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Congress calls for third US nuclear submarine yard

With growing pressure on the US defence industrial base to deliver more nuclear-powered submarines, a congressional commission has called for an additional submarine yard to enhance America’s waning strategic lead.

With growing pressure on the US defence industrial base to deliver more nuclear-powered submarines, a congressional commission has called for an additional submarine yard to enhance America’s waning strategic lead.

As the global centre of geopolitical and strategic focus pivots away from the traditionally landlocked Western and Central European theatre towards the broad-spectrum, maritime-dominated Indo-Pacific, decades of low-intensity, uncontested operations have taken their toll on the United States Navy.

In stark contrast, Beijing has continued to modernise the qualitative and quantitative capability of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), now the largest navy in the world, shifting the once second rate, “brown water” navy, to become an increasingly capable “blue water”, global navy at an ever-increasing pace.


As a result, naval power is fast re-emerging as the centrestage for great power competition in the 21st century as both the United States and its allies seek to regain ground ceded to China over the course of the period between the beginning of the new millennium and today.

Meanwhile, the US Navy and its supporting industrial architecture, once the unassailable leader and security guarantor for much of the world and the global economy, is now a shadow of its former might.

This has left the US Navy and its global partners, including the Royal Australian Navy, to face an increasingly uphill battle to field a range of next-generation capabilities ranging from hypersonic weapons, through to advanced surface and submarine capabilities.

At the core of this concern is Beijings development of the largest naval force in the world and the rapid narrowing of the qualitative gap between itself and the US and its partners, with the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) which in a report earlier this year, titled, China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress, details: “China’s navy is, by far, the largest of any country in East Asia, and sometime between 2015 and 2020 it surpassed the US Navy in numbers of battle force ships (meaning the types of ships that count towards the quoted size of the US Navy).”

In response to these mounting concerns, the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States released an updated final report, titled, America’s Strategic Posture: The Final Report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, detailing the make-up of America’s critical strategic capabilities, namely the nuclear submarine fleet.

A third yard is critical to meet American and AUKUS obligations

Of particular importance for Australia is what is by now the well-documented lack of capacity in the existing US submarine construction yards to meet the stated minimum requirements identified by the US Navy.

The dual demands of replacing the remaining Los Angeles Class attack submarines and the Ohio Class ballistic missile submarines has already stretched the US defence industrial base to capacity, prior to the added layer of complexity required to support the trilateral AUKUS agreement.

In order to accommodate these requirements and to better position the US Navy to be capable of countering the rise of both China’s own submarine fleet, but also Russia’s increased submarine capability, the Pentagon has its work cut out for it.

The commission report suggests that the Pentagon, “increase shipbuilding capacity, by working with industry to establish or renovate a third shipyard dedicated to production of nuclear-powered vessels, with particular emphasis on nuclear-powered submarines”.

However, given the immense cost required to bring a third yard from either a green field or brown field site, government spending would be required the Pentagon has been told, this is particularly important when you account for the maintenance and sustainment requirements of nuclear-powered submarines on top of the construction phase.

Highlighting just how monumental this task is, the report states, “In the sea leg, the Navy is scheduled to construct one Columbia Class submarine per year and sustain the Ohio Class in parallel relying on the same infrastructure for both (manufacturing facilities, dry docks, etc). Additionally, this same workforce and industrial base also support Virginia Class submarine production.”

Such a balance isn’t without trade offs, with the Pentagon warning that, As a result, the Navy must consider schedule trade offs between the two classes of submarines. The [Office of Management and Budget] as well as the Commission are skeptical that the current infrastructure can simultaneously support conventional and nuclear sustainment, modernisation, and construction as scheduled. The AUKUS agreement may place further stress on this capacity.”

The challenge is there, we have to respond

While the fiscal situation is very real and is increasingly being recognised by both sides of the aisle in the US Congress, the reality is that the US-led world order is being confronted by rising powers intent on overthrowing the established world order.

