Four congressional legislators, including one from Connecticut, are urging President Joe Biden to continue funding for the construction of two Virginia class submarines per year for the U.S. Navy, a decision that could affect Groton-based Electric Boat.
The company, a longtime contractor with the U.S. Navy, is the lead design yard for the Virginia class submarine. It was awarded a $967 million contract in October for the production of the subs and employs more than 21,500 people in Groton. The company is contracted to deliver two Virginia submarines and one Columbia submarine per year.
Last year, the company reported a 24 percent increase in productivity and hired over 5,300 new shipbuilders.
In a Jan. 17 letter, U.S. Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and Adam Smith, D-Wash., from the House Armed Services Committee, along with Trent Kelly, R-Miss., and Joe Courtney, D-Conn., of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, emphasized that the sustained growth of the submarine building workforce and supply chain was linked to ongoing investment by the federal government. They warned that a deviation from this plan would “upend the faith of a steady procurement profile in the Future Years Defense Plan by our suppliers, as well as any plans for future capital investments in the supply chain.”
“That commitment has driven suppliers to make critical capital investments and expand capacity based on a predictable forecast in expected work. It has also driven metal trades workers, designers and engineers to choose shipbuilding as promising careers in record numbers,” the letter reads.
Author and retired Navy captain Brent Sadler agreed that reducing demand and slowing down the construction pace would discourage the hiring of essential workers required for expanding future production. This includes the production necessary to fulfill U.S. obligations under AUKUS throughout the 2030s.
“You send a completely 180-degree-out signal,” Sadler told CT Examiner. “So your supply base, just as it needs to grow, would get a signal not to grow.”
Sadler pointed out that decisions made in the 1990s to reduce production are continuing to have ramifications, with submarines retiring faster than the U.S. can manufacture replacements.
Former submarine Capt. William Toti also said he saw negative outcomes from reducing submarine procurement rates.
“The Navy’s been trying to get to this two submarines per year production rate for almost 20 years on Virginia class,” he said.
Toti said, historically, the Navy prioritized price over efficiency, creating a system in which suppliers consolidated until there were only single suppliers qualified to provide specific components of the submarines. He said problems in both the supply chain and the workforce have impeded efforts to ramp up submarine production.
The legislators also referenced U.S. obligations under AUKUS, a trilateral security agreement between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom established in September 2021. In December, Biden signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law, authorizing the U.S. to sell three Virginia class submarines to Australia for the Royal Australian Navy.
“It is imperative to maintain a steady two-per-year procurement rate to assure our partners in our ability to meet commitments and address concerns about our nation’s undersea capabilities,” the letter read.
Toti suggested that the U.S. adopt a strategy for submarine production similar to the approach taken during the space race in the 1970s. He highlighted that during the peak production period, when he served as a junior officer, the U.S. was commissioning six submarines annually.
“Whatever it takes — and I really want to underscore the words ‘whatever it takes’ — to restore this crown jewel … and if that means relocating workforce to the right locations, requalifying second- and third-order suppliers, whatever it takes,” Toti said. “Instead of doing that, what we seem to be doing is throwing our hands up and saying, ‘Oh, it’s just too hard. We can’t get it done. We don’t have the people anymore. We don’t have the skills anymore.’ And that’s the wrong approach.”
The demand for U.S. submarines is most strongly felt in the South China Sea, where Chinese military forces have been performing maneuvers near Taiwan. According to Toti and Sadler, submarines are the most effective tools against the Chinese fleet.
“The Taiwan Strait is about 100 miles wide. China has developed such an effective defense that goes out a thousand miles that the surface assets — and that includes aircraft carriers — are going to be very vulnerable to anti-ship ballistic missiles and things like that,” Toti explained.
Toti said submarines are the only weaponry that could interfere with an invasion in the strait without being destroyed by anti-ship missiles. And the more they have, he said, the better.
General Dynamics Electric Boat did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.