Congressional Commission Calls for Third Nuclear Shipyard to Bolster U.S. Strategic Forces

October 12, 2023 3:52 PM
Submarine construction continues apace in the latest US Navy budget request, which asks for two more Virginia-class submarines and another installment for the missile sub Columbia. Here, the Virginia-class attack submarine USS Montana (SSN-794) is seen just after launch in March 2021 at Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding. HII Photo

The Pentagon needs a third shipyard that can build nuclear-powered ships so the U.S. can keep pace with China and Russia’s nuclear modernization, a congressional commission said in a new report published Thursday.

A third private shipyard would expand industry’s capacity to build nuclear-powered submarines, therefore bolstering U.S. strategic forces, according to the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States.

The commission suggests the Pentagon “increase shipbuilding capacity, by working with industry to establish or renovate a third shipyard dedicated to production of nuclear-powered vessels, with particular emphasis on nuclear-powered submarines,” according to the report.

A potential third shipyard would add to the work of General Dynamics Electric Boat and HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding, which build the Navy’s nuclear-powered boats. While the commission is recommending a third private shipyard, it would require significant investment from the government, USNI News understands.

“The findings of this bipartisan report detail the gravity of the situation we face and emphasize that the current trajectory of the U.S. strategic forces are insufficient to deter the looming Chinese and Russian threat,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

“The report is also a stark reminder of the significant work needed to expand our nuclear submarine industrial base to increase production and reduce repair time. The details of this report should serve as a wakeup call for our armed forces and the national security community as a whole.”

While Electric Boat and Newport News build the Navy’s nuclear-powered ships, the service’s public shipyards have historically maintained the nuclear-powered submarines. But with the backlogs at the public yards in recent years, the private yards have taken on some submarine maintenance work.

The new report includes a wide range of recommendations on nuclear policy, weapons procurement, force posture and infrastructure. The analysis meets a requirement in the Fiscal Year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act calling for a commission to assess the nation’s strategic posture.

The commission’s report makes several references to AUKUS, the technology sharing agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States that includes the U.S. selling Australia several Virginia-class attack boats while Canberra develops the ability to build and maintain nuclear-powered attack boats indigenously.

But lawmakers have voiced concerns over the U.S. industrial base’s capacity to support AUKUS while continuing to build submarines for the U.S. Navy. Newport News and Electric Boat are currently building approximately 1.2 Virginia boats a year, while the overall program is hundreds of months behind schedule, USNI News previously reported. Former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday previously said industry must build more than two boats per year if the U.S. is going to sell attack subs to the Royal Australian Navy.

At the same time, the Navy is also recapitalizing the sea-based leg of the nuclear triad with the Columbia-class submarine program, the service’s top acquisition priority.

“In the sea leg, the Navy is scheduled to construct one Columbia-class submarine per year and sustain the Ohio-class in parallel relying on the same infrastructure for both (manufacturing facilities, dry docks, etc.). Additionally, this same workforce and industrial base also support Virginia-class submarine production,” the commission’s report reads.

“As a result, the Navy must consider schedule tradeoffs between the two classes of submarines. The [Office of Management and Budget] as well as the Commission are skeptical that the current infrastructure can simultaneously support conventional and nuclear sustainment, modernization, and construction as scheduled. The AUKUS agreement may place further stress on this capacity.”

The report’s release comes as the Senate Armed Services Committee pushes for supplemental funding in the Fiscal Year 2024 defense policy bill. When marking up the National Defense Authorization Act, the committee called on President Joe Biden “to send emergency supplemental funding requests to address those concerns, to include continued support for Ukraine, additional munitions production, and additional naval vessels and combat vehicles.”

Under a deal between Biden and former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) over the debt ceiling limit, lawmakers had to adhere to the administration’s FY 2024 $886 billion request for national defense.

Wicker has argued that any supplemental funding request must include additional support for AUKUS to strengthen the U.S. defense industrial base.

“If we hope to realize the full potential of the AUKUS deal, it is imperative that the president articulate an achievable plan of action to increase American submarine production that meets both American and Australian needs. The enhanced security of the United States and our partners depends on our mutual collaboration and cooperation,” Wicker said in an August statement.

The Pentagon’s Director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation has created a roadmap for long-term investments to pursue AUKUS, but lawmakers have yet to see the report, a Congressional aide told USNI News.

In his statement accompanying the release of the commission’s new report, Wicker reiterated the lawmakers’ push for the defense supplemental request.

“It is essential that Congress move forward quickly with a plan to provide our military with the resources necessary to restore our nuclear deterrent and rebuild the capacity to find and win two wars if necessary,” he said. “Passing a defense supplemental in the near-term and guaranteeing real growth in the annual defense budget will help us meet this moment. Failing to make these investments now will leave the United States weaker and invite costly new threats from our adversaries.”

The report argues the U.S., at its current posture, is not ready to deter nor compete with Russia and China.

“Decisions need to be made now in order for the nation to be prepared to address the threats from these two nuclear-armed adversaries arising during the 2027-2035 timeframe,” the report reads. “Moreover, these threats are such that the United States and its Allies and partners must be ready to deter and defeat both adversaries simultaneously.”

Mallory Shelbourne

Mallory Shelbourne

Mallory Shelbourne is a reporter for USNI News. She previously covered the Navy for Inside Defense and reported on politics for The Hill.
Follow @MalShelbourne

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