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CT's Courtney pushes to restore submarine build rate after proposed cut

The Virginia-class submarine USS Minnesota (SSN 783) heads up the Thames River toward Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton.
Chief Petty Officer Joshua Karsten
U.S. Navy
The Virginia-class submarine USS Minnesota (SSN 783) heads up the Thames River toward Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton.

A bipartisan coalition of more than 100 lawmakers is “deeply concerned” about a proposed cut to the procurement of Virginia-class submarines manufactured in large part by Groton-based Electric Boat and supported by suppliers in Connecticut.

But U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who has played a key role on these issues for nearly two decades, said Congress has been in this boat before — and has successfully fended off changes to build rates.

He is making a similar push following the Pentagon’s budget request that reduces the number from two to one nuclear-powered submarine for fiscal year 2025 and cuts spending by $2.6 billion.

Federal lawmakers confronted the same issue in 2013 with former President Barack Obama as well with former President Donald Trump’s budget proposal released in 2020. In both years, they revived the two-per-year rate for Virginia-class despite threats of cuts.

At a Wednesday hearing with Navy officials before the House Armed Services Committee, Courtney said they will again fight to restore the current cadence that earned him the nickname “Two-Sub Joe” when he first came to Congress.

“We are going to work really hard with your team to try and accomplish that goal. We’ve done it in the past. We did it in 2013 when the Obama administration eliminated a submarine and then 2020 when the Trump administration eliminated a submarine,” said Courtney, who is the ranking member of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee. “We … stepped forward and filled that gap, and it’s a good thing we did.”

Ahead of the hearing, Courtney signed a letter, along with 119 other lawmakers, urging House appropriators to keep a “consistent” production schedule to maintain stability for shipyards.

“Unfortunately, our attack submarine fleet experiences significant shortfalls and is projected to decline to just 47 boats in 2030 — a 19 boat deficit from the 66 attack submarine requirement,” the letter states. “While the FY25 budget request includes substantial investments in the nationwide submarine industrial base, there is no alternative to stabilize the supply chain other than consistent procurement of two Virginia Class submarines in FY 2025.”

Members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation have raised concerns about the proposal and what it would mean if implemented for Electric Boat as well as the smaller suppliers around the state.

They also warned about the potential ramifications on the security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. As part of AUKUS, Australia will initially buy three Virginia-class subs from the U.S., but the first transfer is not expected to happen until the early 2030s.

The submarine industry plays a major role in Connecticut’s defense sector and economy, especially in the southeastern part of the state, represented by Courtney.

Electric Boat locations in Groton and Quonset Point in Rhode Island handle much of the Virginia-class shipbuilding, along with Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia.

But a combination of disruptions has put a strain on the U.S. submarine industry and procurement, including the pandemic, supply chain issues and a workforce that is aging and retiring. Companies like Electric Boat are hiring to fill those gaps and add to the ranks as production grows over the next decade.

Lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee pressed Navy leadership on Wednesday about the reasoning behind the cuts, their commitment to the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan for 66 attack submarines and support for smaller suppliers.

Courtney asked Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro about the supply chain companies that would be “left out” and would not benefit from the proposed investments in advanced procurement meant to bolster the supplier industrial base and submarine industry.

“Regarding specifically to these vendors, we’re in constant contact with these vendors. The purpose of advanced procurement money, however, isn’t to fully fund all the vendors that are in the supply chain,” Del Toro said. “It’s to fund those vendors that are most critical to the supply chain. I don’t think there’s ever been a confirmation that we can support, you know, full funding of all the vendors across the entire spectrum.”

Del Toro and others within the department said they remain committed to the shipbuilding plan to have 66 attack submarines in the service’s fleet. He said there are currently 50 submarines with nearly a dozen under construction and an additional four under contract. But 19 boats will be decommissioned in the coming years.

Mike McCord, the comptroller of the U.S. Department of Defense, was asked at a March briefing about whether the decision to cut a Virginia-class sub was made because of spending caps negotiated in Congress for the current fiscal year or issues with production cadence and delivery schedule. He said it was the latter.

“Virginia-class, to be clear, was trying to get to a better, more healthy dynamic where we can get to the two-submarine-a-year production rate, and we thought that going a different direction was our best move in that case,” McCord said, noting that boats that are supposed to be delivered this year were months behind.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Navy officials largely cited the budget constraints that were passed by Congress when negotiating to lift the debt ceiling last year.

“In response to the very difficult negotiations that were done around the debt limit, that forced our hand this year to be able to have to remove that one submarine in a situation where it simply could not be delivered by the shipyards,” Del Toro said.

But members on the House Armed Services Committee said the changes make it difficult for companies to maintain and grow their workforce and keep up with the demanding shipbuilding pace.

“We can blame it on money, we can blame it on budgets, but for the last three years, we’ve asked to give away more ships than we’re bringing,” U.S. Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss., said.

“We have to send a constant message that we’re going to continue because we will never get our workforce in place if we continue to say … we’re going to do a strategic pause on Virginia class,” Kelly added. “You’ve got to let them catch up to get on schedule.”

Even with the proposed cuts, Electric Boat does not plan on changing its hiring goals for the year. The company hired more than 5,300 people in 2023 and plans to grow its workforce with more than 5,000 hires again for 2024.

At a separate hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, Nickolas Guertin, who is the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development, and acquisition, testified that in order to meet demands for both Virginia and Columbia-class submarines, there will need to be an additional 10,000 people hired.

Guertin said they are using the recently passed federal foreign aid bill that provided $3.4 billion in additional funding for the submarine industrial base to better meet those needs within the industry.

“We are not just failing to build in terms of planning. We are way behind right now where we should be,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said at Wednesday’s hearing, addressing the workforce needs of bigger companies like Electric Boat as well as the thousands of smaller suppliers. “Those numbers are a measure of the crisis that we face in submarine construction which is essential to our underseas superiority which is in turn essential to our Navy’s strength and our defense.”

The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation.

This story was originally published by the Connecticut Mirror.

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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