WASHINGTON — A panel of House lawmakers has previewed a shipbuilding spending plan above what the Navy requested for fiscal 2024, but it’s unclear how the government might pay for additional ships and submarines following the bipartisan budget agreement reached this spring to avoid a debt ceiling breach.
The House Armed Services Committee included in its annual defense policy bill an amphibious warship the Marine Corps wants but the Navy did not request, and provided authorization to buy 13 attack submarines over the next five years instead of the request for 10.
On the submarines, the Navy submitted a legislative proposal that would have allowed it to enter into a multiyear procurement agreement for 10 Block VI Virginia-class attack submarines from FY24 through FY28.
The submarine-industrial base is currently supposed to produce two boats a year but is struggling to keep pace due to workforce and supplier challenges.
The workload is only expected to increase, both as the Columbia ballistic missile submarine program accelerates its pace and as the U.S. submarine-industrial base takes on additional work so the U.S. Navy can sell three to five Virginia-class subs to Australia as part of the AUKUS agreement.
The sea service wrote in its FY24 long-range shipbuilding plan, released in April, that “the Navy anticipates building additional Virginia class SSNs in the 2030s as replacements for submarines sold to Australia.”
Still, despite that planned timeline, Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the committee’s sea power and projection forces panel, and whose district includes submarine builder General Dynamics Electric Boat, said in a June 12 news release he wants to incentivize the industrial base to ramp up its output now.
In allowing the contract to cover 13 boats, the defense bill “ensures the Navy has the authority to exceed the two-per-year build cadence for Virginia-class submarines — demonstrating Congress’ commitment to meeting the Navy’s fleet requirements while supporting the AUKUS agreement. Importantly, this provision sends a robust demand signal to the submarine industrial base which, in the last year, has been making great strides to recover a two-per-year build rate after the pandemic’s disruption. This authority — combined with recent Congressional investment in the workforce and supply chain — will accelerate that positive trajectory.”
As for the amphibious warship, the Navy and the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the FY23 request announced a pause in buying San Antonio-class amphibious transport docks, to instead study what capabilities any future amphibious ship ought to have and if there were ways to save money using a new construction or acquisition strategy.
The Marines fiercely oppose this idea, and in FY23 the Corps persuaded Congress to give $250 million in advance procurement funds to begin buying the next ship in the class, LPD-33.
This spring, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger asked for $1.71 billion on his unfunded priorities list to finish buying LPD-33.
That money to buy the remainder of the ship would come earlier than needed, as the LPDs had been bought one every other year, and LPD-33 wouldn’t be bought until FY25 to remain on track. But Berger told lawmakers this year that he included the request at the top of his wish list because the Navy’s shipbuilding plan was insufficient and the request was the only option he had to try to strengthen the amphibious fleet.
The House Armed Services Committee is further raising the cost of its proposal by banning the Navy from decommissioning three specific amphibious ships and two specific cruisers — Germantown, Gunston Hall, Tortuga, Shiloh and Cowpens — or decommissioning more than three other guided-missile cruisers in FY24.
The Navy has argued these ships are becoming too expensive to operate and maintain, and do not constitute a relevant capability in a high-end fight. The Marines, though, eyeing a too-small amphibious fleet, have opposed retiring these aging ships without buying their replacements.
The committee’s language would also prevent the Navy from putting expeditionary fast transport vessels into reduced operating status, and requires the Navy and its Military Sealift Command to develop a concept of operations to use these ships to support operational plans in the Pacific.
The Marine Corps is eyeing these vessels as a temporary capability for its stand-in forces, ahead of the construction and delivery of its highly desired Landing Ship Medium program.
In late May, Congress reached an agreement to raise the debt limit that included spending caps. The defense budget is limited to $886 billion in FY24 — the top line President Joe Biden requested for the year — and $895 billion in FY25. These ship spending additions will have to be offset by cuts elsewhere, and it’s unclear what the committee is eyeing for a trade.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.