Donald Trump left Joe Biden a shipbuilding mess. Biden is beginning to clean it up—starting with submarines.
The Biden administration has released top-line figures for its first budget proposal. The overall $1.52-trillion federal budget for 2022 includes $715 billion for the military, a small increase over 2021.
There are few details in the White House’s initial announcement. In the section on shipbuilding, the announcement mentions just three programs—two of them submarines.
“The discretionary request continues the recapitalization of the nation’s strategic ballistic-missile submarine fleet, and invests in remotely operated and autonomous systems and the next-generation attack submarine program,” the Office of Management and Budget explained.
The Navy for years has been studying a next-generation attack submarine, which the service calls SSN(X). It’s increasingly clear that the type could be a top priority at least through 2025, the final year of Biden’s first term.
In prioritizing the SSN(X), the White House is beginning to make sense of the confusion surrounding American naval planning.
The outgoing Trump administration in its final weeks released a controversial—and hugely expensive—plan to grow the Navy’s front-line fleet from around 300 ships today to 355 just 10 years from now.
The plan itself reflected years of bipartisan consensus that the fleet should get bigger in order to deter a rising Chinese fleet. The problem with Trump’s late-term shipbuilding proposal wasn’t its substance—it was the timing.
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The former administration released the proposal after it was too late for Trump actually to execute any part of it. The point, it seemed, was to set expectations and thus complicate the Biden administration’s own naval planning in the event Biden won the election.
Bryan McGrath, director of the FerryBridge Group naval consultancy in Maryland, called Trump’s shipbuilding proposal a “cheap political ploy.”
The Biden White House’s 2022 budget proposal, the opening move in negotiations with Congress, should begin to attach dollars to some—or even all—of the programs in the old Trump plan. The budgeting process could transform the ploy into actual policy.
Submarines appear to be the starting point. The Trump administration aimed to spend hundreds of billions of dollars building two or three new attack submarines a year through 2051, ultimately growing the attack sub force from 52 boats in 2022 to 80 in 2051.
It’s not hard to understand why the former administration wanted so many submarines. The Navy’s attack boats are among its stealthiest and most powerful vessels—and a key advantage over the vessels of its top rivals including China and Russia.
Even a few American subs, lurking in and around the Taiwan Strait, could slow or even halt a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, for example.
To get to 80 attack boats in 2051, the Navy anticipated winding down production of the current Virginia-class attack submarine in the 2030s and switching to the new SSN(X).
It’s not totally clear what the SSN(X) might look like, but there are hints. It could be wider than the 34-foot-diameter Virginia is. It might even share the 43-foot-wide hull of the new Columbia-class ballistic-missile submarine.
“We do expect it will be a larger type of submarine, probably in the size class of the Columbia, but there’s not much more to tell than that,” Rex Geveden, the chief executive of Virginia-based BWX Technologies BWXT , told investors in November.
The SSN(X)’s possible extra volume could help it to carry more torpedoes and cruise missiles than the Virginia can carry—and also could allow it to include more quieting technology, boosting its stealth qualities.
A big new attack submarine undoubtedly will be expensive. The latest Block-V Virginia costs $3.4 billion per boat. According to the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, a single, notional “large payload submarine” could set back American taxpayers as much as $7 billion.
It’s no wonder, then, that the Trump White House projected attack boats to become by far the Navy’s biggest shipbuilding budget item, gobbling up no less than half of all ship-construction funds through the 2030s and 2040s despite attack subs representing just 15 percent of all U.S. warships.
The Biden administration appears to comfortable with the expense. As the White House positions itself to argue on behalf of its budget proposal, new attack submarines apparently are a top priority.