Final defense policy bill advances AUKUS, Taiwan training

WASHINGTON ― The $874.2 billion fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, finalized in conference late Wednesday, would fully authorize 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 Defense 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 Thursday. “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 Defense 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 U.S. 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 authorizations when the Senate passed its version of the bill 86-11 in July amid concerns about the beleaguered U.S. submarine industrial base. Wicker had demanded additional investments to expand submarine production capacity. The Senate’s massive defense 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 authorize three Virginia-class submarine transfers under the condition they would not take effect until a year after the defense bill becomes law, giving Congress more time to pass the supplemental submarine funding.

Two other AUKUS authorizations permit the Defense Department to accept another $3 billion contribution to the U.S. 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 authorization gives Australia and Britain an exemption to the U.S. export control regime if they develop comparable laws of their own governing arms transfers. Congressional critics of current U.S. 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.

The bill also requires both the Pentagon and State Department to appoint senior AUKUS coordinators while directing each agency to prioritize Australia and Britain for arms sales processing, after Ukraine and Taiwan.

Separately, it makes Australian and British companies eligible for U.S. federal grants under the Defense Production Act, an advantage that so far only Canada has enjoyed. The Pentagon hopes this will allow both allies to participate in a pilot program creating U.S. campuses for businesses to collaborate on different parts of the defense supply chain.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., said the bill also “streamlines technology sharing among the three AUKUS allies under the umbrella of the Defense Production Act to strengthen deterrence in the Indo-Pacific.”

Separately, the bill ensures the Virginia-class submarines remaining in the U.S. inventory will now have a nuclear mission because it institutionalizes the sea-launched cruise missile nuclear program despite the objections of the Biden administration. The bill allocates $196 million for the Pentagon to continue research on the program and another $70 million for the National Nuclear Security Administration to modernize its warhead stockpile in preparation for the submarines’ new mission.

The compromise removed a Senate provision that would have required all components of Navy ships to be manufactured in the U.S. by 2033. It nonetheless increases Buy America requirements across the board for major defense acquisition programs unless they predominantly involve steel and iron.

Taiwan and Ukraine

As with AUKUS, the bill looks to counter China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific with a provision that would require the Defense Department to “establish a comprehensive training, advising and institutional capacity building program for the military forces of Taiwan.”

Taiwanese officials have said they plan to send up to two battalions of troops to the U.S. to train on new weapons systems and military operations.

Another provision in the bill requires the Defense Department to help Taiwan enhance its cybersecurity.

Additionally, the bill authorizes $8 million to establish the lead inspector general for Operation Atlantic Resolve — the Pentagon’s mission established in 2014 after Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine — as a special inspector general overseeing aid to Kyiv.

The bill authorizes $300 million in both FY24 and FY25 to continue arming Kyiv through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, but that’s a small fraction of the amount the Biden administration has deemed necessary to continue warding off Russia’s invasion.

While Congress appropriated $113 billion in Ukraine aid last year, it’s unclear whether lawmakers will pass Biden’s request for an additional $61 billion in assistance for Kyiv amid growing Republican opposition. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has warned Ukraine will lose the war to Russia absent additional assistance.

Additionally, the bill maintains a provision that would require the Senate to agree to any U.S. withdrawal from NATO. Former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner in the Republican presidential primary, has repeatedly threatened to withdraw from the transatlantic alliance. However, the compromise legislation removes a provision that would have authorized Congress to establish its own legal counsel in case a dispute with the White House over the NATO withdrawal provision ends up in federal court.

Furthermore, the bill codifies into law an existing authority allowing U.S. special operations units to arm irregular forces for warfare against rivals like China and Russia with an eye on expanding these activities.

Additionally, it adds Kosovo to the list of eastern European countries eligible for U.S. military training amid heightened tensions with neighboring Serbia.

Congress still needs to pass full appropriations legislation to fund the defense policy bill as well. Funding for military construction expires on Jan. 19; the rest of the Defense Department runs out of money Feb. 2.