Highlighting this, ranking member of the US Senate Armed Services Committee Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi emphasised the new paradigm the US faces, saying, “The findings of this bipartisan report detail the gravity of the situation we face and emphasise that the current trajectory of the US strategic forces are insufficient to deter the looming Chinese and Russian threat.”

Going further, Wicker adds, The report is also a stark reminder of the significant work needed to expand our nuclear submarine industrial base to increase production and reduce repair time. The details of this report should serve as a wake-up call for our armed forces and the national security community as a whole.”

This reality is reinforced by the CRS which states, China’s naval modernisation effort encompasses a wide array of platform and weapon acquisition programs, including anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), submarines, surface ships, aircraft, unmanned vehicles (UVs), and supporting C4ISR (command and control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) systems. China’s naval modernisation effort also includes improvements in logistics, doctrine, personnel quality, education and training, and exercises.”

Beijing’s emphasis on rapid modernisation and a broader digital transformation of the Peoples Liberation Army is seeing the introduction of a suite of advanced capabilities ranging from power projection-focused aircraft carrier and associated strike groups, advanced attack and ballistic missile submarines, through to advanced cyber, quantum computing and precision, hypersonic weapons seeking to undermine, and in some ways, replicate the success of the US and its allies.

At the core of this force structure is a growing focus on Taiwan and Beijings broader ambition to supplant and eventually entirely replace the United States as the premier Indo-Pacific strategic power.

In contrast, the US Navy and its allies, including Australia, are facing stagnating or declining defence budgets (in real terms) as a result of increasingly costly technology-heavy platforms, coupled with continuing societal atomisation and disconnection from the principles of liberal democracy, placing increasing strain on their capacity to counter growing Chinese naval capabilities.

This is a sentiment echoed by US Navy Captain (Ret’d) Sam Tangredi in a detailed analysis conducted for the US Naval Institute, where he states: “Using technological advantage as an indicator of quality, historical research on 28 naval wars (or wars with significant and protracted naval combat) indicates that 25 were won by the side with the larger fleet. When fleet size was roughly equal, superior strategy and substantially better trained and motivated crews carried the day. Only three could be said to have been won by a smaller fleet with superior technology.”

Tangredi reinforced these points further, stating, “The United States can fund a significant fleet that matches the growth of the PLA Navy – or not. Whether the fleet is 250 or 500 ships is for elected officials and the Navy to decide, but those leaders must identify, acknowledge, and own that risk. There is risk in all choices. But there is particularly higher risk in making choices based on unproven assumptions.”

Final thoughts

Importantly, in this era of renewed competition between autarchy and democracy, this is an uncomfortable conversation that needs to be had in the open with the Australian people, as ultimately, they will be called upon to help implement it, to consent to the direction, and to defend it should diplomacy fail.

Our economic resilience, capacity, and competitiveness will prove equally as critical to success in the new world power paradigm as that of the United States, the United Kingdom, or Europe, and we need to begin to recognise the opportunities presented before us.

Expanding and enhancing the opportunities available to Australians while building critical economic resilience, and as a result, deterrence to economic coercion, should be the core focus of the government because only when our economy is strong can we ensure that we can deter aggression towards the nation or our interests.

This also requires a greater degree of transparency and a culture of innovation and collaboration between the nation’s strategic policymakers, elected officials, and the constituents they represent and serve – equally, this approach will need to entice the Australian public to once again invest in and believe in the future direction of the nation.

Additionally, Australia will need to have an honest conversation about how we view ourselves and what our own ambitions are. Is it reasonable for Australia to position itself as a “middle” or “regional” power in this rapidly evolving geopolitical environment? Equally, if we are going to brand ourselves as such, shouldn’t we aim for the top tier to ensure we get the best deal for ourselves and our future generations?

If we are going to emerge as a prosperous, secure, and free nation in the new era of great power competition, it is clear we will need break the shackles of short-termism and begin to think far more long term, to the benefit of current and future generations of Australians.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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