- The SSN fleet of the United States reached its peak in 1987 with 98 boats, but as the threat from the Cold War subsided, so did the fleet's size as a whole.
- The gap has been bridged by extending the lifespan of current Los Angeles class platforms
According to a new analysis by the official Congressional Research Service, the production of new nuclear-powered attack submarines to achieve the United States Navy’s aim of operating a fleet of between 66 and 72 may be finished only by 2052 under the navy’s plan.
The timeline would jeopardise Australia’s intentions to acquire nuclear-powered submarines and impede regional efforts to check China’s rising influence in the Pacific and Indian oceans.
On Wednesday, the report was made public.
Canberra had announced intentions to build twelve conventional submarines of French design last year, but the Australia-United Kingdom-United States cooperation, or AUKUS, had forced it to abandon those plans and proclaim it would instead buy nuclear-powered attack submarines.
SSNs, or nuclear-powered assault submarines, are among the most deadly weapons in modern naval arsenals because to their speed, stealth, and endurance, which are only hindered by the crew’s need for food. India and Russia established a lease arrangement for an SSN in 2019. Six SSNs are also planned to be built.
However, defence minister Richard Marles warned last week that expecting nuclear-powered boats to be available by the end of the decade “would be highly optimistic.” Australia is scheduled to unveil its submarine purchasing plans early next year.
Although the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is now thought to only have a small number of SSNs, the United States government anticipates that number to increase to 13 or more by 2030.
At the Bohai Shipyard in Huludao, the PLAN reportedly made an investment in new submarine production halls that will allow it to work on five submarines at once.
Only two shipyards, Huntington-Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia and General Dynamics’ Electric Boat Division in Connecticut, are now able to manufacture nuclear-powered ships for the US Navy. General Dynamics solely makes submarines, but Huntington-Ingalls also makes surface ships with nuclear propulsion.
The industrial base’s ability to handle such a demand without experiencing bottlenecks or other production issues has raised concerns among experts, the CRS reports.
The Barrow shipyard in the United Kingdom is already above capacity due to production demands for the Astute-class SSN, which will replace the ageing Trafalgar class.
According to analysts, increasing production will require investment in both production facilities and hard-to-find engineers and technological specialists.
Former Australian naval leaders have been advising the nation that in order to keep up with the PLAN’s expanding fleet, the nation may need to purchase new conventional submarines.
Before nuclear-powered alternatives became available, the commanders in an open letter questioned whether the current fleet of Collins-class boats “still be safe to operate, let alone if they should be employed in a conflict.”
According to the Congressional Research Service report, the United States’ thirty-year shipbuilding plan plans for a nuclear attack submarine force to achieve a minimum of 46 boats by 2028, increase to 50 boats by 2032, and level out at 60 to 69 SSNs by 2052. The SSN expansion strategy fits into a bigger promise to construct a fleet of 364 ships, 150 of which will be unmanned platforms.
The PLAN, which now has over 355 ships, is the greatest navy in the world thanks to significant investments made by China. The United States Navy issued a warning earlier this week over the “erosion of credible military deterrence, notably due to China’s fast expanding military capabilities.”
The SSN fleet of the United States reached its peak in 1987 with 98 boats, but as the threat from the Cold War subsided, so did the fleet’s size as a whole. There are now three different classes of SSNs in the US Navy’s fleet: 3 Seawolf class, 19 Virginia class, and 28 of the Los Angeles class. It also possesses four other bigger general-purpose nuclear submarines of the Ohio class that can perform comparable tasks.
The gap has been bridged by extending the lifespan of current Los Angeles class platforms, despite concerns that the United States SSN fleet will decline to just 42 boats by 2027–2028.