A recent US Congressional Research Service report has raised some concerns about upcoming operations with Australia under AUKUS and maintenance backlog in the US nuclear-powered submarine fleet.
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The report discusses Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class attack submarine procurement information and issues for Congress published on 6 July.
The US Navy has been procuring Virginia Class nuclear-powered attack submarines since 1998 and accumulated 38 as of 2023 at a rate of two per year and cost of around $4.3 billion per boat.
The vessel is part of a proposed AUKUS defence agreement with the sale of Virginia Class boats to Australia announced earlier this year in March. The US Navy anticipates building additional Virginia Class SSNs in the 2030s as replacements for three to five Virginia Class submarines sold to Australia but warns the full impact of AUKUS shipbuilding plan cannot be characterised in the report.
“Strictly construed, building additional SSNs as replacements for three to five Virginia Cass boats sold to Australia would involve building three to five SSNs that would be in addition to those that were already envisaged as being built in the 2030s for US Navy (20 SSNs from 2030 to 2039),” the report said.
“A potential alternative to the proposed sale of Virginia Class SSNs to Australia would be a US-Australian military division of labour under which US SSNs would perform both US and Australian SSN missions while Australia invested in military forces for performing other military missions for both Australia and the United States.
“Such a US-Australian military division of labour might be broadly similar to military divisions of labour that exist between the United States and its NATO allies.
“The proposed forward rotations of US and UK SSNs to Australia would still be implemented, the size of the US SSN force would be expanded by at least three to five boats above previous plans so as to provide additional US SSNs for performing Australian SSN missions, and Australia, instead of using funds to purchase, operate, and maintain three to five Virginia Class SSNs, would instead invest those funds in other military capabilities, so as to create an Australian capacity for performing other military missions for both Australia and the United States.”
The report also gives variations of this arrangement in which US naval nuclear propulsion technology is shared to Australia, however, as Australia builds its own AUKUS SSNs, there is a reduction in the need for US SSNs to perform Australian SSN missions. Another variation suggests the performance of Australian SSN missions by US SSNs would continue indefinitely and instead of technology sharing, Australia would continue investing in other military capabilities.
The report also highlighted internal US concerns that around 37 per cent of the US SSN fleet (18 boats) are caught either in maintenance or awaiting depot maintenance in a critical SSN maintenance backlog as of 2023.
That number has increased from 11 boats (21 per cent) in 2012 and is much higher than the US Navy industry best practice of 20 per cent of the SSN force in depot maintenance.
“The number of SSNs in depot maintenance or idle has substantially reduced the number of SSNs operationally ready at any given moment, reducing the SSN force’s capacity for meeting day-to-day mission demands and potentially putting increased operational pressure on SSNs that are operationally ready,” the report said.
“The increase in the number of SSNs in depot maintenance or idle is due primarily to insufficient numbers of workers and facility constraints at the four government-operated naval shipyards, which are the primary facilities for performing depot-level overhaul and maintenance work on the Navy’s nuclear-powered ships, including the SSNs. Supply chain issues affecting the availability of repair parts for SSNs are an additional issue.”
The US Navy has already begun a 20-year, multibillion dollar investment plan, the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program, to modernise facilities and increase staffing.