A United States nuclear powered submarine program – which Australia is depending on to provide up to five boats under the Aukus deal – has hit a two-year delay.
The latest report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) said that performance on the construction of the Block V Virginia class nuclear-powered submarine “continues to degrade”. Supply chain issues, severe workforce shortages and limited physical capacity mean the US is struggling to meet its target of building two ships a year.
Block V is the latest version of the Virginia class and incorporates undersea acoustic improvements and a plan for bigger boats that can carry more Tomahawk cruise missiles.
“The program now estimates construction of each Block V submarine will take an average of over two years longer than reported last year,” the GAO report said.
“The delays are due to problems meeting original staffing and work efficiency estimates.”
Under the Aukus plan, Australia will buy three Virginia class submarines from “as soon as” the early 2030s, with an option to buy two more.
That deal will rely on the approval of US congress.
The purchase is intended to close a looming capability gap after Australia’s existing Collins class submarines are retired, and before the first nuclear-powered submarine – SSN-Aukus – is delivered in the early 2040s. The Aukus submarine will be based on the UK design, incorporating US submarine technology.
At least the first two Virginia class submarines bound for Australia will be secondhand, likely from blocks III or IV, but delays on future builds will make it harder for the US to give up any submarines.
Even before this latest report, experts were warning the US program was too tightly squeezed trying to provide its own fleet to spare any for Australia.
Program officials told the GAO a new “more realistic schedule” was being created to deal with a workforce that was, as of September 2022, 25% below needs.
They also said they are outsourcing some work due to the “workforce constraints and the limited physical capacity of some facilities”.
Those delays are also contributing to cost increases, so the navy will request more funds to complete construction.
Defence analyst Peter Jennings, the director of Strategic Analysis Australia, said the GAO report “crystallises a problem we’ve known about for a very long time”, but that Aukus could be the solution to that problem.
“We have to be optimistic that it will change, but the big benefit of Aukus is the pooling of three industrial capabilities,” he said.
“I see that really as a risk reduction strategy. If Aukus works, that’s what it will address, that bottleneck in the American system.
“But I’m not underestimating that it’s a really big thing to do.”
Jennings said the US had set a precedent in stepping up production of missiles and munitions to run 24 hours a day to help Ukraine defend itself against the Russian invasion, and to boost its own stocks.
A US shipyard could do the same, he said.
“It’ll come down to the political willingness of the three countries.”
A spokesperson for defence minister, Richard Marles, said questions about the US shipyards were for the US to answer.
“The Australian government continues to work closely and constructively with the United States to deliver nuclear-powered submarines through the Aukus agreement,” the spokesperson said.