May 20, 2024

Connecticut’s congressional delegation blasted a Pentagon’s decision Monday to cut a Virginia class submarine built by Groton-based Electric Boat from its proposed fiscal 2025 defense budget as the Navy tries to balance Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific.

“If such a cut is actually enacted, it will remove one more attack submarine from a fleet that is already 17 submarines below the Navy’s long-stated requirement of 66,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2, an influential voice in naval affairs as ranking member of the Seapower Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee and who promised to fight the cut.

“This is just the opening bell,” he said. “If such a cut is actually enacted, it will remove one more attack submarine from a fleet that is already 17 submarines below the Navy’s long stated requirement of 66.”

The Navy has asked for and Congress has approved two Virginia class attack submarines a year over recent years. The decision to remove one from the 2025 budget shows that the Pentagon has doubts about whether the shipyards building the submarines and the industrial base that supports them can produce the Virginia-class boats at the two-per-year cadence the Navy needs to maintain undersea dominance.

Electric Boat, a division of General Dynamics, is the Navy’s primary submarine contractor. It is working on the Virginia class program with the Newport News Shipbuilding division of Huntington Ingalls Industries.

The Groton shipyard has increased year over year productivity by spending billions on high-tech shipbuilding capacity and hiring at record rates, 5,300 last year and more than 5,000 more projected to be hired this year.

But in their attempts to race back to Cold War production levels, shipbuilders are challenged not only by post-COVID supply chain bottlenecks, but by decades of flat, post-Cold War spending that shrunk the U.S. fleet by half while idling and, eventually, depleting the ranks of welders, shipfitters and riggers who build ships, not to mention the companies that supply materials and components.

Compounding pressure on submarine production is the trilateral AUKUS security agreement signed last year by Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S, which authorizes an unprecedented exchange of technology in an effort to contain China. Under the agreement, the U.S. committed to selling between three and five Virginia-class submarines to Australia

Reports of an impending reduction in Virginia-class funding have created alarm among the political and military leadership in Australia, which relied on U.S. commitment to AUKUS and support for the country’s massive naval modernization to push treaty approval past domestic opposition.

Connecticut’s U.S Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, Democrats, released a joint statement calling the submarine budget cut “a concerning departure from our two-per-year production goals” and they said it puts at risk “U.S. undersea superiority and alliance commitments made under AUKUS to improve Indo-Pacific security.”

“For years, Congress, the Department of Defense, and workers and small businesses in Connecticut have been working hard to restore the submarine industrial base, and we cannot afford to take a step backward now,” the senators said. “Dialing back submarine procurement in fiscal year 2025 threatens to slow progress in strengthening our nation’s submarine supplier base and workforce, making it more difficult to upgrade our submarine fleet and meet mounting global threats on the timeframe our national security requires.”

Anticipating congressional opposition to the proposed budget cut, the Pentagon tried to mollify critics by including in the fiscal 2025 budget the equivalent of one submarine worth of advance material procurement costs and other long lead time items. In addition, deputy defense secretary Kathleen H. Hicks said the Pentagon was making “an historic investment” of $4 billion in rebuilding the submarine industrial base.

Courtney wasn’t satisfied. He said the cut sends the wrong signal to shipbuilders, like Electric Boat, and suppliers and subcontractors around the state and country who have been trying to boost productivity by spending heavily on personnel and equipment in the belief that the Navy would be building ships at a steady rate for decades into the future

“At a time when the pace of all of Navy shipbuilding—manned and unmanned, including carriers, submarines, destroyers, and frigates—is recovering from the impact of the COVID pandemic and supply chain disruptions, the Navy’s plan to cut a submarine that is already been partially paid for and built, makes little or no sense,” he said.

In order to build enough submarines to fill both U.S. and Australian defense needs, the Navy estimates EB and Newport News will need to produce 2.33 Virginia-class boats a year by 2028.

Battered by the COVID pandemic, the Virginia-class build rate was at 1.2 boats a year at the start of 2023 and is approaching 1.5 a year at EB, according to an official with knowledge of the matter.

Courtney said he has been told by Electric Boat that the one sub budget reduction won’t affect the shipyard’s aggressive recruitment drive.

“My office has also been in close contact with leadership at Electric Boat and they have confirmed that the hiring goal for 2024 of 5,200 new hires will not be affected by this FY25 request,” he said.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last month that EB hiring pushed job growth in the Norwich-New London market up 3.2% in 2023, the second highest rate in New England and one of the highest rates in the country. By comparison, the increase was .3% and .1%, respectively, in the Hartford and Danbury markets.

Also in 2023, EB bought $2 billion in materials and services from 351 small Connecticut businesses.

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©2024 Hartford Courant. Visit at courant.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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