One Virginia Class SSN a Year? Pentagon Budget Cuts Threaten US and Australian Navy Ambitions

Delays in increasing the US Navy's nuclear submarine fleet are being caused by budget cuts, shipyard capacity limits, and uncertainty over the relevance of the Cold War-era target of 66 attack submarines to present threats and objectives. The Pentagon's decision to limit production in 2025 due to budget constraints has raised concerns about the potential impact on US strategic advantage and other commitments, such as the sale of submarines to Australia.

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

The US Navy and the Pentagon have ambitious objectives and heavily depend on augmenting the production rates of the US naval industry to effectively compete with China and its Navy, which is undergoing rapid development and possesses formidable capabilities. American shipyards must produce two nuclear attack submarines and one much larger nuclear ballistic missile submarine every year if the fleet the US Admiralty envisions is to be built.

However, the Pentagon has just submitted its fiscal year 2025 budget proposal to Congress. The US Department of Defence has put forth a budget request for 2025 of $849.8 billion, reflecting a marginal increase of merely 0.9% compared to the previous fiscal year. This affects even Australia. In the early 2030s, the US is obligated to provide a minimum of three Nuclear Attack Submarines (SSNs) belonging to the Virginia class: the initial SSN is due in 2032, the second in 2035, and the final in 2038.

This relatively low increase is due to the “Fiscal Responsibility Act,” a congressional accord passed in June 2023 to reduce the country’s debt. It does not, however, mitigate the effects of inflation. As a result, the Pentagon is forced to make judgements.

The US Navy has ordered two Virginia-class submarines annually since 2011 and has decided to purchase only one during the fiscal year 2025. The American shipbuilding industry, particularly Huntington Ingalls Industries in Newport News, Virginia, and General Dynamics Electric Boat, located in Groton, Connecticut, encounters challenges in fulfilling demand due to inadequate production capacity, a scarcity of skilled personnel, and complications in the supply chain.

Since 1999, the two organisations have shared the construction load of Virginia-class SSNs. Huntington Ingalls Industries manufactures the Virginia boats’ bows and sterns, while Electric Boat builds the middle hull around the reactors. The two work similarly with the Columbia-class nuclear ballistic missile submarine. General Dynamics Electric Boat commenced work in 2022 on the initial Columbia-class SSBN, scheduled to succeed the Ohio-class from 2031 until 2042 or until the final vessel in the class is delivered.

Six Virginia-class submarines are now in construction, two of which have already been launched and are nearing completion. Construction of these vessels starts in 2020, and two new ships are added each year until 2023.

Given the five-year gap between the start of construction and delivery to the US Navy, American shipyards have achieved critical capacity. Eight ships were under construction by the end of 2023, allowing them to maintain a rate of two SSNs each year.

However, this perception is deceiving. In reality, building the single Columbia-class SSBN began in 2022, but it will take ten years to complete the ship and meet delivery deadlines.

In other words, building the 12 Columbia-class SSBNs will considerably deplete American shipyards’ production capacities between 2025 and 2034, with 3 to 9 SSBNs under construction simultaneously.

In addition, the challenge lies in ensuring the operational readiness of SSNs that have already been deployed. For example, the USS Boise, an SSN of the Los Angeles class, has been out of service since 2015. A recent overhaul has commenced, but completion is not anticipated until 2029.

Theoretically, the US Navy should acquire an average of 2.33 SSNs annually to renew its fleet, which is double the number currently.

The budget proposal put forth by the Pentagon is expected to undergo amendments by legislators. Representative Joe Courtney (Democratic Party), elected from Connecticut and a prominent member of a subcommittee devoted to naval power, is among those who have already expressed apprehension.

Courtney argues that if this reduction is implemented, it will effectively eliminate an additional attack submarine from a fleet that currently has seventeen fewer submarines than the sixty-six that the US Navy has long mandated. In light of the Department of Defence and Congress’s recent agreement to supply three to Australia (a proposition he wholeheartedly endorsed), he cautioned that this Navy proposal would significantly influence the navies of both nations.

On the other hand, Deputy Secretary of the Navy, Erik Raven, clarified that the proposed investments were intended to assist industries in overcoming their challenges. An envelope containing $11.1 billion over five years and an Australian contribution of $3 billion under the AUKUS accord are discussed.

However, by 2030, the number of SSNs in service within the US Navy is expected to drop to forty-six.

According to Australian Senator David Shoebridge, when the US passed the AUKUS law, they inserted circuit breakers, one of which would allow them to refuse to transfer submarines if it risked compromising the capabilities of the US Navy.

The US Navy’s aim of 66 SSNs likely arose during the Cold War period of strong strategic rivalry with the Soviet Union. Faced with a huge Soviet submarine force that could endanger American interests worldwide, the Navy needed a strong SSN fleet capable of patrolling vast maritime regions covering the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. This sizable SSN force planned to resist Soviet aggression by tracking and deterring their submarines, with the option of fighting them underwater if necessary. Furthermore, having 66 SSNs enabled the constant forward deployment of American submarine presence in critical strategic locations. This numerical target may have reflected the best level for achieving all Cold War maritime objectives while blending seamlessly into the overall balanced naval force structure with surface ships and aircraft carriers.

With the end of the Cold War, the US has been reevaluating its defence requirements, and the decades-old aim of 66 SSNs may no longer be in line with current global threats and strategic priorities. Rapid technology advancements in areas such as unmanned maritime vehicles may enable the Navy to achieve comparable mission objectives with a smaller SSN fleet. Furthermore, the enormous expenses associated with building and maintaining a large number of nuclear submarines have spurred a reconsideration of the optimal fleet size that balances capabilities with budgetary restrictions. As security settings change, the Navy will likely consider whether a smaller SSN force complemented with cutting-edge systems can provide adequate deterrence and power projection at a lower cost.


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