well as the Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability (DARC) programme – the latter involving the construction of three deep space radars in Western Australia, the US, and Wales.

However, widespread opinion internationally holds that AUKUS is simply facilitating nuclear proliferation while fuelling an arms race in the Indo-Pacific.

CND General Secretary Kate Hudson said:

“Sending nuclear technology to a non-nuclear state is incredibly irresponsible and will only lead others to seek similar or better capabilities. AUKUS is also advancing research in other future warfighting technologies such as deep space radar and hypersonic missiles. The pact’s scope appears to be widening all the time and this absolutely has to stop. Rather than ensuring security in the Indo-Pacific, AUKUS is pushing down on the accelerator of a new arms race in the region.”

Image credits: US Navy / No 10 Downing Street