The Buzz

The Navy Needs More Nuclear Attack Submarines (And Congress Is Coming to the Rescue)

A bipartisan group of Congressmen are lobbying the House Appropriations Committee to increase funding levels for the U.S. Navy submarine fleet.

In a letter addressed to Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), chairman of the subcommittee on defense appropriations and ranking member Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-IN), 36 members of the Congressional Submarine Caucus asked for increased construction funding to match the funding levels in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

“As you complete the final appropriations bill, we strongly encourage you to fund the Virginia-class program in line with NDAA authorized-levels to the maximum extent possible,” the Congressmen wrote.  

“While the undersea industrial base is preparing to begin work on the new Columbia-class submarine, we believe that there is sufficient capacity to increase production of the Virginia-class submarine to help meet demand for undersea capabilities in the fleet, ramp up an efficient workforce to tackle Columbia, and boost our supplier network.”

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The Navy is in dire need of additional submarines. The Navy’s attack submarine fleet was already set to shrink to 41 SSNs by 2029 under current plans. That fleet size is well below the Navy’s previously stated requirement for 48 attack submarines. However, a recently concluded Force Structure Assessment (FSA) suggested that the Navy requires 66 SSNs. The service has revised its requirement to a fleet of 66 attack submarines as a result as demand greatly exceeds supply even with the 52 boats that are currently in the fleet.

“With the retirement of Los Angeles-class submarines at a faster rate than Virginia-class construction, the SSN force will drop to a low of just 41 submarines, more than one-third below the requirement to defend America’s national security interests around the globe,” the Congressmen wrote. “Under plans reflected in the 2018 budget request to continue the two-per-year build rate, the attack submarine force will not meet minimum requirements until 2048.”

The FY2018 National Defense Authorization Act authorized $5.9 billion—$698 million more than the president’s budget request—for Virginia class submarine construction. The NDAA also authorized the Navy to buy up to 13 submarines in the next block contract, an increase of three. The House defense appropriation bill also included an amendment offered by Reps. Joe Courtney (D-CT), Rob Wittman (R-VA), and Jim Langevin (D-RI) to match funding to the NDAA’s authorization of up to 13 submarines.

“We firmly believe that the final appropriations bill should follow Congress’s clear direction to increase submarine construction while providing sufficient flexibility to the Navy and industry to mitigate the SSN shortfall,” the Congressmen wrote.

Ultimately, even under a best-case scenario, it will take the Navy decades to reach its stated requirement for attack submarines. Submarines can only be built at a certain pace. The current shortfall comes as a result of decisions made decades ago and it will take decades to undo those mistakes.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor of The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveMajumdar.