America’s next-generation B-21 bomber could be sent to Australia to “accelerate” national security under a congressional proposal put to the US secretary of defense.
Influential Democratic congressman Adam Smith, who until recently was the chair of the House Armed Services Committee, has also flagged leasing or deploying “legacy” American submarines here as part of the AUKUS partnership.
The long-range nuclear-capable B-21 Raider was publicly unveiled by the United States Air Force in December. It is expected to make its first flight this year, eventually replacing the country’s B-1 and B-2 bombers.
Before losing the committee chairmanship in January, Mr Smith formally pushed for a study into the possible “conveyance of B-21 bombers” along with “leasing or conveyance of legacy United States submarines for Australia’s use”.
In a resolution contained in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2023, the Democrat requests that US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin launch an independent assessment of the “challenges” to implement AUKUS and to explore other alternatives to help America’s ally.
“Alternatives that would significantly accelerate Australia’s national security, including — (A) interim submarine options to include leasing or conveyance of legacy United States submarines for Australia’s use; or (B) the conveyance of B-21 bombers.”
Mr Smith represents Washington state, where four dry docks have been abruptly taken offline over earthquake fears, making it harder for the US Navy to field, maintain and then decommission nuclear-powered submarines.
Just before Christmas, the Democratic chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jack Reed, and then Republican senator Jim Inhofe wrote to President Joe Biden raising serious concerns about the AUKUS pact and warning it risked harming America’s industrial base to “breaking point”.
Senator Reed later clarified that he was “proud to support AUKUS”, while a bipartisan group of Congressional figures also publicly threw their weight behind the partnership with the United Kingdom and Australia to help this country to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.
Former Defence Department official Marcus Hellyer said it was clear that congress was concerned about the risks around the AUKUS enterprise and wanted to understand them better.
“In light of the risks it makes sense for it to direct the US Department of Defence to examine a range of ways to increase Australia’s military capability as fast as possible — including looking at the B-21 bomber,” Dr Hellyer told the ABC.
A spokesperson for Defence Minister Richard Marles did not respond to questions whether he discussed the possible deployment of B-21s to Australia during his weekend meetings in Washington DC.
Last week, the ABC revealed Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is planning to travel to the United States next month for the formal unveiling of the AUKUS “optimal pathway” for Australia to acquire nuclear submarines.