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CT could see major boost from nuclear submarine deal

President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, right, and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at Naval Base Point Loma, Monday, March 13, 2023, in San Diego.
Evan Vucci
President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, right, and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at Naval Base Point Loma, Monday, March 13, 2023, in San Diego.

As President Joe Biden unveiled the initial details of an international deal to provide nuclear-powered submarines in San Diego on Monday, he pointed to the U.S.S. Missouri behind him in the Pacific Ocean. The construction of that Virginia-class attack sub was awarded two decades ago to Electric Boat’s facility in Groton.

Biden called it a “vanguard of U.S. naval power” as the U.S. agreed to send up to five Virginia-class submarines to Australia over the coming years to help build its first conventionally armed, nuclear-powered fleet.

Electric Boat and Connecticut’s vast submarine industrial base could stand to greatly benefit from Australia’s acquisition as one of the primary manufacturers of the Virginia-class model.

A security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (AUKUS) could have wide-ranging international and domestic implications on security as well as shipbuilding in eastern Connecticut. The agreement involves all three countries, but the acquisition would begin in the U.S., which has the largest capability when it comes to production and the technology behind nuclear-powered subs.

Pending congressional approval, Australia would initially buy three Virginia-class submarines and could buy two additional attack vessels. The first delivery of subs to the country could happen in the early 2030s.

The deal could be significant for companies like General Dynamics’ Electric Boat and the suppliers that make up the multibillion-dollar industry. Electric Boat locations in Connecticut and Rhode Island handle much of the Virginia-class shipbuilding along with Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia. But additional details about the production and delivery of the subs and the involvement of these companies were not a part of Monday’s announcement.

Even before the release of the framework, Electric Boat has been seeking to greatly expand its operations by aiming to hire another 5,000 workers and thousands more for the foreseeable future to bolster its workforce and keep up with the demand of both the Virginia-class and Columbia-class programs. On top of that, the Biden administration wants to again increase spending that would help support the submarine industrial base.

But there are some lingering concerns related to workforce development and funding to meet production needs for the U.S. Navy’s fleet and now the vessels requested in the AUKUS deal.

“We look forward to working with the Navy and our industry partners to use our knowledge and expertise to support Australia’s acquisition of nuclear submarines and the development of that country’s shipbuilding infrastructure,” Kevin Graney, president of General Dynamics Electric Boat, said in a statement. “The AUKUS agreement underscores the critical role submarines play in the defense of our nation and our allies and calls attention to the importance of continuing to grow our submarine industrial base here in the United States.”

Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced the submarine acquisition portion of the deal from a San Diego naval base after 18 months of discussions that will in part help Australia replace its diesel-electric submarines with a nuclear fleet. Supporters of AUKUS view the agreement as a way to protect the Indo-Pacific region from any threats from China as it builds up its own Navy.

At Monday’s event, Biden gave a shout out to Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who also attended the event and has been a strong supporter of the pact. Courtney, whose eastern Connecticut district includes Electric Boat’s Groton facility, founded the AUKUS Working Group in Congress and has been an advocate through his role as the top Democrat on the House Armed Services’ Seapower Subcommittee.

Courtney has touted the deal as critical “to deter potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific” as well as promising news for shipbuilding in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Virginia.

“Australia’s purchase of up to five Virginia-class submarines more than justifies Electric Boat’s plans to hire almost 30,000 high-skilled jobs in the next five years,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said in a statement. “This is a once-in-a-generation undertaking that will fuel tens of thousands of good-paying jobs and bring economic stability to Groton for years to come. I’m proud to see our state play a major role in this historic announcement.”

When asked whether Australia would get new or used subs prior to Monday’s announcement, Courtney said he expects the country to receive ones that are currently in the construction phase, though it is possible the country would also acquire new ones. He said the Virginia class has a shelf-life of at least 33 years and any used subs going to Australia would get “deep maintenance and repair.”

While the purchase is not expected to happen for another decade, the Connecticut-manufactured submarines will make their mark in Australia much sooner.

Australia will have their current Collins-class diesel electric fleet restored for another decade before the deliveries of the nuclear-powered ships. And in the meantime, four Virginia-class subs from the U.S. and one from Britain’s Astute class will have a “rotational presence” in Perth, Australia. This effort could begin as early as 2027 while Australia builds a new naval facility in Adelaide.

Aside from the acquisition piece of the deal, Australia is investing in workforce development as it gears up to operate its own nuclear fleet. Congress has already authorized Australian naval officers to train at the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command in South Carolina with the goal of having them eventually on U.S. submarines. Australia also plans to have hundreds of workers train at U.S. and British shipyards to gain specialized skills.

Courtney said he also expects them to have a presence in Connecticut since Groton has a school where people go after completing the one in Charleston.

“There will no doubt be a lot of foot traffic from Australian personnel in Connecticut,” Courtney said in an interview prior to Monday’s announcement.

AUKUS relies heavily on the U.S. as well as on Britain since Australia is essentially starting from scratch, but the pact is structured in a way that will help the country operate independently with nuclear-powered capabilities and protect allied interests in the region when it comes to China.

In addition to the planned purchase from the U.S. in the 2030s, Australia will eventually transition to subs designed by the U.K. that use the technology from America’s naval nuclear propulsion program about a decade later.

While the news could be a huge boon for the submarine industry, some members of Congress have voiced concerns about U.S. capacity to build submarines for its own fleet as well as supplying them to Australia. In a letter to the White House, leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee warned about the U.S. having enough capacity to do both.

“We believe current conditions require a sober assessment of the facts to avoid stressing the U.S. submarine industrial base to the breaking point,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and retired Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., wrote in a December letter. Reed’s home state also includes an Electric Boat facility.

Courtney said they shared “legitimate concerns” but believes the U.S. can keep up with the pace of the demand, arguing that the deal is important for national security interests in the region with China’s own missile technology.

There have also been concerns over the tech sharing aspect of the agreement as well as export controls. Under an agreement brokered decades ago, the U.S. has shared such technology only once before with Britain.

But Courtney argued that the growing investments from the Navy in the submarine industry are “not a one-year blip in the budget.”

As part of last year’s legislation to fund the government for the rest of fiscal year 2023, Congress approved $751 million in workforce development, supply chain support and facility expansion for the submarine industrial base. For specific submarine programs, $6.5 billion was allocated to keep up with the construction of two Virginia-class subs a year at Electric Boat for the next few years.

In the White House’s recent budget request for fiscal year 2024, the administration is seeking $255.8 billion for the Department of the Navy, which is an $11 billion increase since the last fiscal year. That proposal includes $10.3 billion to fund the Virginia-class program and the two-sub procurement, a substantial increase from what it secured in the government funding package known as the omnibus.

Courtney projected confidence that those investments will allow the U.S. to meet the new capacity.

“That’s definitely a generational surge of work that the U.S. submarine base is taking on,” Courtney said, adding that the omnibus made an “unprecedented investment in things the Navy hasn’t done much in the past like workforce development, supply chain development, funding for more facilities.”

“I don’t buy this notion that we’re in a zero sum place taking on more work with AUKUS,” he added. “Given the importance of subs right now, with China’s missile technology, subs are still the most effective platform to create deterrence.”

Lisa Hagen is CT Public and CT Mirror’s shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state’s congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal’s Hotline.

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