WASHINGTON ― A bipartisan group of senators is appealing to the White House to release Pentagon cost estimates related to the submarine-industrial base as the Biden administration and Congress move to implement AUKUS, the trilateral submarine-sharing pact with Britain and Australia.
The cost estimates are critical to a debate that has delayed key congressional authorizations needed to advance AUKUS. The study is expected to detail the level of investments needed for the industrial base to sustain submarine production requirements for both the U.S. and Australia.
A Senate letter obtained by Defense News asks Biden to release the cost estimates by the end of the month to inform AUKUS legislation. The Defense Department completed the study months ago, but the letter says the Pentagon does not intend to release its findings and cost estimates until it unveils the fiscal 2025 budget request early next year.
Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi — the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee — spearheaded the bipartisan letter. Wicker has held up Senate passage of two AUKUS authorizations, making them contingent on the Biden administration and Congress allocating additional funding for the submarine-industrial base as part of a defense supplemental request to bypass the $886 billion military spending cap in the debt ceiling agreement.
“The volume of submarine tonnage the industrial base must produce to meet the Navy’s own requirements and fully implement the AUKUS agreement will require historic and sustained investments in the submarine workforce and supplier network,” the senators wrote. “To achieve such capacity, Congress must have a comprehensive understanding of the current status of the submarine-industrial base as well as the future resource investments necessary to meet our nation’s requirements.”
Three Democrats — Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Tim Kaine of Virginia — signed onto the letter alongside Republican Sens. Dan Sullivan of Alaska and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota. The White House and Defense Department did not respond to requests for comment by publication.
Under AUKUS, Australia will buy at least three and as many as five Virginia-class submarines from the U.S. as an interim capability in the early 2030s.
The Navy has blamed industrial base constraints for causing it to fall behind its pre-AUKUS goal of producing two Virginia-class and one Columbia-class submarine per year. The service expects the industrial base to start delivering the Virginia-class attack submarines on time by 2028.
But Adm. Lisa Franchetti, the vice chief of naval operations, told the Senate in September AUKUS would require a slight increase in production requirements to 2.2 Virginia-class submarines per year.
Wicker argues this increase requires additional funding for the submarine-industrial base beyond the $647 million the White House requested for FY24.
He mustered half the Senate Republican caucus in July to block an AUKUS authorization that would permit the transfer of two Virginia-class submarines to Australia and another that would allow the Defense Department to accept Canberra’s $3 billion contribution to the submarine-industrial base.
However, he did allow a third authorization to begin training Australian private sector personnel in nuclear submarines to proceed as part of the annual defense policy bill, which the Senate passed 86-11 in July.
“Understanding the scope of the generational investment required for the [submarine-industrial base’s] viability is critical for development of AUKUS-authorizing legislation this year,” the Wicker-led letter states.
Rep. Joe Courtney, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower panel, is more bullish on the submarine-industrial base’s ability to meet the Navy’s own requirements and keep the AUKUS commitments to Australia — in part because of money set aside in prior years for that purpose.
“I welcome more investment into the submarine-industrial base,” Courtney told Defense News. “My perspective is though that should not be a reason that we do not move forward on the AUKUS implementation bills that the administration sent back in April.”
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.