Correction: A previous version of this story referred to the Chief of Naval Operations as the Chief Naval Officer in one instance.
WASHINGTON ― The AUKUS agreement, under which the U.S. will provide Australia with Virginia-class attack vessels,will require a submarine production increase, the nominee to serve as Chief of Naval Operations told Congress Thursday.
Admiral Lisa Franchetti, who would be the first woman to serve in the position and on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at her Senate confirmation hearing that AUKUS will require the production of 2.2 Virginia-class submarines per year. That’s a significant increase above the current production rate of 1.2 vessels per year, but slightly less than what senators had anticipated.
“My understanding is we need to reach 2.2 to meet those requirements, as well as our commitment to continue to produce on Columbia-class submarine,” Franchetti said. “AUKUS is a strategic opportunity for us to knit together the strong partnership we already have with Australia and the U.K. and I think this will again change the adversaries’ decision calculus.”
While the submarine-industrial base is behind this production goal, Franchetti expressed confidence that the Navy “will be able to meet and achieve all of those requirements.”
The Navy expects to achieve production of two Virginia-class submarines per year – its pre-AUKUS goal – by 2028. Under AUKUS, the U.S. plans to sell between three to five Virginia-class submarines to Australia as an interim capability in the early 2030s.
Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, led half the GOP caucus in a July letter to President Joe Biden arguing that the Navy needs to invest additional funding the submarine-industrial base beyond the $647 million the White House requested for fiscal 2024. The letter projected that the U.S. would need to produce 2.3 to 2.5 Virginia-class submarines per year to “avoid further shrinking our fleet’s operational capacity.”
Wicker blocked two AUKUS authorizations from the Fiscal 2024 defense policy bill, demanding additional money for the submarine-industrial base. One authorization would permit the transfer of two Virginia-class submarines to Australia, while the other would allow the Biden administration to accept the $3 billion Canberra intends to invest in the U.S. submarine-industrial base as part of the AUKUS agreement.
Franchetti laid out a roadmap to bolstering Virginia-class production capacity from 1.2 to 2.2 submarines per year during her confirmation hearing by “continuing to partner with industry to get after their biggest challenges.”
Those steps include workforce development at the yards working on submarines – “making sure that we can go out and help them recruit the people they need” – and data analytics “to understand throughput through the shipyards so we can be more effective with the workforce that we do have.”
She also said the Navy needs to make sure industry has “all the long-lead time materials – the parts, the spare parts – that they need to be able to move through that production line very quickly.”
Franchetti warned that the Navy would not be able to begin construction of the next Virginia-class and Columbia-class submarines under a government shutdown or stopgap funding bill. House Republicans on Wednesday cancelled votes on the defense spending bill amid a litany of additional demands from the right-wing Freedom Caucus, increasing the prospect of a government shutdown at the end of the month.
The Tuberville blockade
Franchetti told senators she has not yet received a briefing on AUKUS submarine-industrial base investments from the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, citing a lack of “bandwidth” given the fact that she’s currently performing two roles simultaneously. However, she committed to expeditiously putting the briefing on her calendar.
As the vice chief of naval operations, Franchetti currently serves as the acting chief of naval operations. The former chief, Admiral Mike Gilday, left the post in August.
Although the Senate Armed Services Committee did not hold Franchetti’s nomination hearing until this month, her confirmation would nonetheless run up against a blanket hold on the swift confirmation of all general and flag officer promotions instated by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala.
The six-month hold, which Tuberville instated over the Pentagon’s abortion leave policy, has already ensnared more than 300 military confirmations, including two other joint chiefs nominees.
During her hearing, Franchetti testified that it would take “years to recover” from Tuberville’s promotion delays, even if the Senate eventually confirms them.
“Just at the three-star level, it would take about three to four months just to move all the people around,” she said.
Tuberville has argued that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., should put the joint chiefs nominees on the floor for stand-alone votes.
But it would take until at least the middle of next year to do individual floor votes on the hundreds of other military nominees, even if the Senate neglected its other duties like funding the government and military.
A Congressional Research Services report released this week found it would take the Senate some 700 hours of floor time to confirm the 301 outstanding nominees. The Armed Services Committee expects to receive roughly 300 more military nominees by the end of the year.
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.