The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said the U.S. military doesn’t have a choice in retiring legacy systems, like the Littoral Combat Ship, to make way for future shipbuilding investments.
The Pentagon and Congress must make “difficult decisions” as to what stays and what goes in the fleet given the importance of the Columbia-class ballistic nuclear missile submarine, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said during an event at the Center for a New American Security on Monday.
“We must get Columbia in the water,” he added later, referring to the next class of ballistic missile submarines.
In a follow-up question on shipyard capacity, Reed said, “we have a long, long process” in building ships, including passing the necessary construction funds through Congress. “I’m beginning to hear there is more progress in the yards in attracting workers.”
Reed cited the action Congress took in 2017 to attract more young people and workers interested in shifting careers to the manufacturing trades. He added, in the case of General Dynamics Electric Boat in his home state of Rhode Island, that more than 2,000 workers have been trained through the program and are now working on submarines there.
Expanding the workforce and increasing shipyard capacity to build and repair ships is the only way the submarine force can grow, Reed said.
At the event, Reed said the Australia-United Kingdom-United States agreement, known as AUKUS, “is going to be a key to future” security needs. But delivering Virginia-class submarines to Canberra as it establishes its own manufacturing base will put increased pressure on American shipyards to meet the U.S. Navy’s submarine needs.
In recent testimony before two House panels, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro and Vice Adm. Johnny Wolfe, director of strategic systems programs, said on-time submarine delivery is increasingly challenging.
The Navy’s plan was to build one Columbia-class sub and two Virginia-class boats per year, but that plan did not take into account deliveries to Australia.
General Dynamics Electric Boat and HII’s Newport News shipyards are the only yards capable of building nuclear-powered submarines. Instead of two Virginia-class boats per year, the Navy says the yards are delivering 1.2 boats.
“We can work together. We can set up depots to work on our submarines [in Australia],” Reed said of the agreement. He added that those depots could then work on the Australian-built nuclear-powered submarines.
The three nations’ leaders have hailed AUKUS as a major step in deterring China’s aggressive ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.
Reed said the Pentagon “needs to better understand how China is competing” globally “across every level of technology.” Beijing is also leveraging its civilian and military power against its neighbors to have its way regionally, he added
“China seeks to win by not fighting,” he said.
Reed called for more American investment in infrastructure and technology, like Joint All-Domain Command and Control, or JADC2, across the force.
“We must quickly employ our allies and partners in this effort,” as has happened in supporting Ukraine since Russia’s invasion 14 months ago. He is encouraged that others in the Indo-Pacific – like Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and India – realize that strategic competition with China will continue well into the future.
On Ukraine’s immediate needs for the spring, Reed said there is an urgent need to create “a nearly impenetrable [air] defense system around Kyiv.” This would protect the capital, but also allow the return of thousands of Ukrainians who fled to other countries following the attack. They could help rebuild the nation’s economy, he said.
He has “every anticipation there will be an offensive, led by armored units” in the coming weeks and months. “That will be a critical moment, Reed said.
Citing last year’s defense authorization and appropriations bills, Reed said it showed Congress is “in it for the long term” in supporting Ukraine. He said the multi-year authority to buy munitions should signal to industry that it needs to ramp up production of needed 155 mm artillery shells and other munitions.
He sharply criticized House Republican plans to tie raising the debt limit ceiling to reducing future federal spending to Fiscal Year 2022 limits. The proposal likely would spare cuts to defense programs. Cutting domestic programs in that manner “is going to cause tremendous controversy, to be polite.” He added that this approach flies in the face of past bipartisan support for defense and also addresses identified unfunded requirements.
“We were able to reach a number that was satisfactory [for defense], and also did not punish domestic spending,” Reed said.
The most serious consequence of a debt ceiling and spending deadlock would be a “continuing resolution.” The resolution caps spending at the previous year’s levels and limits new start programs.