JUST IN: Official Hopes ‘Robust’ Maintenance Funding Will Aid Virginia-Class Sub Program

By Laura Heckmann
Virginia-class Block V attack submarine concept art

General Dynamics rendering

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The critical U.S. submarine program at the heart of the trilateral agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, or AUKUS, is significantly behind schedule and needs maintenance and production funding to get on course, a Defense Department official said.

An annual assessment on Defense Department weapon systems released by the Government Accountability Office in June stated that construction of the Block V version of the Virginia-class submarine is at least two years behind schedule, with performance “continuing to degrade.” The report cited problems with staffing and work efficiency estimates for the construction delays.

“It’s very clear that the industrial base has not been able to perform at exactly the level that we all want it to,” said Mara Karlin, assistant secretary of defense for strategies, plans and capabilities at a media event August 1.

She noted a $4.6 billion request in the 2024 President’s budget dedicated to submarine maintenance and production over the next several years, and that the Virginia class’s success could hinge on how that funding is utilized.

“That is why the administration, with very robust support of the Congress, has put funding into it,” she said of the program’s struggles. “And so, we need to look hard, I think, particularly over this coming year to see what pops out from the funding of [the] industrial base and the impact it has.”

Karlin said oftentimes submarine conversations center on production, but it’s also an issue of maintenance. The administration has realized this and is continuing to make investments in both maintenance and the industrial base.

“A lot of money” is going into the submarine industrial base, “and so we all want to ensure that that is appropriately bearing fruit,” she said. 

The Virginia-class program is crucial to the first pillar of the AUKUS agreement, which includes delivery of up to five nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, Karlin said.

She also noted what she called Australia’s “historic” investment in the U.S. submarine industrial base, calling it “a pretty big deal.”

“And that is going to, of course, have important implications if you're thinking about how to ensure you've got more submarines,” she said. “To just highlight that, I think you have a bunch of different folks recognizing how important it is to invest in this.”

While the investment is there, how it will be used to improve the performance of the Block V construction remains to be seen, but it “absolutely needs to occur,” she said.

The GAO report stated that because of the Virginia-class program delays, program officials are developing “a new, more realistic schedule” for Block V.

In recognizing the importance of Block V construction, Karlin also noted there are “a couple other pieces” to the AUKUS agreement. In a recent visit to Australia, Karlin said she visited the HMAS Stirling, an Australian naval base where “our submarines are going to be making port visits,” she said. “Those are going to be happening increasingly starting this year,” with rotations beginning in 2027, she said.

Another “really neat part” of AUKUS that gets less attention is the end goal of trilateral collaboration, she said.

“That’s a pretty unparalleled effort,” she said. “The last time we ever even shared this sort of capability with an ally was I think 1958 or so with the Brits. So, this is huge.

“In 2040 or so, you have three countries that will have built a submarine together, right? SSN-AUKUS. What an intimate way of collaborating with an ally,” she said.

While she called the submarine production efforts “really important,” there is a broader idea that needs to be realized, and that is the three allies being able to “knit together and operate submarines across the Indo-Pacific to deal with regional security and stability,” she said.

She called the United States’ network of allies and partners “unparalleled,” and a crucial factor not only in the success of AUKUS, but in Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific.

“I just think if we had all stood here a year and a half ago, that would have been kind of mind-boggling,” she said of the Ukraine Defense Contract Group, which gathers monthly to coordinate support for Ukraine’s military.

A “really tight network” of allies in the Indo-Pacific has also highlighted what Karlin called “shifting geometries,” considerably altered from 5 to 10 years ago. Australia and Japan are getting “a lot closer,” she said, as well as Japan and South Korea.

“Overall this is a really good thing to see that region more knit together, to see those increasing geometries,” she said. “And I think particularly, look at having countries increasingly recognize that Indo-Pacific security and stability is not a given and that they need to play a role in ensuring that that continues to be the case, I think is generally good for the international rules-based order.”


Topics: Defense Department, International

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