Lawmakers are concerned the US isn't taking building the submarine force seriously enough as rival China expands its fleet

The Virginia-class fast-attack submarine USS Vermont (SSN 792) arrives at its new homeport of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, July 27, 2023.
The Virginia-class fast-attack submarine USS Vermont (SSN 792) arrives at its new homeport of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, July 27, 2023.US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chris Williamson
  • Some US lawmakers are expressing concerns over limited attack submarine procurement.

  • They are worried the latest budget plans might impact the industrial base and US efforts in the Pacific.

  • China plans to expand its navy and could outpace the US's current submarine fleet by 2035.

Some US senators were uneasy on Thursday about low procurement of attack submarines given expectations of US allies and the threats posed by potential adversaries like China.

Failing to acquire enough subs "sends exactly the wrong signal to our allies, not only Australia but others in the region, when we reduce the output of such a critical weapons platform that is vital not only to our own defense but to deterrence and defense of others in the region," Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal said during a Thursday Senate Committee on Armed Services hearing.

For years, the US has pursued a procurement plan for two attack submarines per year. Industry partners often weren't able to keep up on the production side with the purchase rate. Increased funding was meant to get production of attack subs up to at least 2.3 boats per year. But in the Department of Defense's fiscal year 2025 budget request, there's only enough funding to build one Virginia-class submarine.

Attack submarines, like the US Navy's nuclear-powered Seawolf-, Los Angeles-, and Virgina-class submarines, are hunter-killer boats capable of launching missiles and hunting down enemy submarines and other warships.

Limited attack submarine procurement and production makes agreements like AUKUS, in which the US will help build eight attack submarines for Australia in its first phase, difficult to accomplish on top of preparing for challenges from China in the Indo-Pacific.

In a recent statement, Blumenthal and Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy said that "dialing back submarine procurement in fiscal year 2025 threatens to slow progress in strengthening our nation's submarine supplier base and workforce" and risks "making it more difficult to upgrade our submarine fleet and meet mounting global threats on the timeframe our national security requires."

They argued that the US cannot risk weakening the submarine industrial base.

"Unfortunately, this administration and this president are putting forward budgets that shrink the Navy year after year," Alaska's Sen. Dan Sullivan said in the hearing Thursday.

China, the primary US rival in the Indo-Pacific region and a key challenger that the US would need its submarine force to confront in a conflict, is planning on expanding its Navy, and the Pentagon estimates the country will have 65 submarines by 2025 and as many as 80 submarines by 2035. The US military operates 67 submarines, only a portion of which are in the Pacific.

The head of US Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. John Aquilino, said he believes that China is spending more on defense than it admits and that the country appears increasingly "belligerent" as it expands its military capacity and presence in the region.

"I have advocated for increased capacity of our joint force and all domains," Aquilino said regarding insufficient submarine production. "Undersea capabilities are a significant advantage for the United States and we ought to consider expanding."

"I need the assets operationally," he added, underscoring that he would like to be able to see the delivery of undersea capabilities and resources in a timely and affordable manner.

The Navy has said that the budget plan pumps billions into the industrial base for submarine production, which will help boost the overall capability.

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