Trump Wants More Nuclear Attack Subs But There's No One to Build Them
Only two shipyards build submarines for the US Navy. Both are at full capacity.
Trump greets sailors and shipbuilders after entering the hangar bay of USS Gerald R. Ford.
Donald Trump loves submarines. And America's submarine industry has every reason to love Trump back. The hawkish, protectionist president has vowed to grow the US Navy, particularly its submarine force, to its biggest size in decades.
But experts agree there's no realistic way the Trump administration can add the extra subs in time for the former reality television star to plausibly take credit for the build-up. Submarines are just too expensive and complex to build fast.
To produce extra subs, Electric Boat in Connecticut and Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, the two shipyards that make all of America's undersea combat vessels, will need to expand their facilities and add thousands of highly-skilled workers. Congress will need to approve much larger annual shipbuilding budgets, possibly for decades on end. Potentially several presidential administrations will need to sign off on those budgets.
Slowly adding submarines is hard. Quickly adding them is "more than unrealistic," in the words of one Congressional insider who works on naval issues but spoke on condition of anonymity. "It would be impossible."
It's not clear Trump appreciates these hard truths. "Our Navy is now the smallest it's been since, believe it or not, World War I," Trump lamented while visiting the new aircraft carrier Gerald Ford at Newport News on March 2. "Don't worry, it's going to soon be the largest it's been."
Trump was wrong. In fact, today the Navy possesses 275 frontline ships and its associated Military Sealift Command has its own 120 support ships, together roughly equaling the fleet the US possessed on the eve of World War II. And today's ships are, on average, many times larger and obviously much more sophisticated than their equivalents were in 1940.
To be the "largest it's been," the US Navy would have to grow to nearly 7,000 ships—its peak at the end of World War II. In arguing for a Navy, Trump mischaracterized the current fleet and created unrealistic expectations for the future fleet.
It's true that the US Navy, including the sub force, has plateaued in the last decade, even as China's own navy has rapidly expanded and Russia's has become more modern. Today the Navy possesses 52 nuclear-powered attack submarines, or SSNs in naval parlance. That's 12 more SSNs than all the rest of the world's navies have, combined.
Still, the Trump administration wants more. So does the Navy, for reasons it believes are obvious. "Submarines have the ability to go where necessary without being detected," said Lt. Seth Clarke, a Navy spokesman. "They provide the security the United States needs to perform all other military operations around the globe."
Trump campaigned on a pledge to build 350 frontline warships for the Navy. Apparently anticipating bigger budgets under Trump, in December 2016 then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced a more-detailed plan to grow the fleet to 355 frontline ships including 66 attack submarines—these in addition to the roughly 120 vessels that Military Sealift Command owns. The new plan represents an approximately 75-ship boost compared to today's fleet.
The previous long-term plan from 2014 saw the sub force actually shrinking to an average of just 48 SSNs by the mid-2020s as individual vessels, which typically last around 30 years, gradually age out.
Trump and the Navy want to arrest the decline and then reverse it. "The number of recommended attack submarines increased from 48 recommended in 2014 as the result of increased demand for global undersea capacity," Clarke said.
Every submarine the Navy adds grows the fleet's overhead—and Congress knows it.
The problem is, the two shipyards that build submarines were already working at full capacity before Trump's election. Electric Boat and Newport News are currently producing two attack submarines per year and also preparing to build 12 new ballistic-missile subs at a rate of one per year starting in 2021, at which point the Navy had planned to drop to buying just one new SSN annually.
In other words, the US submarine-industrial base is currently sized to produce at most two vessels per year.
Realizing it would have to actually build the extra subs it agreed it wanted, in January 2017 the Navy warned Congress that it would need to spend as much as $355 million expanding Electric Boat's manufacturing facility at Quonset Point in Rhode Island.
In March, the Defense Department formally asked Congress for $25 billion in extra military spending for 2017 on top of the $525 billion Obama and Congress had agreed to prior to Trump's election. That $25 billion includes hundreds of millions for Navy construction efforts, potentially including the Quonset expansion.
More expensive yard-expansions are likely in coming years. But even that extra spending and expanding yard capacity can't guarantee Trump will get any extra submarines. "The big issue for me is how long this buildup is going to last," said Eric Wertheim, an independent naval analyst and author of Combat Fleets of the World.
For starters, Trump can't exactly order a submarine all on his own. Congress writes budgets and appropriates money. And lawmakers might balk at the pricetag of Trump's sub plan. Buying just one submarine sets taxpayers back around $3 billion. Getting to 66 attack subs could end up costing around $60 billion, according to the Congressional insider.
And that's only counting construction costs. Operating those subs adds hundreds of millions dollars more per year. Every submarine the Navy adds grows the fleet's overhead—and Congress knows it.
To build more subs, you not only need space at the shipyard. You also need workers. Electric Boat will need to add around 5,000 workers by the early 2030s in order to meet project demand for submarines, Reuters reported.
Those new workers don't grow on trees. That's a lesson the Navy learned the hard way. "Only two submarines were procured from 1991 to 1998," Clarke explained. "The expertise for submarine construction was dismantled and has only recently begun to recover to full strength." It can take up to seven years to train a welder qualified to work on nuclear-powered subs, Will Lennon, an Electric Boat vice president, told Reuters.
If lawmakers felt generous, they theoretically could double the production rate of new submarines from two to four this year by simply adding money. But that money would sit in an account, unspent, until shipyards expanded and hired more workers. And only then could production finally begin.
"Submarines take five-plus years to build," the insider explained. "So even if you started to buy four per year in the 2017 budget and beyond—an impossibility, mind you—you still would not reach 66 submarines for some time. In that scenario, you would have only 55 submarines in 2025."
Obstacles to a bigger submarine fleet "can be overcome," the insider continued. "But not in eight years and only with great difficulty over the longer period. In reality, it will likely take even longer than 16 years to get to 66 SSNs, even if all the money in the world is forthcoming."
For that reason, it's far from certain the 70-year-old Trump would even live to see his larger undersea fleet become a reality under some future president. That's assuming the stars align and everyone sticks with the submarine plan for the next two decades.
If the Navy does indeed end up getting its 66 SSNs—say, sometime in the late 2030s—it will be because Trump and a couple generations of Navy leaders successfully argued that more subs are actually necessary. And because an ever-evolving Congress and at least two, and potentially five, successive administrations adhered to an expensive plan from an already-unpopular president.