Eye on AUKUS, Aussie defence minister pushes US on ITAR – gently.

Photo: Secretary of Defence Lloyd J. Austin III and Australian Minister of Defence Richard Marles conduct a joint press conference at U.S. Indo-Pacific headquarters, Camp Smith, Hawaii.  (DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley)

By Colin Clark

As a sign of growing pressure to ease US arms export restrictions ahead of the looming AUKUS sub announcement, the Australian defence minister this week pointed to the elephant in the room: export restrictions known as ITAR.

The challenge ITAR may pose to AUKUS is hardly a new issue. But it is rare for any Australian defence official to push, even gently, at the US over the issue, meaning Marles’ admittedly gentle finger-pointing was notable.

Minister Richard Marles mentioned the issue to reporters here in a brief press appearance in relation to the advanced technology efforts of AUKUS, such as quantum, hypersonic and cyber. They are known collectively as “Pillar Two” of the agreement, which is best known for its plans to deliver a nuclear submarine to the Lucky Country. In particular, Australia hopes as part of its “sovereignty” push to build up munitions and parts stockpiles to manufacture more ordnance here. That’s what Marles focused on in his brief remarks.

“We are working with the US under the GWEO (Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordnance) enterprise to see more explosive ordnance manufactured in Australia. This is certainly a desire of the Australian government and it’s a desire of the American government as well, because being able to have that capability in Australia builds the net industrial base of both countries,” he said.

“But what’s really clear is that if we are going to maximize the ambition or realize the ambition of Pillar Two of AUKUS we really do need to be trying to build a seamless industrial base between the United States, indeed the UK, and Canada which has a more seamless industrial base with America.”

Australia legally has been part of the US defence industrial base for years, but Australian officials have said publicly that the integration of the two countries’ bases has a long way to go. The US and Canada have functioned for many decades as a single industrial base.

Marles said he thought there was “a very significant commitment at the highest policy level to achieve that outcome,” but indicated that, so far at least, that commitment has yet to result in real world movement.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., vice chair of the AUKUS Caucus in the Congress, has called for significant changes to the ITAR regime to help Australia both with the sharing of submarine technologies and more broadly.

Courtney said Congress may need to pass “a simple circuit breaker that just says none of these laws shall apply to Australia, notwithstanding any existing language.” But as he and others have said, ITAR is part of a broad web of legal and policy restrictions, so the White House, Pentagon, State Department and Intelligence Community all need to act.

The US Embassy in Canberra did not respond to a request for comment.


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