Senators raise concerns over US missing nuclear submarine target

Correction: Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) said the Navy was far behind its goal of 66 nuclear submarines even without factoring in sales to Australia.

Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee raised concerns that the U.S. fell short of its nuclear submarine target during a Wednesday morning hearing on a trilateral security partnership.

Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. struck the defense deal AUKUS in September 2021 and announced an arrangement for Australia to acquire “conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered” submarine capability through the partnership in March 2023. As part of that agreement, Australia agreed to invest approximately $3 billion in the first four years of the agreement into U.S. shipbuilding.

The agreement is intended to help Australia develop nuclear-powered submarines while enabling allies to safely share the relevant technology with each other. 

During the hearing, lawmakers questioned whether the U.S. had the bandwidth to sell nuclear submarines to Australia. The U.S. Navy currently has 49 fast-attack submarines, which puts it 17 submarines short of the 66-vessel goal the military branch previously told Congress it needed to reach in order to properly defend the U.S.

“We are grateful that the Australians want to invest $3 billion,” Sen. Pete Ricketts (R-Neb.) said. “What are we gonna have to invest to get to 66 submarines?”

Mara Karlin, assistant secretary of defense for the Defense Department, said the submarine industrial base was downsized after the Cold War, but that the current government’s investments allow for a substantial rebuild. 

“Post-Cold War, we closed down a whole bunch of the submarine industrial base and consolidated given the post-Cold-War peace dividend,” Karlin said. “There’s been really important investment by this Congress, by the administration to try to build it up and make sure that we can put it in the right places and then see what fruit grow from that. It is a priority, it will continue to be a priority going forward.” 

Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) shared a similar concern, emphasizing that even without factoring in the submarines going to Australia, the Navy was in a tough spot to reach the 66-count goal. 

“Today, the Navy has 49 attack submarines, that’s roughly 25 percent short of its goal of 66 submarines,” Hagerty said. “The pace of making as I’ve read is maybe 1.2 submarines a year. By giving these submarines to Australia, that will put us three-to-four years behind in our production process.”  

With the current production process and the proposed sale to Australia, the Navy won’t reach its goal until 2049, according to Hagerty. 

Karlin acknowledged that the Navy’s fleet could be strengthened and that the process is underway with Congress and the administration’s support. 

“We are all working through Congress’s really important support and through the administration to build up an industrial base that frankly was not strong as anyone hoped it to be.” 

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) had a more positive outlook on the state of the AUKUS partnership, arguing that Australia’s $3 billion investment into the shipbuilding industry would supercharge the U.S. production pace.

“If they make that investment, it will help us increase our pace of production,” he said. “If they don’t make that investment, it will be harder to increase the pace of production. Each side has resources that can help each other. We have to get the timing right.”

Kaine argued that Australia is “not going to make the investment unless they have surety that there’s gonna be a deliverable for them.”

“We should use this historic opportunity to enhance our ability to meet the production goals that we are talking about,” Kaine said. 

Updated: 12:19 a.m.

Tags AUKUS Bill Hagerty Department of Defense nuclear submarines Pete Ricketts Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tim Kaine U.S. Navy