Washington: The $874.2 billion fiscal 2024 National Defence Authorisation Act, finalised in conference late December 6, would fully authorise the trilateral AUKUS agreement with Australia and Britain and codify into law a new nuclear mission for Virginia-class submarines. It would also require a comprehensive Defence Department training program for Taiwanese troops and set up a special inspector general for Ukraine aid.
“Our nation faces unprecedented threats from China, Iran, Russia and North Korea,” the four Republican and Democratic leaders on the Armed Services committees said in a joint statement. “It is vital that we act now to protect our national security.”
Congress is expected to vote on the bill before the holidays. But it’s likely to face substantial opposition from the right-wing House Freedom Caucus as it removes many of their amendments, including one that would have overturned the Pentagon’s abortion travel leave policy and another that would have barred the Defence Department from implementing President Joe Biden’s climate change executive orders.
Over the summer, Democrats defected from the normally bipartisan bill in droves after Republicans added these amendments, prompting the House to narrowly pass it 219-210 mainly along party lines. The influential Heritage Action, the lobbying arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, has vowed to oppose the compromise bill because it does not include the abortion amendment.
After months of uncertainty, the bill includes all four authorizations needed to implement the AUKUS agreement, through which the US and Britain will help Australia develop its own nuclear-powered submarine fleet in the decades ahead, starting with the transfer of at least three Virginia-class submarines in the 2030s.
Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, blocked two of the authorisations when the Senate passed its version of the bill 86-11 in July amid concerns about the beleaguered US submarine industrial base. Wicker had demanded additional investments to expand submarine production capacity. The Senate’s massive defence supplemental spending request includes $3 billion to do this, but its fate is uncertain amid partisan disputes over immigration policy.
Wicker in the conference legislation agreed to authorise three Virginia-class submarine transfers under the condition they would not take effect until a year after the defence bill becomes law, giving Congress more time to pass the supplemental submarine funding.
Two other AUKUS authorisations permit the Defence Department to accept another $3 billion contribution to the US submarine industrial base from Canberra and allow workers from Australia’s private sector the training they need to maintain and use the nuclear-powered submarines.
The fourth authorisation gives Australia and Britain an exemption to the US export control regime if they develop comparable laws of their own governing arms transfers. Congressional critics of current US export control laws argue this is necessary to implement a second pillar of the pact in which the three countries will jointly develop disruptive technology such as hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence and quantum computing.