Republicans pushing to boost the Pentagon budget topline have new leverage: the Biden administration’s commitment to send nuclear-powered submarines to Australia.
Big picture: Senate Armed Services Republicans are jamming up a key piece of President Joe Biden’s foreign policy agenda — the U.S. security pact with Australia and the U.K. to share nuclear submarine technology, known as AUKUS.
The move to block the agreement, led by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), is the latest bid to force the White House to boost military spending beyond levels set by the debt-limit deal.
Wicker, despite the fact that he supports AUKUS, blocked a plan to fast-track Congress’s authorization to sell Australia three Virginia-class attack subs, a major pillar of the multinational agreement announced this year. He’s arguing that for U.S. submarine manufacturers to be able to boost production enough to supply both the U.S. Navy and Australia, the industry needs more investment from the federal government.
“It makes sense to be sure we have enough submarines for our own security needs before we endorse that pillar of the [AUKUS] agreement,” Wicker, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s ranking member, said in a brief interview. “The president needs to submit a supplemental request to give us an adequate number of submarines.”
Wicker could not immediately say how much spending is required, but he said Australia’s planned $3 billion investment in the U.S. submarine industrial base would not be enough.
“We need a concrete plan that includes not only the authorization and money for an adequate number of attack submarines, but a plan for the industrial base to actually get there,” he said. “We want to help [Biden] implement a good, meaningful AUKUS approach.”
Wicker and Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chair Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) aim to send Biden a letter in the coming days laying out their argument for added spending.
Collins is a vocal player in the Republican push for more defense spending and her state hosts maintenance facilities for nuclear subs. In an interview, she said she supports AUKUS, but also worries about shortfalls in the submarine fleet and industrial base.
Background: Defense hawks and budget hawks are at odds over whether to go above or below the fiscal 2024 funding levels set by Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy during the debt limit deal. Wicker, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and other Senate Republicans want to boost the Pentagon budget through supplemental funding.
But because McCarthy and fiscal hard-liners have rejected the idea of a supplemental, adding defense spending beyond the topline — for the submarine industrial base or anything else — will be no easy feat.
What’s happening now: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has jurisdiction over the transfer of weapons and weapons technology to other countries, sent a bill to the Senate floor on July 13 that would authorize the sub transfers, permit the DOD to accept payments from Canberra and ease regulations to allow weapons technology-sharing between pact allies.
Senate leaders from both parties agreed to add some of that AUKUS-related legislation to the annual defense policy bill, which is expected to pass on a bipartisan basis as early as next week. But Wicker blocked the language to authorize the submarine transfers from being added to the bill.
Wicker’s argument: In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published Sunday, Wicker reiterated his support for the goals of AUKUS, but said the Navy’s fleet of 49 attack submarines already falls short of the service’s goal to have 66 — and that it can’t afford to spare any.
The Navy has acknowledged that because it bought fewer attack submarines in the 1990s, its fleet will hit a low point from the 2020s through the early 2030s, with only 46 in fiscal 2030. To help fill in part of the projected valley, the Navy plans to refuel and extend the service lives of up to seven Los Angeles-class attack submarines.
“Australian investment in U.S. shipyards will also help. But we can’t afford to shrink the overworked U.S. submarine fleet at a dangerous moment,” he said.
Boosters react: Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who co-sponsored the AUKUS legislation based on an administration proposal, decried the Republican opposition to what might have been a smooth path for adding the sub transfers to the National Defense Authorization Act.
In a brief interview, Menendez said he was considering whether to offer a separate floor amendment that, if passed, would add the sub-transfer language to the defense policy bill. If so, that could tee up a Senate floor fight between lawmakers on either side of the issue.
“There seems to be an element of [Republicans] that has a problem transferring submarines to the Australians. I think it’s foolish because giving us the ability to have that type of presence in the Pacific with a strong ally makes a lot of sense,” Menendez said.
Senate Defense Appropriations Chair Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said AUKUS is “pretty damned important” for the country, but questioned whether the submarine industrial base can actually absorb another large influx of cash.
“We’ve already put a lot of money into the submarine defense base, and I’m not sure they can spend what we’ve got for them now,” Tester said.
Dems in a bind: For some Democrats with submarine interests back home, it’s hard to disagree with Wicker when he is asking for money that could go to their states. Yet going along with the gambit means standing in the way of AUKUS, considered a foreign policy win for this administration.
Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) forecasted the supplemental Wicker is seeking will arrive on the Hill and with it, the “possibility of increasing submarine spending.” Reed, whose state hosts a General Dynamics Electric Boat facility at Quonset Point, said Wicker has a point.
“We have capacity issues in our yards, and we’ve been trying to get help over the last several years, starting in 2017, by creating funding for the submarine industrial base, so they’re in much better shape than they would be — but still there’s a gap,” he said.
Armed Services Seapower Chair Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a co-sponsor of the AUKUS legislation and supporter of Virginia-class submarines made in his state, said Wicker is not an AUKUS hater.
“I think he wants to get some assurances that there will be sufficient funding forthcoming from this administration, and future administrations, to get us to a place where we can produce enough Virginia-class subs both for us and for the AUKUS framework,” Kaine said of Wicker. “I think he’s looking for some assurances about resource levels with respect to the workforce or other investments. But he’s an AUKUS supporter.”
Pentagon responds: DOD spokesperson John Supple declined to comment on the pending legislation, but said the Pentagon is committed to strengthening alliances and national security through AUKUS and other initiatives.
“AUKUS is a generational opportunity to strengthen the military capabilities and prosperity of the United States and two vital allies and will increase our ability to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific region for decades to come,” Supple said. “As discussions continue, we remain dedicated to securing the necessary resources to address our defense priorities effectively.”
What to watch: The Senate continues its consideration of amendments to the defense policy bill next week, and it’s possible the sub-transfer language could resurface.
But this week Menendez was unsure whether the potential amendment would pass muster with the Senate parliamentarian. If it was considered on the floor, Wicker and Collins — committee leaders — would likely be able to rally significant Republican opposition.
Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.
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