The House Foreign Affairs Committee this week advanced three bills authorizing the Biden administration to sell two Virginia-class attack submarines (SSNs) to Australia and exempt AUKUS partners Australia and the United Kingdom from export control rules.

On July 26 the committee unanimously marked up and passed H.R. 4619, the

AUKUS Submarine Transfer Authorization Act, which aims to authorize the sale of the two submarines to Australia as part of the AUKUS pact. The bill was introduced by Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) and co-sponsored by committee chairman Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas).

The Virginia-class submarine future USS Delaware (SSN-791) at sea for sea trials in the Atlantic Ocean on Aug, 31, 2019. (Photo: U.S. Navy)
The Virginia-class submarine future USS Delaware (SSN-791) at sea for sea trials in the Atlantic Ocean on Aug, 31, 2019. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

However, the two bills approving export control exemptions from the Arms Export Control Act of 1976, for the U.K. and Australia were passed on a party line vote. These regulations are referred to in statute as International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

The Bilateral Resilience in Industry Trade Security (BRITS) Act seeks to create a licensing and approval exemption for the U.K. focused on AUKUS initiatives while the Keeping Our Allies Leading in Advancement (KOALA) Act does similar things for Australia.

During the markup of these bills, Committee ranking member Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) argued he supports sharing advanced defense technologies with AUKUS partners, “provided we pursue it with the appropriate and necessary protections.”

The two measures remove the compatibility standard from the U.K. and Australia, an arms trade bill provision that requires any country seeking to receive exemptions from licensing to demonstrate it has comparable defense trade controls to our own in place.

“That is, the very controls that keep such defense technology advances and innovations safe,” Meeks said. “This standard is part of existing statutory requirements and prematurely lifting them risks compromising our national security by allowing unfettered transfers of our most sensitive defense technology, including to private sector foreign firms which risk exposure to or theft by our most capable adversaries, especially China.”

Meeks said he and other Democrats on the committee do not doubt Australian and U.K. commitment to AUKUS or making improvements to defense technology protections, “rather it’s because of our close relationship and wanting to ensure the success of this agreement and the promise it holds, that we must ensure the high standards and protections of our sensitive defense technology.”

Meeks also noted in April, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins sent a letter to Australian and U.K. officials emphasized the need to address specific defense regulatory and export control issues before implementing broad licensing exemptions.

“This work is still underway as we speak. If it is undermined by mandating premature exemptions, we risk making the very advances and innovations so important to competition with our adversaries, vulnerable to be stolen, transferred or otherwise uncontrolled.”

Committee Chairman McCaul said that without these bills, “State [Department] will not issue the exemption, that’s the problem. State has shown that it will never certify Australia or the U.K. for an exemption because it does not want to give up its bureaucratic power over licensing. In the 50 years, only one country’s been granted an exemption by State and that is Canada.”

He added that as Five Eyes intelligence partners, the U.S. and Australia have “already shared much of each country’s most sensitive intelligence.”

McCaul said the ITAR licensing regime is “outdated and overburdensome and that’s why we’re doing this legislation.”

Meeks responded that intelligence sharing and sensitive defense technologies are “two different things.”

Senator Wicker speaks with members of the media at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo: Sen. Roger Wicker’s office)

However, on the other side of Capitol Hill,  Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen, Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) is blocking the Senate version of the first provision allowing the government to sell Australia three Virginia-class submarines, looking to boost defense spending past the debt limit deal.

On Thursday, Wicker and Vice Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) sent a letter to President Biden calling for supplemental appropriations with a multi-year plan to increase submarine production to better support increasing submarine production for both the U.S. Navy and Australian purchases.

“We urge you to send Congress immediately an AUKUS-specific request for appropriations and authorities alongside a multi-year plan to increase U.S. submarine production to a minimum of 2.5 Virginia-class attack submarines per year. It is time to make generational investments in U.S. submarine production capacity, including supplier and workforce development initiatives,” the senators said.

The letter argued the U.S. industrial base has to produce 2.3 to 2.5 submarines annually to avoid the Navy’s fleet lowering any further below the requirement of 66 submarines while currently having 49 and also planning to sell at least three SSNs to Australia.

The letter is also signed by 20 more Republican senators and three Republican House members.

The Navy currently has a goal of building two Virginia-class and one Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines per year, but industry is still well under that number.

In January, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said industry was only delivering SSNs at a rate of 1.2 boats per year and that industry needed to prove it could improve those numbers, which are now cited by Wicker in his argument. (Defense Daily, Jan. 11).

However, in March Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro told the House Appropriations Committee that production rates were improving so they were already up to 1.4 SSNs per year (Defense Daily, March 30).